Oakland on the eve of the Mehserle verdict: between “Do the Right Thing” and “What is to be Done?”

Posted July 7, 2010

After a number of delays, the jury in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer who killed Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland in January 2009, is scheduled to begin its deliberations over again today, in Los Angeles.

The case has collective resonance because of a long history of systematic disregard for and collective punishment directed at Black and Brown communities in the East Bay by various police agencies. This is the underlying question to which we must return. However, public discourse has strayed a long way from this, in that the prospect of protests, upon acquittal or a manslaughter conviction rather than a second-degree murder conviction, have been put forth as a public safety crisis in and of themselves. This post is an attempt, along with many others, to analyze this manufactured crisis and to articulate the question of action which is part of it.

The Question of "Riots"

There are two main questions wrapped up in the question of "riots," and we would do well to keep them methodologically separate.

1) There’s the question of the specter of riots. There’s an opinion, circulated extremely widely by leading social groups, in leading media, within popular common sense, and on the left, that riots will happen. The affective qualities attached to this anticipation tend to be, in different quarters: fear; acceptance of something taken as inevitable and impersonal; excitement. This specter has differing vectors and force, however, depending on the groups and contexts within which it appears.

2) There’s the question of orthopraxis, which, in this particular case falls right at the juncture between "do the right thing" (Spike Lee) and "what is to be done" (Lenin). This is the question of political forces intervening in a protest which will almost certainly happen: what should we advocate? Should we spare no effort to "keep it peaceful?" Should we spare no effort to heighten the contradictions and applaud if Oakland "sets it off" in response to injustice? Should we "take the lead of the affected communities themselves," and what if anything would that commitment mean beyond a praiseworthy platitude in a particular situation where the affected communities are characterized by a vacuum of the kind of rooted, organic, politicized leadership for which radicals might wish? And who’s the "we" here of "political forces?"

(That last question is meant as something of a self-corrective against the grandiosity of this kind of political rhetoric, which charts a course as if thousands were listening when the audience which will read this sort of thing and might be in a position to make choices about acting one way vs. another is barely in the dozens. The organized left needs to be modest about its lack of organic roots and influence. I find myself compelled to keep writing about this, even when I know I’ve been wrong and probably will be again, even when the stakes of being right aren’t terribly high because the audience is small, because stewing silently feels unbearable for some reason I can’t quite pinpoint.)

Of course these two questions redound upon each other heavily, but they are separate, particularly to the extent that the question of the specter of riots has a life of its own, completely separate from whether any riots actually happen.

**I’m continuing writing after getting back from a run to Fruitvale for tacos. If you need used sheets of plywood, a central stretch of International Blvd. near the BART station would be a good place to go a few days after the verdict; you’ll be able to have them for a song. Business-as-usual tonight at El Farolito, though, which still has the best avocado salsa around.**

Historicizing the Figure of the "Outside Agitator"

There’s a particular rhetorical formation that traverses the two separate questions I’ve outlined above: the figure of the "outside agitator." A Facebook friend of mine* posted an analysis of this which was quite interesting, which I had totally forgotten – the way in which civil rights organizers in the 60s were painted as "outside agitators," "uppity urban Negroes" come to agitate peaceable, rural Blacks. Similar claims were made about the Watts riots. So the notion of riots being the fault of outside agitators is nothing new, and possibly it goes back long before that – wouldn’t surprise me now to read about ethnic riots in the 1900s and find somewhat similar claims. Even in a racialized context, there’s the "carpetbagger" treatment for Northerners who moved to the South during Reconstruction; in some sense the rhetorical treatment of carpetbaggers and even abolitionists, before that, as troublemakers placing a naturally docile, intellectually weak, and easily misled Black population in danger presages the contemporary notion of the outside agitator in Oakland.

