On Thursday, July 8, we in Oakland were anxiously awaiting the verdict in the murder trial of Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer accused of shooting the unarmed 22-year-old father, Oscar Grant, while he was face-down and compliant on the platform on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale BART station. At 4pm, the verdict was handed down in a Los Angeles court: Mehserle had been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Immediately the freeways and BART trains backed up with people fleeing Oakland, local media desperately awaited the much anticipated riots. Instead, what they got was 1000 peaceful protesters and a handful of out-of-town anarchist-opportunist looters and a media frenzy.
While the media focused on the sensationalized looting and vandalism, the people of Oakland and those paying attention across the nation were disappointed in yet another light conviction in a police brutality case. Whether or not you agree with the verdict, the music that has come out of the shooting and trial has captured the resounding sentiment felt not just in Oakland but across America: police are not here to serve and protect the people, but instead oppress and brutalize.
Oakland’s own Too Short said it best shortly after the shooting in 2009: “We have been like a broken record ever since I have been alive,” and that the election of President Barack Obama only a couple months before was an optimistic point tarnished by yet another violent act of police brutality. He continued on to say that law enforcement often acts like gang members themselves. Furthermore while the looting, rioting and violence only really hurt the citizens of Oakland, it feels as if it is the only way to get the media attention. He was right, when the verdict came down the local media (although not the national) was all too eager to report on the aftermath.
While some chose to garner attention through more violence and disorder, others have translated their anger into music. The track “Involuntary Manslaughter” by Kobe, Roman & Katz, opens with a sampling of an interview with Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, after the verdict was handed down, “My son was murdered,” she says repeatedly, “…and justice has not been served.” Kobe, Roman & Katz sum up the emotions of the peaceful protesters, “What are we supposed to do?/ When the people who are supposed to protect us/ are out smoking you.”
Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B., whose tracks are usually not as heavy, was inspired by the Grant shooting and put together “My Life” featuring Jennifer Jones & Codany Holiday. The track delves into the anger fueled by the injustice in Black communities, particularly Oakland– from the crack epidemic, poverty, racism, and especially police brutality. “Aint shit changed since Obama’s in the White House,” he quips.
IseLyfe, another native Oakland rapper, takes a much harder stance on the situation, repeating “Fuck ‘Em [the police]” in the chorus of “Hard in the Paint.” His words are angrier as he points out that not only was Grant unarmed and face down on the platform–his hands were tied behind his back, he was shot execution style. He brings up another important point– these days every cell phone has a camera. “Investigate what?” he asks “You didn’t see the tape?”
While the looting and violence bring brief and unfocused attention to what happened to Grant and the entire City of Oakland, the music heals through eloquently written– although brutal –truths. A child has lost a father, a mother a son, a City their faith in the police.