Two standards of grief

March 30, 2009

Dana Blanchard looks behind the sensationalistic media coverage of the killing of four Oakland police officers to examine the factors that led to the tragedy.

ON MARCH 27, thousands of police from California massed at the Oracle Arena in Oakland to pay tribute to the four Oakland police officers who were shot and killed the previous weekend by 26-year-old Lovelle Mixon.

Two of the officers were shot by Mixon during what was called a routine traffic stop in impoverished East Oakland. Mixon, apparently terrified of being sent back to prison, then fled to his sister's apartment, where he killed two more officers before being gunned down by police in an operation that terrorized the residential neighborhood for almost an hour.

The memorial service was broadcast on all the major news networks, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein flew in from Washington to pay her respects, along with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and State Attorney General Jerry Brown.

The spectacle at the sports stadium is being used to rehabilitate the scandal-ridden Oakland Police Department and draw attention away from the police shooting of Oscar Grant III on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station platform on New Year's Day.

Lovelle Mixon's mother and wife among the mourners during a vigil on March 25
Lovelle Mixon's mother and wife among the mourners during a vigil on March 25 (Dave Id |

But the funeral pageantry has been unable to hide the broken system of prisons and parole that leave former inmates like Mixon--who had been in and out of prison for almost half of his life--without jobs, homes, education or hope.

In contrast to the scene at Oracle Arena is the mourning of Lovelle Mixon's family members, who are trying to call attention to his plight. Two days before the stadium event, the family was part of a procession through East Oakland. The participants wore T-shirts emblazoned with Mixon's picture and tried to understand how their loved one ended up in this situation.

Lolo Darnell, one of Mixon's cousins who was at the demonstration, said, "He needs sympathy, too. If he's a criminal, everybody's a criminal."

There has been no letter from President Barack Obama to Mixon's family, nor a public funeral or big-name speakers on his behalf. There has, however, been a lot of quiet support for family members from the community, which knows what if feels like to be occupied by the Oakland police and can empathize with a man desperate to stay out of jail who saw no options for himself.

On the Internet, local listservs are filled with comments asking questions like the Oakland police will stop acting like an occupying army that treats residents "like terrorists in their own neighborhood." On the sides of the boarded-up apartment building where Mixon made his final stand against dozens of SWAT team officers, there are impromptu messages like "Stop state killing" and "RIP L.M."

THE TWO standards of grief in this tragedy are even more clear when considered against the backdrop of Oscar Grant's killing on New Year's Day by BART police officer Joahnnes Mehserle.

The struggle to win justice for Oscar and his family has taken to the streets in demonstrations of thousands, forcing the Alameda County District Attorney to charge Mehserle with murder. But even in this case of the death of a young man whose only crime was being Black, the state has been pretty clear where its sympathies lie.

Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums was one of the first on the scene at Highland Hospital to grieve with the slain officers' families after Lovelle Mixon shot them. But he made excuses for the BART police who stood by and watched Oscar Grant die, and who subsequently arrested and brutalized his friends.

As Jack Bryson, the father of two of the young men on the platform with Oscar that night, put it, "Some lives are worth more than others. Where was Governor Schwarzenegger when Oscar got killed?"

At a recent town hall meeting, local Black ministers made the connections between the murder of Oscar Grant and the reasons why four cops were killed in Oakland. "This young man [Lovelle Mixon] has been in the system for 12 years," one of the ministers said. "He was not a violent man when he went in, the system made him that way. These cops were not born racist, the system made them that way."

The need to continue to press for the police to be held accountable in Oscar's death was made even clearer in the aftermath of the shooting of the four officers. Mehserle's first court hearing was postponed until May last week--because Mehserle's attorney, a former officer, said he was too distraught over the loss of his department friends to provide adequate counsel.

This excuse rings hollow to many of us who have seen countless defendants without means represented by inadequate attorneys and shuffled off to prison without a second thought.

THE RESPONSE from the community shows that many people--especially people of color who have been living through the violence of economic crisis and police brutality--feel that what Lovelle Mixon did wasn't simply a senseless act of violence, but was rooted in the whole relationship of Blacks and Latinos to the criminal justice system in Oakland.

Mixon was 26 years old when he died after the SWAT team raided his sister's house. He had just been released after serving nine months in prison for identity theft and forgery. It was his second time in prison--previously, he served six years as a youth for his part in an armed robbery.

After parole officers went several times to his mother's house to find Mixon after a missed appointment in February, a warrant was issued for his arrest. When Mixon was pulled over that day, he knew he was headed back to prison.

It's neither surprising nor unusual for people serving time in California state prisons to get out and then be sent right back after being paroled--over 70 percent of parolees in the state return to prison within three years.

Why? California is in the midst of a severe economic and fiscal crisis, with an unemployment rate of 10 percent. That means there are almost no job prospects or social services for parolees and their families. Lovelle Mixon was depressed and violent not because that's who he was, but because the system made him that way.

Attorney General Jerry Brown acknowledges that the criminal justice system didn't work in this case, but rather than propose providing money for social services and job training for those caught up in the system, his solution is more cops on the streets and more harassment by parole officers.

Brown, for example, proposed that the state highway patrol, county sheriff's department and the city police force "should have a list of the more dangerous, threatening parolees so they can keep a watch on them." What evidence does Brown have that Lovelle Mixon was any more threatening than anyone else? Nothing more than false accusations and a record showing he was unable to find work.

Brown went so far as to say that there could have been as many as "a hundred shooters" in East Oakland--and no wonder, if his criteria for what makes a person violent is that they are depressed, unemployed and sick of the system.

This racist assessment of the Oakland community by people like Jerry Brown goes hand in hand with the call for the militarization of the police and more cops on the streets. It is up to us to organize for an alternative and stand up for all the victims of police brutality. We shouldn't allow the shooting of four police officers to be used as a way to downplay the murder of Oscar Grant and to justify choices about the budget that mean more spending on cops, and less on social services and schools.

We in Oakland have had enough of police terror, gentrification and racism. We demand our humanity and our community back, in the name of Oscar Grant and Lovelle Mixon.

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