In the 90s, a discourse of the (spontaneous, indigenous) irrationality and fearfulness of Black and Brown masses seems to have temporarily replaced the figure of the outside agitator leading the gentle dupes astray. This was particularly true around the Rodney King case, so much so that for a generation "Compton" and "South Central" became a contemporary, mythological heart of darkness. (In fact, I’ll admit that as a 22-year-old union organizer placed on a campaign in South Central Los Angeles, I had to unlearn some of those myths, fast.)

Frankly this "heart of darkness" myth of the 90s was so powerful, I had forgotten that the outside-agitator / gentle dupes construct had as much of a history as it did around race politics. To me, the "outside agitator" critique is something I think of first and foremost in terms of global justice and student politics: "outside agitators" are figured as the bad protesters, the Black Bloc, the summit-hopping anarchists, the "professional protesters" who aren’t even students, vs. the good protesters who think fuzzily and act locally.

(Note: this isn’t the place for it, but I have plenty of critiques of Black Bloc politics; my point here is that the critique of Black Bloc politics often falls into the trap of accepting this good protester / bad protester dichotomy. This dichotomy is problematic at best, and at worst, conservatizing discourses can shove more and more activities onto the "bad protester" side of the line until the only "good protester" left is stuck in the purgatory of a never-ending candlelight vigil.)

Red and Black, and Black, and Muslim? The Overloaded Figure of the Outside Agitator in Oakland Today

In Oakland today, the heart of darkness discourse has been left aside, replaced by a wholesale return to the problem of the outside agitator. But how exactly is the outside agitator figured in Oakland today? On this point the authorities are muddled and somewhat contradictory. The official story, derived first by police, is that anarchists (imagined as white or at least non-Black, "from the suburbs") were responsible for escalating protests into confrontation and property destruction.

Now, let’s be honest. Will folks who sort of fit this description be at any protests which take place? Sure. Will there be some within that crowd who are looking for confrontation with police? Yes. That position has real problems and deserves real scrutiny, but let’s not blow it out of proportion. The notion that white anarchists are manipulative protest masterminds and Black and Brown youth are passive dupes who will follow them is patronizing, laughably untrue, and contradicted by eyewitness accounts of the January, 2009 protests. I’ve been to a lot of protests in my day and seen a lot of messed up shit. I’ve never seen anything like that, and doubt I ever will.

Civil society / NGO figures mobilized by the authorities who are a bit closer to the reality of the community know that this version of the story is a lie, disproven by video evidence, so they take a subtler tack to save the outside agitator argument:

Youth Uprising’s executive director, Olis Simmons [stated,] “If you look at the videos of that coverage, you find that this violence was clearly led by outside agitators because they were wearing Muslim scarves and beanies that our kids simply don’t wear,” says Ms. Simmons.

She says a group of outside agitators showed up at a youth, education and training workshop Thursday and were told to leave by the Oakland teenagers who were there.

“This is why we are trying to train our teens what outside infiltrators look like and why it’s not advisable to follow them,” says Simmons.

A fascinating, if gut-wrenching re-deployment of the outside agitator claim! The outside agitators are now not anglo / white, but evidently Middle Easterners or Black Muslims. If it was as easy as identifying a white anarchist, this would be easy: white phenotype + tight black jeans? It doesn’t take much training to identify that type and ice them out. But no, distinguishing an outside infiltrator in the lived reality of East Oakland is a matter that involves a great deal more metaphysical subtlety. Training teens to identify them and forsake their siren song is, in and of itself, a mighty pedagogical effort, entirely unsure of success.

Furthermore, why are "Muslim scarves and beanies" themselves a sign of this outside status? Is this because Muslims are the new Other of the United States, and implicating them allows us to subtly superimpose the figure of terrorist onto the already over-saturated figures of "anarchist" and "unruly youth?" Or, does taking up the scarf or the beanie itself imply putting oneself out of the community implied in the phrase, "our kids?" If the real scandal here boils down to the notion that people in their 20s might provide some leadership for teens, then this whole scheme of the outside agitator loses some of its thrill.

