Holding Space for Oscar Grant

I started to write this post sitting at home in Oakland, CA on Thursday evening, July 8, helicopters overhead and sirens in the streets as our city reacted to the verdict of the Oscar Grant-Johannes Mehserle trial. The ruling of Involuntary Manslaughter in this case (of a white police officer fatally shooting a young black male — who was unarmed, cuffed, and already on the ground) is largely viewed as unjust. The community has been bracing itself for this verdict for weeks. I, for one, am left speechless. Which is usually a good time for me to start writing.

So, here goes.

Ok, full disclosure.

When something like this happens — huge, historical, controversial, tragic — you lose me. Not because I’m not interested, but because it’s almost too sad for me to comprehend. And yes, because I feel like everyone in the world automatically knows more about it than I do. Who are you to talk about the oil spill? my inner critic screams. What the heck do you know about the Middle East? Or in this case, Hey white girl, care to comment on Oscar Grant?

I stopped writing this post on Thursday so that I could watch the crowd gather at the corner of 14th and Broadway, outside the office building where I’ve been teaching music to Oakland high school students for the last year. I stopped writing because I wanted to experience what I was feeling in the moment instead of already trying to document it. I stopped writing because I was scared — what if I say the wrong thing? What if I don’t have all of the facts? What if I offend people? Who the heck am I to comment on Oscar Grant?

Well folks, who am I NOT to comment? I don’t know how we get through times like these if we all don’t pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and get to talking. So when I woke up Friday to headlines of Oakland riots and looting, my fear and ego were trumped by a healthy dose of anger. Here goes.

What will you do?

The scene in Oakland started peacefully, though tense. Earlier Thursday afternoon, word got out that the verdict would be announced at 4:00pm and the city erupted with people getting the heck out of dodge. Immediately, the media coverage struck me as odd — this was more about how Oakland would react to the verdict than the verdict itself. When “involuntary manslaughter” came across every screen (and appeared in every Facebook status message of my friends), I watched as the Oakland exodus shifted from getting out, to getting in.

Hundreds gathered at Civic Center plaza, but it was strange — the peaceful protesters just were not giving the media what it seemed to so desperately want. Many people refused interviews and walked away from the questioning news anchors, and I watched as the cameras panned over the speakers promoting peace and unity to catch whatever scuffle could be erupting as the police presence increased.

And increase it did. Lines of officers in riot gear unraveled onto Broadway; from the aerial view of the helicopters they indeed resembled toy soldiers. And you know what? They felt scarier than any of the potential chaos they were there to contain.

Perfect storm

The irony of a police presence at a rally protesting the unjust behavior of police is, well, undeniable. But how do you deal with this situation? Of course I understand why they were there. And, like our service men and women in the army, I have the utmost respect for those who choose to protect and serve even though it is not a choice I make for myself (nor a system I believe is unflawed).

So here is this perfect storm. A sea of tense but peaceful community members, lines of cops in shields and masks, and the media chanting, what will you do? What will you do?

Here to listen

As the cameras panned the storm, I noticed a man wearing a white t-shirt with simple black lettering that read, “Here To Listen.” My dear friend Kara, who was at the rally, told me that she saw several people with similar shirts, and a group of community volunteers in orange vests who had been trained to assist, organize, and be. Here to listen.

How do we hold space for this kind of anger? How do we hold space for this kind of tragedy — both the unbelievable killing of Oscar Grant and the system of justice for Officer Mehserle? The media and police shouted what will you do, but Kara says the protesters also questioned each other — what CAN we do?

I would never condone any kind of violence and I am indeed devastated by the looting that ruptured as soon as the sun went down. (For the record, published reports state that of the 78 arrested, only 19 were Oakland residents. One was my friend’s step-mom, who was simply rounded up in the chaos.) But I do have to say that I understand the need to acknowledge and process rage. That to go immediately from hearing this news to We Shall Overcome just doesn’t feel real. That to skip the stage of anger in fear that it will lead to violence is not an authentic way of processing these events. Must we burn buildings? I don’t know. Must we turn on each other to show the police that they have no real power? At what cost? Shall we open every gymnasium in the Bay Area for access to punching bags? Heck, maybe.

Holding space

I couldn’t write this piece until I acknowledged my own fear (and yeah, that fear is still there!). If I may stretch this metaphor — I don’t know how we, as a community, can move forward in peace until we are able to acknowledge our anger. They are not separate. For me, being the change I want to see in the world means owning every authentic emotion — devastation, fear, elation, and you betcha, a healthy dose of rage. Do I feel that our communities are most strongly united in joy? Yes, I do. But not by sweeping anger under the rug. Besides, that rug is a transparent bugger, and rage has a funny way of billowing up through its seams…

What do you think? How do you hold space for anger — both in your personal life and at the community/political/universal levels? How do you hold space for all of your feelings, even when they are conflicting?

