Last Tuesday’s post on the man in Oakland that killed 4 police officers yielded heated responses and I wanted to follow up after everyone (especially me) had some time to mull things over. I want to draw from some of the themes that came up and to update the news that broke last Tuesday night that Lovelle Mixon was also linked to the rape of a 12 year old girl. This act, along with the murders of John Hege, Mark Dunakin, Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai, are reprehensible acts. I am stating this upfront so that it is not lost that this is a tragedy and there is no excuse for this kind of tragedy.
There seemed to be some concern that the way I approached my discussion of this topic made me sound like an apologist. Perhaps a matter of semantics but despite some folks understanding it was not my intention, there still seemed to be a need to accuse me of it. To clarify, there is a big difference between understanding what creates a condition/thought/action and then justifying that said action.
Thea Lim at Racialicious gave a very thorough breakdown of the fall-out around my post last week and the idea of trying to hold two thoughts at once. She writes,
Now, Mixon actually was guilty. But Mixon’s guilt doesn’t neutralise the rottenness of the system. In other words, just because Mixon was actually a dangerous felon doesn’t mean that we are absolved from the duty to question how justice and innocence is defined and meted out in our culture.
It is not only possible for us to hold these two facts at once, but it is imperative in understanding the consequences of Mixon’s actions for the greater community in Oakland and also for understanding how the youth in Oakland are dealing with this atrocity. Perhaps the huge backlash against my piece was due to a desire to use Mixon as an excuse to voice their own racism, whether conscious or subconscious. As lefties it is our job to point out these subtle nuances, as the implications are deadly.
With regard to the poster I chose to repost here, after posting the artist’s statement and some conversation via comments and emails, I would just like to clarify why I thought it was powerful. I should have known that putting it up would make me look like I was complicit in making Mixon a poster-child, but the poster says, “Cop-Killer” not “American Hero” so I thought that the fact that I didn’t think he was a hero was pretty self-explanatory. What I saw in that poster was several questions come up about what we need to be American. We need our villains, we need our heroes or the story is never complete. In short, people of color become the poster children for whatever we want them to be, Obama is on one side of the American dream, Mixon on the other. Also, while I don’t totally agree with all of Weston’s take, the one part I do agree with is that Mixon is a product of a culture of violence in America and we can either address that or we can write this off as a one off crazy man.
It is understandable why many different people are bound to the ‘one off’ point of view. It makes us feel comfortable to think that someone like Mixon is a ‘one off’ case because it takes responsibility off of us to look at, and, ultimately, change the systemic causes of violence. On the other hand, the belief that he is not a ‘one off’ incident will most definitely be used to justify further violence in the black community in Oakland and that is what we are afraid of. It is almost effective and more logical for those that live in the community to write this off as an aberration (which statistically it is) as opposed to part of a systemic problem.
But this story is not just about Mixon and his inability to get out of cycles of violence. This is about all the themes and ideas that have come out around Mixon and what that tells us about public perceptions of police brutality, black masculinity and why Oakland youth might be so juiced about this issue. As Puck clarified at the end of the comments section,
Regardless of whether or not she believes cop killing is a message of hope (and it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t), it’s important to recognize that an image like the “poster” was created in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. It’s important to recognize that there are a lot of people who see this as a tit-for-tat situation… and there are a lot of people who are conflicted – at once feeling sorry for the people who were killed (and their families) and simultaneously feeling like the system had it coming. Recognizing that these are perspectives that are very real and shared by a lot of people is not the same thing as holding such a perspective. Ignoring that such perspectives are worth considering or even exist stifles our capacity to understand all the angles on a tragedy such as this.
Mixon is a difficult person to build a narrative of police brutality around, but this story isn’t about him. He is dead, he can do no more harm. But the police state can, and most likely will, use this case as an excuse to continually police and brutalize people of color in Oakland. Mixon was a very extreme example of violence, but he is still part of an entire system of violence. The more we have a repressive police system that engages in extreme forms of violence, the more people will support the actions of a cop-killer. Some have suggested that if perhaps Oakland police and stood up against what happened to Oscar Grant, Oakland youth would be singing a different tune right now.
In response to receiving non-stop texts after the shooting of the officers, David Muhammad an Oakland native and someone who works in juvenille justice, wrote at Wiretap and NAM
Every one of the people I spoke with, young and old, all merged this tragic incident with the killing of Oscar Grant on New Year’s day by a BART police officer. It is quite possible that Lovelle Mixon had no thoughts of Oscar Grant. Lovell was a parolee out from prison for assault with a deadly weapon. He had apparently violated his parole, and a warrant for his arrest was issued. Maybe he just didn’t want to go back to prison. But in the minds of many Oaklanders, the two horrific shootings – that of Oscar Grant and that of five OPD officers – were connected.
This case is bringing up tension that has existed for decades between Oakland’s black community and Oakland PD that has recently been aggravated by Oscar Grant. In many ways, Mixon is seen as a martyr to these youth whose lives have been terrorized by violence within their community and by police, who go into their community, not to police, but to terrorize (take a look at the case of the Oakland riders.) As I said in my original post, I really don’t think it is OK for Oakland youth to be making revolutionary (Ta-Nehisi agrees) of a murdering rapist. But something about this story is resonating with Oakland youth. That fact is sad and may seem deplorable, but we have to recognize why it is there. Check out these youth voices speak out on what they are afraid of will happen after the murder of these Oakland police.
