This is a transcript of a talk by noted civil rights attorney Osha Neumann given on January 22nd at La Pena at a benefit for the volunteer journalist.
This morning I woke up, sat on my bed to get dressed, and turned on KPFA. Democracy Now was on. So as the day began, I listened to Amy interview Amer Shurrab. His voice shaking, choking back sobs, he described how he lost his two brothers, twenty-eight year old Kassab, and eighteen year old Ibrahim on the same day in Gaza. He described how they were fleeing their village with their father Mohammed, when they were shot without warning by Israeli soldiers who had taken hostages to use as human shields and were firing from a house nearby. He described how Kassab had died in the initial hail of bullets, but Ibrahim, who had been shot in the leg lay bleeding for hours as his father desperately begged the soldiers who were near enough so that he could shout to them to let an ambulance through. And they refused. And Ibrahim bled to death.
On the deaths of Ibrahim and Kassab, and the more than 1,300 other Palestinians, most of them civilians, and the 200, 300, 400 children killed, the thousands wounded, some horribly burnt with white phosphorus, each death and injury the beginning of a trail of tears, on all of this Obama, so far, has been silent. And the silence is dreadful.
But I woke up early two days ago to watch the inauguration, and thrilled to see the crowd of millions and to watch that fine black man become President. I love that a beautiful black family with two beautiful children is in the White House, and that wretched old white guy is gone, and later that night I watched way too late as Obama and Michelle danced and kissed – three times in one dance – at one of the balls. And it made me happy that they so clearly loved one another.
I know. I know. This moment will be brief. I know how disappointing so many of his appointments are. I just can’t pull my feelings right now into a coherent whole. They conflict and jar up against each other. I’m at a place of not knowing what to think or feel.
On New Year’s Day, Oscar Grant was shot in the back as he lay face down on the cement platform of the Fruitvale BART station. The bullet fired by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle entered his back, bounced off the cement and back into his chest killing him. He died surrounded by cops. That’s how his new year began and ended. I’ve watched the cell phone videos. It’s hard to understand what was going on in the mind of that officer – to assassinate a 22-year old black man in front of a crowd of onlookers with cell phone cameras.
But its not hard to understand what led up to this incident, just as its not hard to understand what led up to the killing of Ibrahim and Kassab. It’s the code of silence, the code police officers live by – you don’t tell on your fellow officer; and it’s the code of silence American politicians live by who are too afraid to criticize Israel and who provide it, year after year, the weapons to wreak mass destruction on the Palestinians. It’s the tacit acceptance of brutality in police departments, and our politician’s tacit acceptance of the brutality of Israel and its occupation that allows that brutality to continue unchecked. It’s lack of discipline, lack of consequences, and cover-ups by supervising officers that creates a climate in police departments that allow officers like Mehserle to retain the power to use lethal force; and its our country’s unwillingness to rein in Israel, and impose sanctions for its illegalities, that in fact encourage those illegalities that allow Israel to use the latest weapons we provide to slaughter the innocents in Gaza.
No one who has been paying attention would be surprised at what Israel did in Gaza.
In the case of Officer Mehserle, we know for a fact that those who worked with him, his fellow officers, knew he was dangerous and did nothing. So there shouldn’t be any surprise there either.
There was an article on January 15th in the San Francisco Chronicle describing an incident that happened six weeks before Officer Mehserle shot Oscar Grant. Kenneth Carrethers, another black man, was leaving the Coliseum BART station talking to a fellow passenger and apparently Officer Mehserle overheard him making disparaging remarks about police officers. Now it’s a free country. You can say whatever you damn please. But Officer Mehserle didn’t think so. He went over to Kenneth, grabbed him from behind, wrestled him to the ground, and beat him, sending him to the hospital. He charged Kenneth with resisting arrest.
Officer Mehserle then filed a police report claiming that Carrethers “yelled in a threatening manner, pushed off of me, and took a bladed fighting stance”. I wasn’t there, but that sure sounds like bullshit to me, especially that “bladed fighting stance” part.
So he lied. And the police officers with him knew it. And went along with it. And there were no cell phone cameras. So he gets away with it. And how many incidents like this there have been, we may never know.
Nadra Foster. Berkeley police crushed your hand and knuckle area. You have nerve, muscle and tendon damage requiring surgery. Your hand is locked in a claw and you’re in constant pain. It seems you “flunked the attitude test” and got brutalized for it. I watched the videos. I heard you scream and yell “get off my face”, but the camera was down the hall. Anita Johnson is shown in a position to see what’s happening, but then the police herd her around the corner and down the hall so they can do their work out of sight.
Israel bans journalists from Gaza. The police don’t like people watching.
There is a paradox. They don’t want you to watch but they want you to know. They want you to be afraid, so afraid that the very thought of resistance will not enter your head. No one planned the murder of Oscar Grant. But the next time the police come across a group of young men and scream at them to get down and pull out their guns, they don’t mind that the image of Oscar Grant will be in those young men’s heads. Israel did plan the invasion of Gaza, and there’s no question that one of it’s purposes was to make Palestinians afraid, afraid ever to raise their heads in resistance. It doesn’t work. But Israel keeps trying.
Still, watching is critical. Recording is even better. I don’t have a cell phone camera, but I think I should get one.
We have a duty and a right to watch the police. Like all rights, it needs to be fought and struggled for. Anita had a right to watch as long as she did not interfere.
There’s an organization in Berkeley, Cop Watch, that was founded to spread the gospel of watching the police. It’s one lesson we all need to learn.
There’s another lesson, which is not to make the mistake that Dan Siegel apparently did when he told the Berkeley Daily Planet “It seems the police overdid it. It’s not what I expect of the Berkeley Police Department. I expect them to act in a reasonable, cautious manner”.
Unfortunately, we should never expect the police to act in a “reasonable, cautious manner”. That’s what we should be able to expect, but it’s not the reality, especially when they’re confronting someone who is black. I don’t think there are many African-Americans who would say what Dan Siegel said. When you call the police, it’s out of your control. What they do and how they do it, is up to them.
I do not expect Israel to act in a “reasonable, cautious manner”, nor do I expect the same of the police. And we shouldn’t think that because its Berkeley it’s any different. I wrote a little “know your rights” card for homeless people in which I describe the rights they have to be on the streets and the limits of police power. But I include in this card a little warning ina box that goes “Just because police have an obligation to protect and observe your rights doesn’t mean that they will. same thing goes for judges. How the law is to be interpreted can be a matter of opinion. So insist on your rights but don’t be surpised if you don’t get them.
I think that’s a better attitude than have than the expectation Dan Siegel expressed.
I said at the beginning I have trouble reconciling these days my conflicting thoughts and feelings. That applies to my thoughts and feelings about KPFA, which I love and care about. The divisons and the rancor that seems to be rife at KPFA pain me. I have friends on all sides if there are sides. In the videotape of the incident with Nadra, I can see Kris Welch standing around the corner, who can overheard explaining why the police were called. kris is a friend as is her wonderful daughter Nicholas. Dan Siegel has done much good work in his life. I want to say with Rodney King “Can’t we all just get along?”. but I know we can’t, not until we’ve done work that won’t come easy, until mistakes are acknowledged, amends are made, and a way found to bridge difference.
These are difficult, amazing times. We better get our shit together