Excusing the Oakland Rioters
Looting is not a form of civil rights protest.
Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
In a remarkable demonstration of defining deviancy down, Oakland is congratulating itself for the scale of the riots that broke out July 8 in response to the verdict in a police shooting case. “So a hundred businesses were damaged and looted,” the conventional wisdom in Oakland holds, “so police were assaulted with rocks and bottles, a California Highway Patrol car’s windshield was smashed, and fires were set in the streets. Such violence is cause for relief because it could have been so much worse”—as indeed it was a year and a half ago, when the original incident occurred.
Ray Chavez, Polaris
On New Year’s Day 2009, a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer fatally shot an unarmed man at an Oakland subway station during a melee between fighting passengers and the police, who had been called to the station to subdue the violence. Several guns had already been found along BART train tracks that night. Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old father and parolee with a gun conviction, as Grant was lying on the platform face down. Mehserle claims that Grant was resisting arrest and seemed to be reaching for a gun, a claim disputed by some witnesses. Mehserle testified that he thought that he had grabbed his Taser; instead, he mistakenly reached for his gun. Evidence was presented at trial regarding BART’s failure to properly train its officers in Taser use during high-stress situations. The shooting—Mehserle was white and Grant black—set off a month of recurrent rioting in Oakland in January 2009. It was the transit officer’s conviction of involuntary manslaughter this July 8 that triggered the current round of riots, because, according to the race agitators, the unusually severe manslaughter verdict, arrived at after an aggressively prosecuted, immaculately fair trial, was not severe enough; the officer should have been convicted of murder.
Coverage of the violence’s effect on local businesses, already meager to begin with, has all but disappeared from the press. But before Americans’ usual oblivion regarding yesterday’s news sets in, it may be worth pondering a few matters regarding this latest episode of civil destruction.
- Who is compensating the Oakland business owners whose windows were shattered, merchandise cleaned out, and walls defaced with obscenities and slogans such as “Kill all cops!” and “Say no to work, yes to looting!”? (An entire store of sneakers, as well as jewelry—including diamond-studded “grills” worn over teeth—hair and cosmetic products, ice cream, cereal, and potato chips, were among the consolation prizes to which disappointed “justice”-seekers helped themselves. Photos show several grinning festively as they cart off their new shoes. Nearly every bank along one thoroughfare was broken into.) Even if insurance covers all the proprietors’ losses, their premiums, undoubtedly already high, will go even higher. The rioters should be forced to repay the costs of looting. The businesses that weren’t physically destroyed lost customers on Thursday as word of the impending verdict was broadcast, leading to a near evacuation of downtown as terrified commuters fled the area. Those entrepreneurs and their employees are also victims of the mayhem.
- Where are the official voices condemning this violence? Oakland mayor Ron Dellums may well have blasted the rioters for their assault on Oakland’s fragile civic order, but the available press coverage does not reflect any such pronouncements. His website contains a statement issued in anticipation of the verdict, but nothing since. That pre-verdict message is hardly a ringing endorsement of the American judicial system:
Translation: Unless you get the verdict you want, no matter how scrupulously due process was observed, “justice” will not have been done and the cause of racial grievance will live on. Dellums has welcomed the Justice Department’s superfluous investigation into the verdict. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) backed up that support by reminding U.S. attorney general Eric Holder in a letter that “we are still not in a place where we are judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin.”
Speaking to the press after this latest round of riots, Dellums portrayed the trashed businesses’ losses as the cost of “democracy”:
Actually, looting is not an inevitable concomitant of the exercise of speech rights.
- What is the contribution of the American elite’s anti-cop ideology to these still sadly-recurrent urban riots? A little over 24 hours after the destruction in Oakland’s downtown, a 30-year-old man was shot multiple times in East Oakland and killed. The next morning, another man was found dead in his car, also a suspected homicide victim. Neither of those killings received the slightest bit of attention from Oakland’s mayor or the activists who have been whipping up anti-cop, anti-society sentiment. The routine, daily bloodshed in inner cities is regarded as the ordinary course of affairs. The hundred or so homicides in Oakland each year are part of nearly 6,000 murders nationally committed by blacks, mostly of other blacks, compared to just over 5,300 homicides committed by whites and Hispanics combined. (Blacks are 12.8 percent of the U.S. population, whites and Hispanics, 81 percent.) Only in those extremely rare cases where a white police officer mistakenly shoots a black man do the activists, who allegedly care so much about the unjustified taking of black life, spring into action. (Needless to say, fatal police shootings of whites rarely get national press coverage and don’t raise fears of riots.)