Frankly, it is not that being a cop is easy and I am sure many go into it with the intention of being “good.” Many cops believe they are doing the right thing. When the system determines with whom you interact (ie, by doing street sweeps, you’re going to pick up more poor people on drug charges than wealthier users and dealers who have cars and houses) and shapes your perspective on those people, it determines your actions as well. I have compassion for police, but not for the system that shapes their actions. This compounded with media depictions and dominant narratives around race, class, gender, ethnicity, etc and its relationship to behavior, makes it a tough narrative to break unless you are really committed to doing so.
The way the system operates, it instills a fear and predisposition in many police that leads to improper actions, such as using excessive force and targeting individuals who are simply the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many people in the previous comments thread pointed out that it is mostly black men that are killing other black men. While this is a truth, shouldn’t the cops be working to stop that? Not perpetuating it? That is the kind of world that I hope for. Where you can trust a cop to consciously engage the community in reducing fear and violence, rather than letting their actions be determined by, and thus strengthen, that fear and violence.
As I mentioned in my last post, when police slay a person of color, no one calls them animals. Many cops have on their hands the blood of our youth. It is a tragedy of epic proportions, we don’t even have accurate numbers, we only know because we know people that have been victim to it such as Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant and the transgender woman beaten by police in Memphis, Duanna Johnson,, the increase of women being sexually and physically assaulted by the police, with all the other stories (trigger warning). And as Renee notes black women in particular are victims of police brutality and we can’t ignore the impact of that. Police brutality is not just about men, but women, the GLBTQ community, Arab-Americans, sex workers, rape victims and the list goes on.
After Tuesday’s post I really got to thinking about experience and exposure to police brutality. I have many personal experiences with friends, co-workers and family being harassed by police. A lot of my friends are black, Latino, Indian, Asian, Arab, etc, so they have a completely different idea about police, prisons, border patrol, security, INS and the different ways that our lives are monitored and our rights abused. But I have personally never been harassed, (my experience has been more the ineffectiveness of police when I was being stalked by my neighbor) so I stepped back and I asked several of my black friends, “is this crazy? Am I crazy?” Each one of them, across the spectrum from people that have had encounters with the cops to those that have not, repeatedly said the cops scare the shit out of them. They never know when they are pulled over whether they will be shot or not.
This is in direct contrast to what commenter Joe said about the cultural differences in how POC verse white people relate to the police.
The problem is cultural. White men are taught to obey authority, black men are encouraged to ignore authority.
I don’t care about the color of the skin or sex of the cop, they tell me to do something, I do it with a “Yes Officer.” When I get pulled over by a cop I always talk to them in respect, even when I think I did nothing wrong (like driving 30 mph down a city street at 8 am) and then when ticketed I say “thank you Officer.”
I expect that if I told the cop off I would likely end up in jail (verbal abuse is disorderly conduct) and that if I attempted to run from the cop that I would be forcibly held, and that if I struggled with a cop trying to arrest me that I would be hit. And that if I struck the cop I’d be hit back until the cop was certain I wasn’t going hit them agin.
And if I end up beaten up by cops the first thing my friends say is ‘Joe, how could you have been so stupid?’ That’s right I would be blamed by my friends because they know you don’t go around provoking people unless you want a fight, and they acknowledge that a fight with a cop is a great way to get killed.
These are not the words of someone who has dealt with a strong presence of police in their life or has friends that do and they are lucky for that fact. When you are a person of color and already targeted by the police, it is not about how you act. It is about who you are and where you are. And if you speak out, defend yourself or even retaliate, on top of that, it is going to get ugly, real fast. In all fairness, several commenters did call out Joe, but I think it was a poignant example of the different levels of experience and exposure we are bringing to the table.
I am asking us to look at the bigger picture. A man engaged in grotesque criminal activity out of feelings of desperation or just from being downright crazy. This doesn’t mean that every person of color who has been brutalized by the system is like him, but it also doesn’t mean that he isn’t part of that same violent system that produced him. What happened with Mixon is not an excuse to continually brutalize an already down-trodden community. It is instead an opportunity to think about what conditions are creating this violence. We can have a world without crime, without the rape of young women, without the wrongful criminalization and murder of young men. We can have it if we can believe for a second that there is a justifiable reason that many youth are not just wary, but horrified of the police and we can have that world if we take the time to listen and work across that difference.
Finally, after last Tuesday’s shit storm about my post, I got all stressed out over the difficulty of having a nuanced dialogue about the intersection of race, class, gender and violence with different levels of experience and understanding. I also got to thinking about all the ways I can phrase things better, while keeping my analysis intact. I guess you can’t always make everyone happy in the span of 1000 words, while you attempt to hash out really complicated things that are volatile and emotional, both for myself and everyone involved. As someone just wrote to me in an email, “Samhita you push the envelope, I can’t believe you don’t know that!” And I laughed, because I realize I do know that and I appreciate the Feministing community for giving me the time to vet out and work through some of the concepts I present. Thanks to everyone that sent me emails, left comments, sent me twitters and reposted this. Thanks for all that thinking and all that support. I would like to think that all this will help to increase the dialogue around peaceful solutions to police brutality.