(note: there’s talk of sexual violence in this post, and talk about Oscar Grant’s murder…)
I have a standing meeting with my friend, Peggy Simmons (of Green Windows Writing Groups) on Thursdays at 4. We talk by phone, sometimes in person, about how our week is going, what’s happening with workshops or recruiting or connecting with organizations about the possibility of offering workshops (Peggy does amazing work with younger writers at The Beat Within, and with an intergenerational group of writers at her monthly writing group at Rock Paper Scissors in Oakland). It’s a time of peer support and “supervision,” for me, when I can be accountable for the work I’ve said I need/want to do with Writing Ourselves Whole, where I can celebrate successes and process what’s rough.
She texted me at about 3:30 to say that the Mehserle verdict was to be read at 4, so we started talking a bit earlier, just to connect, to hear each other. Peggy had followed the trial closer than I had, I think, and she’s still in Oakland, while I spend last night watching the events on TV and via twitter/facebook from my home in the North Bay, instead of being a part of the energy around Lake Merritt. We didn’t talk about work much, of course. We talked about the media’s consistent drum beat over the last week or so about the threat of riots in Oakland when the verdict was read. Over and over you heard it: Please, everyone, be calm. Be calm. Keep the peace. We don’t want any riots. Meanwhile, OPD was, can we say it, circling the wagons, calling in reinforcements, training for riot control. The Oakland government said, at the same time, that it respected the right of folks to gather, and encouraged people to stay home. Organizing messages that got passed along online said that folks should bring earplugs if they came out for the support rally/speakout/protest after the verdict was read: they’d heard there was a sonic control device that OPD was going to “test out.”
I don’t know about you, but when I’m frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry, and the only thing someone can say to me is, “Calm down, just calm down. Breathe. Just don’t get upset. Are you upset? Calm down. Take a deep breath. No one wants any trouble. Just relax,” over and over and over (when, in point of fact, I may very well be calm at the same time as I am frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry), I get a little crazy. I have that double-vision that trauma leaves us with, that looking at myself from the outside (wait, am I acting out of order? I’m just feeling angry! Don’t I have the right to be angry?) while also trying to be in my feelings; I feel the need to reassure the person (“No, no, I’m not upset, I’m ok”), to take care of them instead of attending to and dealing with what I’m feeling. So that the loss, the sorrow, the rage, it’s stuck in me while I’m taking care of the person who’s ready for me to fly off the handle — when at no point was I ready to fly off the handle, until they started with their control that looked, on the surface, like concern or worry for my well-being.
This is what I saw last night, have been reading about for many days: how folks locally and nationally were telling the residents of Oakland that, when the verdict came down, people just needed to be peaceful, just stay peaceful, just don’t start any trouble, just relax, whatever the verdict is. Now, first of all, this left me with a terrible sense that a disappointing verdict was almost pre-ordained; why all this preparation for disaster unless there was some expectation that folks would be reasonably furious? And second, that kind of mollifying speech has a crazy-making effect: no one was thinking about violence until you told me not to think about it, and why do I have to reassure you of my peaceful nature right now, when it’s time for me to mourn?
Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — which means the jury believed (right?) that he was guilty of killing Oscar Grant, but he didn’t do it on purpose, he made a mistake, he mistook his gun for his taser. There was some gratitude that he was found guilty of anything at all, that a white police officer was found to be guilty of killing an unarmed Black man, as so often they are not found to be guilty, found not to be responsible for their clear and obvious actions. But involuntary manslaughter — it feels like a side-step, a slap on the wrist. It’s saying, even though there’s video evidence showing him holding his taser on the platform before he shot Oscar Grant, we the jury think maybe he just mistook his gun for his taser, which he carried on opposite sides of his person. It’s saying, “shit, we have to find him guilty of something, or the folks in Oakland are going to tear the city down, so here’s this little bit.”
What I saw very little of on the news last night, as reporters in and around downtown Oakland went nuts trying to find something to report on as the people gathered, connected with one another, shared their anger and sorrow at the mic (and the reporters said, “nothing is happening yet,” “no violence as of yet,” “nobody’s throwing things at this point,” “the situation here is very tense,” and the like). The reporters asked folks gathering, “Do you want peace here tonight? What do you think, is that going to happen?” They put their mics into prayer circles. They were aching for some riot to report on.
Sometimes, after the afternoons when I had to sexually satisfy my stepfather, he would pick a fight with me later that night, over dinner, about my schoolwork or some chore that I hadn’t done yet, and I had to sit calmly and discuss this fabricated issue while my rage mounted inside, just built and grew like volcanic flow. He’d ask, “Are you feeling angry?” And I’d have to convince him that I wasn’t — that was the game. There was no way for me to express my rage. My mother had no idea, for instance, what he’d demanded that I do that afternoon, and I was never to mention it in front of her. So I had to pretend to be calm, pretend I was all right, and when I showed any signs of anger or deep hurt, he suddenly wanted to talk about my defensiveness, how I couldn’t take criticism, and so on. My very justifiable anger had no outlet; my work, then, was to either press the rage down and go on mollifying him (for my own safety, and at the sake of my sanity) or explode in fury, hitting and digging at him (for the sake of my sanity) until he physically overpowered me (at the expense of my safety). There were no good choices.
There were no good choices last night, either, at least at the sites where the media was focused. They didn’t spend any time at the community gatherings, the open mics, the circles of support all over the city. They spent time putting their mics in the faces of the gathered at 14th and Broadway, wanting to hear only the “we’re here for a peaceful speakout, we just want peace!” and the “you watch, it’s gonna go down tonight” — as soon as someone started with an analysis of racism, started assessing the media’s pre-planned panic over riots as conspiratorial, the reporter dropped the mic, cut the connection. No one asked why literally hundreds of cops in riot gear were necessary, blocking the city streets and containing the ‘protesters.’
I’ve been ‘contained,’ that way, held by force ‘for my own good.’ What I know is how turned on my stepfather got every time he had to use all his physical strength to restrain me, how much he enjoyed the opportunity. The cops in downtown Oakland got what they and the media had been aching and agitating for: a small riot, some protesters who got arrested.
Folks have a right to their rage and sorrow, and have a right to express that loss. Folks have a right to assemble, a right to question our government’s actions, a right not to make others feel more comfortable. We each of us have a right to the full breadth of our emotions — enormous loss, the joy and possibility of connection in community, and then fear and rage. All of it at the same time. Please don’t tell me to shush, to calm down, to be quieter with my feeling.
Please keep speaking out. Get to the open mics and the speakouts, write out what’s happening in your heart and share it with others, if that feels right to you. Turn off the tv and the media madness, unless you’re using it for your own creative ends. If deep breathing before you spit your slam piece at the mic is what you need, then do it. If what you need is the thick noise of a thousand birds crackling their waking at sunrise, then find that.
The folks in power have few answers — and what they want is to control the dialogue. I know you know this as intimately as I do. We can step away from them, form our own circles, begin again.
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