Let us, again, be honest, and drop a little Gramsci 101. Every social movement in a modern, complex society, of the left, right, or center, involves forms of "agitation" which partially, but not entirely, derive from outside an immediate, indigenous political context. Sarah Palin at a Tea Party rally in Texas, and, for that matter, Tea Party bloggers? Outside agitators par excellence.

Movements are successful (in part, of course; there are many other factors) to the extent that they develop transitional layers of intellectuals which situate and structure a lateral pedagogical relationship between "theoretical, outside" and "organic, inside" layers of leadership. No movement will take hold, even temporarily, if it is dominated entirely by theoretical, outside elements. To admit that the January 2009 riots were impactful (putting aside the question of whether they were misguided) is already to admit that, in addition to whatever "outside agitation" took place, there was a substantial layer of organic sentiment which was not merely activated as an inert substance, but which began to posit itself intellectually. (Perhaps only for a moment, unified by practical-reason-under-duress and passions, while lacking the sustained, deliberative element of organization).


The Specter of a Coming Riot

When did people begin to anticipate riots and what is at stake within this anticipation? This question has already been analyzed to some extent by others around the blogosphere, perhaps first and best in this round in an excellent piece by George Cicciarello-Maher. I don’t have much to add, but it’s worth saying a bit more about this strange territory of anticipation and the various functions it serves.

The most obvious function of anticipation is fear, as mobilized by city officials, business leaders, a layer of civil society (churches, schools, state-supported public service agencies, and NGOs), and a broad swath of the media. For the left, this fear may seem annoying and beside the point, and it’s tempting to just sweep it aside and encourage people to forget about it. But this would miss the point: for these leading social groups, fear is not a byproduct, it is the main point.

Of course what looks like fear from the standpoint of a media / city officialdom blitz intended for the general public appears more like massive repression from the standpoint of local youth. Here I mean the term “repression” in a psychological and pedagogical sense, however, in addition to the police sense. The police repression is prepared and displayed ostentatiously, on the one hand, while it is up to civil society to deliver the former.

It’s worth mentioning that from the standpoint of the left, political nonprofits may constitute a political bulwark or buffer for the state, but from the standpoint of leading groups, an agenda for political nonprofits is only a small part of a broader agenda for civil society, and the purpose of this agenda is not so much the maintenance of a “buffer” in a politico-military sense, but the extension of managerial and policing functions into the sinews of community life in a more “biological” or biopolitical and micropolitical sense.

The only shred of honestly I’ve seen from any “civic leader” about this comes from former City Councilman and Green Party mayoral candidate Wilson Riles:

"No one in this community has the universal respect and obedience to say ‘don’t do something’ and be assured people aren’t going to do it," he said, adding that the case will be a historic measure of holding officers accountable for their treatment of youth of color.

Riles says he’s spoken to several people who believe that Mehserle wouldn’t have been charged had it not been for the violent uprisings that broke out in January of 2009.

"There’s a feeling that non-violent avenues don’t work, and the only way you can get attention is to burn something down."

He believes that the same city officials urging for calm in the wake of a verdict have serious credibility issues and need to consistently work with efforts to hold police accountable, instead of just appearing to put out fires.

In fact, I would go a step further than Riles does here about the rhetorical impact of “don’t do something.” The sanctimonious, condescending gestures to “keep it peaceful” made me angry, and I am far from being the target demographic for this sort of thing.

Manufacturing the Crisis

For critics of the police, the Oscar Grant case is a tragedy and a crime, both individual and systemic, and the systemic critique aims to make accountable to the community a police apparatus which has been unaccountable and which has levied collective punishment throughout the Bay Area. And even though a trial for Mehserle does not constitute a very far-reaching victory in this arena, critics of the “pacifying tendency” are right that even this small achievement for due process only came about through the crisis created by the last uprising.

