The shooting of Oscar Grant III, Pt. I: The value of a life.

The unjustifiable death of yet another black person by an officer of the law (who, if history tells us anything, will likely go unpunished) is deeply disturbing and maddening. This fact is being discussed everywhere and there’s not much else I can add to that aspect of the conversation. But there are a couple other things that have been eating at me this week regarding responses I’ve heard from protesters, radio talk show hosts, and people commenting online. I’m breaking this into two parts because it’s long.

First, a little background. For anyone who hasn’t heard, an unarmed 22 year old black man named Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by BART police on New Years in the Fruitvale BART station. Grant and his friends were pulled off the train because someone reported an altercation, though the officers didn’t know exactly who had been involved. At one point Grant, who was being cooperative with the police and encouraging his friends to do the same, was forced to lie his belly with his face on the platform and a few officers on top of him pinning him down. For no apparent reason, one of the officers stood up, drew his gun, and shot Grant in the back. He died a few hours later.

The whole incident was recorded on cell phones and cameras by multiple BART passengers, and though the police confiscated as many of these devices as they could before the train pulled away, there are still a couple videos that made it onto the web and into tv newscasts.

While on paid leave following the murder, the officer who shot Grant, Johannes Mehserle, resigned before the investigation began. He has not been questioned by anyone nor has he made any public statement about the murder. For a week following the shooting, there was nothing but a blanket of silence from BART officials and the city of Oakland.

Protesters took to the streets in Oakland this past Wednesday looking for some sort of response or explanation, and demanding that Mehserle be charged with murder. A smaller group broke away after the rally to march, their frustration and anger eventually leading to smashing windshields and storefronts, burning cars and dumpsters, and trashing a police car. No injuries were reported as a result of this low-level rioting.

So that’s the lowdown. Now here’s what’s bugging me about how people are framing the tragedy.

Everyone’s talking about the fact that Oscar had a 4 year old daughter, that he was “trying to do the right thing” by being a father to her, and that he had two jobs. And because he had been trying to get his friends to cooperate with the officers during the incident, the word “peacemaker” is now splashed all around the internet. What bothers me is that these statements reinforce the idea that some people’s lives are worth more than others – that we should be more outraged by the unjustified police shooting of a person with a child, a person with a job (or two), a person who is playing by the rules.

The lives of black and brown folks, gender variant folks, poor folks (especially the homeless), and people who commit non-white-collar crimes (no matter how petty) are valued substantially less by the state, and thus they are valued less by the general public as heavily influenced subjects of the state. That’s a big part of why this sort of outrageous police behavior can happen and go unpunished all the time in the first place. To play on these tendencies in order to garner wider public sympathy for this tragedy is to perpetuate what folks say they want to challenge – the devaluing of some lives by the state, in this case specifically the lives of people of color.

We are not serving our purpose by emphasizing state-sanctioned markers of human value. It is reprehensible for agents of the state to get away with murder when they are supposedly employed for our safety; and that is true whether the person they kill is unemployed, homeless, a car thief, a sex worker, a priest, or a soccer mom. We shouldn’t be coming up with reasons why this particular man was less deserving of being randomly executed than someone else, because nobody ever deserves that.


January 8, 2009. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Uncategorized.


  1. fawngonemad replied:

    glad you’re writing about this. the first story i heard about it kept emphasizing the fact that he had a 4-year old daughter — and while i understand that this deepens the magnitude of the loss on an individual level, it is a really f*cked up frame to use.

  2. Oakland struggles « fawn gone mad replied:

    […] go here for another thoughtful post, The Value of a Life. Everyone’s talking about the fact that Oscar had a 4 year old daughter, that he was “trying to […]

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