They said we would respond like animals and put a plan in place to round us up when we did. I left the rally as soon as I saw the writing on the walls. Then sat here helpless as I watched on the news the trap close in on the people of my city who, still thinking we were making a statement, set fires and smashed windows in lock step with the diagram of our disobedience that had been drawn up days ago. And a big part of me wishes I hadn’t left. That I had stayed and broken and burned and been arrested because now I don’t know what to do with all of this anger and embarrassment. — Daveed Diggs, “Notes from a Rally/Riot” July 8, 2010


Lauren Nagel is a writer, musician, and educator living in Oakland, CA. She is the Editor-in-Pink of OwningPink.com and a contributing writer for San Francisco music magazine, The Owl Mag. Contact her at lauren@owningpink.com


charmaine c.
Charmaine C7 years ago

Ghandi said it best for me: "However much I may sympathize with and admire worthy motives, I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes."

An emotive and well written article. People must reconnect with their humanity, to regain respect and compassion for each other and all other beings who share this planet with us.

Hanan W.
Hana W7 years ago

The writer has given us a descriptive, introspective, and emotion charged image of a city and people in crisis. Where there is injustice there is imbalance as you have described. This situation could have occurred in almost any major American city I believe--the unjust verdict and community rage! My hope is that the Oakland, Californians of the world can find peace, justice and balance...

Pauline Part
Pauline Part7 years ago

Have you seen the movie 'To Kill a Mocking bird'

Linda L.
Linda L7 years ago

Wow, amoving article. May the family find peace. I hope nothing like this happens here in America again. We have came a long way , but are not done traveling the road to equality yet.

William Kirkham
William K7 years ago

I work in Oakland and we evacuated our building late Friday afternoon once the verdict came out, and came back to the broken windows and other residue of vandalism the next day.

This article was personally touching. Thank you.

Alicia N.
Alicia N7 years ago

REST IN PEACE Oscar Grant-Johannes........... and for the family : I am very sorry for what happened to Oscar and my sincere condolences. God bless you always.

Sherry S.
Sherry S7 years ago

This is all very tragic - both for the victim as well as for the police officers who go about their jobs - really crappy jobs - bravely and with honor. They are blackened by the stigma of a few rotten cops. And that poor man's family. The author is absolutely right - what do we do? I don't know. We are taught as children that the police will protect us. And then we see this - of course I was also taught that if I was good when I grew up I'd have a husband and a house with a picket fence and two lovely children. Didn't happen. Maybe this is just an awakening. I am so sorry. I wish it were enough.

Emmajade G.
.7 years ago

One more thing you can do: pass the word about the Southern Poverty Law Center (http://www.splcenter.org/) and its Teaching Tolerance program (http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/teaching-tolerance). I don't usually advocate a specific group but this organization has done more to fight racism than any other that I know. Please, check them out and, if you think it worth your time and/or money, help them to put their information in classrooms everywhere. Tolerance is a worthy subject in our schools and breaking the backs of racist organizations by civil litigation is working. Thank you.

Kathy M.
Kathleen M7 years ago

"Must we burn buildings? I don’t know."

Are you kidding me?! There is NO justification to setting fires, ever! There could easily be people and pets in buildings that would suffer and possibly die. Even if there was no life inside (and one can never be certain of that), destroying property of innocents who work there or have dealings there is just nasty. Someone might have the only remaining photo of their dead child on a desk that gets burned. Maybe that person is an activist who was destined to make strides in fighting racial injustice and getting better laws passed, but because of the fire they never pursued the cause.

I don't care how angry someone is, or a group of people are - you just don't burn buildings, beat, shoot, lynch or anything else that is violent. Ghandi would be rolling over in his grave!

There is NO justification for shooting (or beating) a person who is already contained and therefore not a threat. I'm sick of authority figures getting away with brutality too, and something DOES need to be done - but setting fires and causing destruction is not the answer.

How about having the community do long term sit-ins, write songs about the tragedy of the abuse of power by those who are supposed to "serve and protect", having the community withdraw support from the police department (such as not donating or having fund raisers, buying their stickers, acknowledging them in parades, etc.) until they show that unnecessary force will not be tolerated...

ambie is
ambie is7 years ago

thank you for sharing this!