Recently, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association questioned the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter, accusing the movement of inciting protests over violence committed by police while failing to condemn violence against police.
The POA’s statement shows that the organization fundamentally misunderstands the mission of Black Lives Matter. And it makes me in turn question the POA’s legitimacy.
Where was the POA’s outrage when one of its own, San Jose police Officer Phil White, threatened violence against Black Lives Matter supporters on Twitter? What about the systemic violence by American law enforcement that disproportionately claims the lives of black people? Has the union lost its moral compass?
Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law enforcement agencies across the nation at every level of government have been blurring the line between cop and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment, the San Jose POA seems to have adopted an “us against them” mindset that should be reserved for the battlefield.
When the people appointed to serve and protect become a force that kills more than 1,000 citizens in a one-year span, then we need to take a critical look at how we got here.
An officer-involved shooting that took place just after 2am on Jan. 1, 2009, at the Fruitvale BART station changed my life forever. BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle un-holstered his Sig-Sauer P226 to fatally shoot my nephew Oscar Grant. My unarmed nephew, murdered at point-blank range by a man sworn to serve and protect.
When I heard the news, I fell to the ground in my mother’s home. Though I was furious, I was so grateful for the last text message I had sent to Oscar before he died: “Uncle loves you, God loves you, and God loves your family.”
The shot that took Oscar’s life an hour-and-a-half after I sent that text helped galvanize the movement that later became known as Black Lives Matter.
The Black Lives Matter mantra is not new to Oakland or the Bay Area. When black families migrated to the East Bay during the WWII industrial era, the Oakland Police Department began openly recruiting officers from the Deep South to impose an unjust Jim Crow-inspired rule of law.
In 1950, the antagonism and brutality waged by law enforcement against African-Americans in the Bay Area led the California State Assembly Committee on Crime and Correction to host hearings on police violence.
Those hearings decades ago were part of a larger, community-based struggle against police brutality in the Bay Area. The civil rights activism in the 1940s and 1950s—especially the organizing against police brutality—led to the emergence of 1960s activism in the Bay Area and eventually of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966.
Remember that Black Lives Matter was built upon that legacy of civil rights activism and the advocacy of families directly affected by police brutality.
The Oscar Grant movement paved the way for Black Lives Matter and led to the first time in California history that an on-duty police officer who killed an innocent black person was charged, arrested, convicted, and sent to jail.
Black Lives Matter demands that elected officials, media and others join their movement to end extrajudicial police killings and hold officers accountable for their actions. Today, the emphasis on Black Lives Matter is critical for the sake of justice and democracy.
Black Lives Matter will not be criminalized, diminished or ostracized by the San Jose POA, whose press release last month incited further animosity when the aim should be to improve community-police dialogue. The tone echoed a mindset of the battlefield.
San Jose Officer Phil White was fired in October 2015 and reinstated with the police union’s help in February 2016 after using social media to send threatening tweets to Black Lives Matter supporters. That the union failed to condemn Officer White but hastily points the finger at Black Lives Matter begs the question of whether it has lost its moral bearings.
Before making demands of Black Lives Matter, the union should hold its own members accountable. The hypocrisy must stop for a dialogue to start.
Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, a San Jose resident whose nephew Oscar Grant was fatally shot by BART police, wrote this op-ed for San Jose Inside. A systems engineer by day, he co-founded the Love Not Blood Campaign Foundation with his wife Beatrice X. Johnson. In the years since Oscar Grant’s death in 2009, Uncle Bobby has become a resource for other families bereaved by police violence, including the families of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.