But leading social groups have in mind a complete inversion of this critique; their indispensable motto remains, Never let a perfectly good crisis go to waste. What was a crisis of legitimacy for the police and the mayor’s office can be flipped into a public safety crisis, or at least this is what these groups intend. This effort is of course not new; it has been in motion since the first set of riots / the uprising of January 2009.

In a public safety crisis, there is both an immediate threat and a more inchoate (yet therefore more pervasive and ongoing) need for security and enforcement. In the foreground, a new, dark alliance is imagined, between anarchists, Black Muslims, opportunistic thieves, and unruly, easily beguiled youth, all of whom together constitute a grave threat to public safety. This is to be countered, immediately, by a crushing show of force: 21,000 national guard troops on call, police departments around the entire greater Bay Area sending dispatches to Oakland to work 12-hour shifts, and simulated riot trainings, accounts of which are widely disseminated to the media. And the business community responds lock-step: boarded windows throughout Fruitvale and downtown Oakland, Pinkerton types on patrol in extraordinary concentrations, their uniforms shimmering just on the edge of recognition.

In the background, all of this sets the stage for an argument not just for more police (in a moment when the Oakland PD is feeling acutely the sting of layoffs of up to 80 officers) but for more policing, that is, the extension of police functions into more and more of everyday life. If, after all, our youth constitute the real threat, because they are dangerously susceptible to the wiles of agitating wolves who cannot be distinguished easily from sheep, we must adopt an ever-greater and far-reaching vigilance.

The specter of riots is not merely a project of leading groups, of course; it gets re-articulated in various sectors. The primarily examples which come to mind are a kind of masculinized indifference to something understood as an impersonal force (“riots are coming, better hunker down”) to, in small but notable sectors, a genuine, libidinal excitement (“let’s burn this mother down!” – which I’ve seen on Twitter, from people I don’t know – is only a slightly more extreme version of “Oakland’s gonna be poppin’ this weekend,” which I’ve seen on Facebook, from people I do know). Usually also a hyper-masculine display. Another example would be a sort of individualistic fear (“how am I going to get home from work if there are riots today?”)

The point is not to criticize individuals’ responses, but to begin to chart the main structures of feeling through which this anticipation is channeled. Of this, much more should be said.

Do the Right Thing?

Given all of this, how to react?

The fundamental problem here is a lack of effective organization within subordinate social groups which could articulate and sustain a response. Advance the Struggle has analyzed this in much greater depth than I will be able to here, in this timely reissue of their 2009 pamphlet. Their critique of the non-profit sector is bitingly insightful though perhaps overly broad-brushed, inadequately questioning what distinctions and contradictions may exist within that sector. I hope some political people in or around the nonprofit world will take this critique seriously and respond; this is a conversation the Bay Area left needs to have, regarding an urgent political situation rather than an abstraction. (The question “will the revolution be funded?” and the term “non-profit industrial complex” get repeated very often, but I’m not sure at this point whether they constitute a serious enterprise of self-criticism or an ironic self-awareness that all is not right but nothing can be done.) I also think the ATS reading of the possibilities of January 2009 may be a bit optimistic, but all of these criticisms are secondary beside my strong recommendation of their clear statement of the problem: a tragic lack of lack of political organization with broad organic bases in the community, a combative stance, and a commitment to intellectual development of working-class militants.

Outside of the condescension of civil society as mobilized along a state-driven line, is there something to be said for the perspective of staying safe? Of course there is, in the sense that we care for each other. But is there something to be said for it politically? If we think that the audacity of outrage is the only thing that really forced officials to bring Mehserle to trial, does that mean that at this juncture only more audacity and more outrage will serve? And are these questions that can only be posed, honestly, either behind the back of deliberation as the most explicit face of practical reason, or away from the circumscribed conditions of the blogosphere?

Perhaps. What grounds of praxis can still be assembled across the scatterings of deeds?


* I owe the core of the insight I’m developing in this section to this individual.