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From BART to SWAT: Reflections on Anti-policing Organizing in Oakland

Rachel Herzing, Isaac Ontiveros
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

On Saturday, March 21, 2009, Lovell Mixon died. Mixon, an Oakland resident living under parole shot five Oakland cops, killing four, before being gunned down by Oakland Police Department’s (OPD) SWAT forces.

The funeral for the officers killed filled the Oracle Arena, home of the Oakland Raiders, and drew national media attention. Acting police chief, Howard Jordan, referred to the officers being “beckoned into the pantheon of heroes.” One of the killed cops would be credited for “saving four lives” and “enhancing the lives of 50” after his organs were removed and donated. Local TV news aired the funeral live, replete with footage of hundreds of police vehicles in a motorcade taking up five lanes of freeway traffic. One news channel referred to the police motorcycle motorcade as “rolling thunder,” and went on to claim that the entire OPD was in attendance, assuring viewers that other police departments from surrounding cities were, “chipping in and keeping the city safe,” during the funeral.

The ready-made images of unity-through-mourning between the “brothers in blue” and the city’s residents where shaky at best given Oakland’s recent history let alone its more enduring legacy as ground zero for out and out counterinsurgency warfare against the Black Panther Party and the wider Black community. Indeed, any solid image of unity even within the ranks of the OPD seemed tenuous.

In just the past few months, the FBI has opened multiple investigations, from regular corruptions charges to falsification of evidence, to an investigation of Internal Affairs Capt. Edward I. Poulson’s kicking-to-death of arrestee Jerry Amaro. When OPD Chief Wayne Tucker resigned in January in disgrace, his acting-replacement, Deputy Chief Jeffrey Loman, was promptly placed on administrative leave under investigation for sexually harassing one of his subordinates. These events occurred amid the very fresh memory of the infamous Oakland Riders—a self-described gang of cops who, under the protection of their superiors, unleashed years of terror in Oakland communities including beating suspects, planting and/or stealing evidence, intimidating witnesses, and falsifying reports.

Mixon’s death had people all over Oakland talking. Even without a manifesto or stated organizational affiliation, Mixon’s actions and death have been inscribed and re-inscribed with political meaning. Oaklanders offered up a context to understand Mixon’s actions:  ongoing police conflict with particular Oakland communities and connections between Mixon’s death and the police shooting deaths of Oscar Grant III, Gary King, Jr., Anita Gay, and many others in recent Oakland history. That context included talk of armed struggle, rebellion, and fighting back against the system.

Oscar Grant

Tensions have been high since Oscar Grant III was executed on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train platform in front of a train full of passengers on New Year’s Eve. Decades of conflict between law enforcement and the people of Oakland were again thrown into sharp relief.

Oakland, for a second, boiled over. During a demonstration a week after Grant’s slaying, youth participating in an unpermitted march through downtown, overtook a police car, smashed its window, danced on its hood and roof, and then attempted to flip it, before being dispersed by rubber bullets and tear gas fired by police from armored personnel carriers. Angry, sad, and very likely scared and tired, demonstrators caused mild amounts of property damage to city, corporate, and personal property. Police responded with more tear gas, more rubber bullets, and mass arrests. More demonstrations, police violence, and arrests followed.

Editorializing about cop-community relationships has been extensive in these past months. From local and national corporate media to blogs and independent media, it seems everyone has an opinion about the root causes, underlying dynamics, and political ramifications of the past months’ events. What still seems unclear, however, is how to maximize the organizing opportunities presented in this time of intense outrage and grief.

In a moment when so many groups feel they have so much at stake and when the mixture of pain, confusion, euphoria, and terror creates confusion about which way forward, the everyday organizing challenges are heightened and put under extreme pressure and scrutiny by state forces.

Organizing a response

Communities wanting to respond to Grant’s murder are faced with complicated sets of political, strategic, and tactical questions: How to contribute to combined efforts to encourage outrage into focused activity? How to make an impact without grandstanding or undermining others’ efforts? How to advocate for a specific political perspective without alienating people? How to avoid reveling in death while keeping focus on the state as an oppressive force that merits direct confrontation?

The community responses to Oscar Grant’s murder were quick and energetic. Many people across Oakland recognized this as a clear moment for action. A wide range of organizations snapped into motion, new organizations and formations emerged overnight. Loose groupings flowed into the mix and individuals looked around for the right place to jump in.

