Comparing Public's Anguish -- and Reaction -- Regarding Police Murders, Oscar Grant Killing Is Natural, Justified -- and Wrong

Categories: Crime, Local News
As the Bay Area's mood shifts from shock and horror over the senseless weekend murders of four Oakland police officers into a desire for the community to rise up and repudiate this sickening act, we can only measure the moments until some well-meaning soul utters the phrase "a teachable moment."

This repudiation is all the more necessary, some elements within the community and media claim, because of the popular fervor surrounding the call for "justice" surrounding the Jan. 1 death of unarmed BART passenger Oscar Grant at the hands of transit cop Johannes Mehserle. That "movement" was quickly co-opted by loud, simplistic people who had no compunctions about propping up the still-warm corpse of a man they couldn't have given a damn about in life as cover to do what they really wanted to do all along: Smash and burn others' property, flood the streets, and make unreasonable demands that, when not met, could be used as an excuse to do it all again.

So for those irked by the notion of protesting inexcusable violence with inexcusable violence, grumbles of "Let's see if folks march in the streets about this" and calls for symbolic acts demonstrating that Oaklanders care at least as much about the dead policemen as the dead innocent BART rider are understandable. They even feel justified. But they're also profoundly wrong.

To start with, the idea that, because of civil unrest and Grant's cause celebre, Oakland needs to do even more than it normally would to mark the deaths of four police officers is a macabre version of keeping up with the Joneses. It smacks of competing to see who can build the tallest funeral pyre, who can beat his breast with grief the most convincingly. The deaths of the four officers -- young men all -- is a near-unprecedented tragedy. To resort to tit-for-tat rationales as to why the city needs to mark it with that much more solemnity is petty. No one in city government is blowing this off. Who could?

But while the public and media will forever tie together the deaths of the four officers and Grant -- police kill man in Oakland; man kills police in Oakland -- the neatness of how the events dovetail belies the fact that they couldn't be more unrelated.

Grant's death was a shock to everyone; despite what the frothy-mouthed protesters who claimed the right to do as they pleased in the wake of his death say, no police officer in America premeditates the decision to "execute" an unarmed man in front of hundreds of gawking onlookers. This is not supposed to happen and the notion of those sworn to protect society unnecessarily killing people, on video -- for whatever reason -- is indeed cause for righteous anger and calls for reform.

And yet, the idea of a selfish, violent, desperate criminal harming others -- even police -- is not shocking. If anything, it's expected. What happened in Oakland became a national story only because of its grotesque volume.

It also warrants mentioning that "solving" the problems that led to Oscar Grant's death are orders of magnitude easier than even beginning to cope with the myriad factors that left four policemen dead. In fact, it's hard to claim with a straight face that the violent street actions of Grant protesters haven't led to many of their demands being met. Mehserle is on trial for murder and BART is in the midst of a costly and exacting review of the management and training of its police officers. If that review is a whitewash, we should expect to read about it in the Chronicle, as the paper's coverage has been exquisite. In short, pushing for a criminal trial of a cop caught on tape shooting a prone, helpless man and instituting a reorganization of a transit police force is something citizens, the government, and the media can get done.

But how can you solve the problems that produced alleged copkiller Lovelle Mixon? The man's background -- again beautifully covered by the Chron -- reads like a Law and Order rap sheet of an archtypical product of a corrupted society. Grew up without parents in a broken home. Lived in a neighborhood more privileged Americans would appropriately describe as a war zone. Out of school by ninth grade. Imprisoned for armed robbery by 18. In and out of lockup, on parole -- and yet he had ready access to (at least) two guns including an AK-47.

How is wearing an armband on a designated day of mourning going to solve that? How is a candlelight vigil supposed to even start? This isn't cleaning up a rotten cop or a even a rotten police department -- this is nothing short of confronting the very worst of our society.

It is with the officers' families in mind that I shudder as I contemplate the painful debates over what, exactly, it means to die in vain. For I am not confident that even the senseless, brutal deaths of these four brave men will be enough to jar us out of years of inertia regarding the desperate plight of the poor, rampant nihilism, glorification of violence and ignorance, and a thousand other problems.

May the memories of Mark Dunakin, John Hege, Ervin Romans, and Daniel Sakai be a blessing. Society owed you so much more.
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