Such a double standard regarding police shootings of blacks and criminal shootings of blacks is perfectly in keeping with elite priorities regarding crime and the police. The academic world and the media churn out a constant barrage of reports purporting to show that the police unfairly target blacks for unnecessary enforcement and that the criminal justice system is racist. Just last week, the New York Times delivered a long article on police stops in Brooklyn’s 73rd Precinct in Ocean Hill-Brownsville—part of an ongoing series on the New York Police Department’s stop rate of blacks, which is higher than the city’s black population rate (but lower than the black violent crime rate). The alleged bias against blacks is the only law enforcement topic that consistently gets media, professorial, and professional attention; the costs of crime on victims and society are beneath notice.
The prestigious law firm of Paul, Weiss sued New York City in January on the preposterous claim, inter alia, that police patrols in the city’s housing projects are “intentionally discriminatory” because the residents of those projects are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic—a typical big firm pro bono effort. The complaint, which is joined by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund and the Legal Aid Society, offers no suggestion as to how the NYPD is otherwise to combat the high rates of violent crime that afflict the city’s public housing residents. On Sunday, July 11, an 11-year-old girl was sodomized in an elevator in her Brooklyn housing project. The assailant escaped, but it is just such predation that trespass patrols in public housing stairwells, elevators, and roofs are designed to prevent.
The disproportionate rate of black crime is assiduously kept out of the public eye, whether through deliberate press policies to conceal the race of individual crime suspects or through an informal practice of suppressing aggregate crime data. The Times article on stop-and-frisks in the 73rd Precinct did not mention that the per capita rate of shootings there is 81 times higher than in the mostly white 68th precinct, to choose just one local benchmark; not surprisingly, the stop rate in the 73rd precinct is 15 times higher than in the 68th. Blacks in New York City commit 80 percent of all shootings, whites 1.4 percent, though blacks are 23 percent of the population, and whites 35 percent. Police tactics are color-blind; they target crime, not race. But given the reality of wildly disproportionate racial crime rates, rational, data-driven police activity cannot help but have a disproportionate impact on black neighborhoods, because that is where the overwhelming amount of violent crime occurs and where the victims who most need police protection live.
The drumbeat from the media, politicians, and the professoriate regarding alleged racial injustice in law enforcement is not innocuous. It creates the intellectual context in which rioting over trial verdicts and police shootings is expected and almost accepted. There is a nexus between the endless search for unexplained racial disparities in incarceration and arrests that occupies vast swathes of the legal academy and the sociology profession, and the belief among many blacks that the criminal justice system is stacked against them. If there were any countervailing interest among our opinion-makers in the contribution of proactive policing to urban revival or the enormous benefits of lowered crime to the social and economic health of minority neighborhoods or the fervent support for the police among many law-abiding blacks, the effects of the “law enforcement is racist” conceit would be mitigated. But in fact the “racist police and court system” trope is the only discourse about law enforcement that circulates in the upper reaches of intellectual and public culture. It is no surprise that it is echoed and sometimes acted on by the alleged victims of that racism as well.
Meanwhile, Oakland is already bracing for Officer Mehserle’s sentencing in November. For all of July, the entire Bay Area law enforcement community was on nervous riot alert while waiting for the trial verdict. A San Francisco police official predicts even more intense preparations as the sentence date nears. If Officer Mehserle is not given what the activists demand—the maximum 14 years in prison, though such a sentence might be inconsistent the jury’s finding of involuntary manslaughter—Oakland businesses could once again be cleaning up their shattered storefronts and salvaging what they can of their merchandise.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of Are Cops Racist?