Reflecting centuries of anger and pain in relationship to the violence of policing, people—especially Oakland’s Black population—were determined to not let Grant’s murder be another in a long line of state-sponsored atrocities that would go unaccounted. The organizing terrain became instantly difficult to navigate as groups with varying perspective and agendas came onto the scene. Faith communities from the Nation of Islam to Baptist congregations; student groups from high schools to universities; community based organizations representing a wide range of issues; and unaffiliated groupings of people filled the streets, engaged the media, and offered their perspectives on the best solutions. A cry for justice began to solidify around the demand that the cop who shot Grant, Johannes Mehserle, be arrested, prosecuted, found guilty, and punished to the full extent of the law. Feeling the pressure of the social upheaval in Oakland, the City Attorney complied and arrested Mehserle on January 13, and charged him with murder.

More centrist organizations and coalitions seemed to be content with a primarily juridical course concentrating political will and pressure on seeing that Mehserle’s prosecution was vigorous and transparent. Many called arresting and charging a white cop for the murder of a young Black man a victory. Even so, there was and continues to be a sense that this was not enough. 

For those who have been organizing against imprisonment and policing, Oscar Grant’s execution represented both immediate opportunities and immediate challenges for mobilizing Oakland communities.

The breadth of people ready and willing to fill the streets, make demands, and advocate for change was awe-inspiring. Within that cacophony of voices, there was little coordinated effort, however. Several organizations stepped out to offer themselves as leaders with little negotiation with others around strategy and messaging, and in several cases a lack of responsibility and coordination when calling for action. Other groups offered their spaces for community dialogues and meetings, but those spaces were often censored or tightly moderated. At times there was even direct contradiction in the messages circulated at demonstrations, town halls, and through media outlets.

The question of demands

The question of demands was at the heart of the struggle. What does accountability look like in response to the execution of a young man by agents of the state? Should groups collectively demand a review of BART? Or call for prosecution of the cop who did the shooting? Or advocate for the disarmament of BART cops? Should people outraged by Grant’s murder and ensuing police repression suggest this as a moment to consider the elimination of policing in Oakland? How can Oaklanders take seriously the impacts of individual people’s deaths while keeping a focus on the systemic nature of racialized violence?

A number of groups took seriously the opportunity to engage people while they were still angry and filled with energy. Finding strategic, lasting means of sustaining that energy has proved difficult, however, especially as the feeling of crisis waned. Additionally, it was not lost on many in Oakland that, as they found themselves in active conflict with militarized police forces on their city streets, bombs rained down on Palestine. This connection was alive from the outflow of cultural production to the various community forums and strategy sessions; and, especially as Palestinian and Arab community members organized around policing here in Oakland and imperialism abroad, this connection was not consigned to the arena of metaphor. In demonstrations, town halls, and other public forums, strong connections have been drawn out and sustained, helping add even more depth to the context of state violence. In late January, with little notice, about a dozen community organizations were able to mobilize and strike down a proposal by the Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee to instate a youth curfew, enforced by OPD.

While the organizing efforts in response to Oscar Grant’s murder face substantial challenges, they also present an opportunity to examine the important openings for building a more cohesive and coherent movement against policing in Oakland. That so many made immediate connections between Oscar Grant’s murder and Lovelle Mixon’s shooting at the cops signals that the context of police aggression has not been subsumed as time passes. That the media has not been able to make “super-criminal” depictions of Lovelle Mixon stick indicates that Oakland residents maintain a sharp analysis of the context in which Mixon’s actions took place. That a “streets are watching” approach to cop interactions (standing witness, pulling out camera phones, etc.) has become standard practice on Oakland streets demonstrates that an uncritical reliance on policing has been shaken.

The best way forward still seems unclear. As Oaklanders continue moving ahead on our day-to-day work we are reminded that while the initial fires are dwindling, the need to re-ignite the embers is still crucial. Our community history and knowledge of state power show us that police killings are not exceptional, but an integral part of the job. During the past two years more than 15 people have been fatally shot by Oakland cops and dozens more seriously injured through police contact. The frustration indicated by Lovelle Mixon’s shootout with the cops reminds us of the context in which our organizing work happens. In looking ahead we must draw from past lessons and continue to look for opportunities to make connections that leave our efforts and neighborhoods stronger. Our struggle continues.

Isaac Ontiveros and Rachel Herzing are staff members at Creative Interventions, an organization dedicated to generating tools to interrupt and prevent interpersonal violence without engaging the state. They also volunteer with Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization working to abolish the prison industrial complex.