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The Master's Mehserle Cannot Dismantle the Master's House
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by Rev. Lynice Pinkard

The emphasis on conviction and harsh sentencing for Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, in Oakland on New Years morning, 2009, not only distracts us from but actively prevents us from addressing the real systemic sickness that led to this death and many millions gone.

 

Let's be clear: The shooting of Oscar Grant in the back by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was horrific, but it was not "crazy." It was not the act of a rogue cop or even a "poorly trained" one. In reality, the forces of unbridled self-interest and private ownership, interlinked with and supported by white supremacy, have so shaped what it means to be a police officer that Johannes Mehserle was doing little more than what he was set up to do. The job of a police officer is to "preserve order," and specifically to preserve the existing order. In the American context, this means preserving a fundamentally unjust order, a culturally and economically imperialist system that subjugates and exploits large numbers of people in order to secure privileges and spoils for a few.

 

The fictional reality of "race" has been and continues to be used to justify the subjugation and exploitation of communities of color and the consolidation of power and resources in the hands of white people. To be specific, white people seized control of national, political and economic power; informed black people that both God and nature had divided human populations into the white race and the black race and made the white race better; imposed a system of free market capitalism; segregated housing, jobs, health care and education along the color line so that the white race gets the best of everything; attributed the differences in life opportunities to individual merit or fortune-not race-and prohibited public expressions of race hatred or favoritism while privately nursing race pathologies that influence every sphere of public action and public policy in America and around the world.

 

As part of this same effort to "preserve order" in a racist and imperialist system, white people have maintained their power to use race to oppress black people and other people of color by appearing to concede that black people need some protection from "discrimination" and then giving them "race" protection. Race protection means formal race equality-that neither the white-controlled government nor certain white-owned private businesses may discriminate because of race-anybody's race, black or white. Whites are able to maintain their political and economic power because any request made by black people for help to recover from their race exclusion is characterized as "race" help, and that is the very thing antidiscrimination law has forbidden: "discrimination on the basis of race." So, whites now use the racialized ideologies upon which they have based their seizure of power from blacks as a reason to deny material assistance to blacks, because such help favors one racial group over another. As custodians of the race concept, white people decide when race is really the issue in any contest between blacks and whites, and thus effectively prevent black people from gaining, in the name of race neutrality, any benefit, i.e., affirmative action, or more to the point, any right, i.e., justice in American courts, that doesn't benefit whites equally, or indeed more.

 

These are the "race" facts of life in America-yesterday, today and tomorrow. Is it any wonder that black people are angry? This anger, bred of centuries of disenfranchisement, is a threat toward the dismantling of repressive systems and thus "requires" policing.

 

And that brings us back to Johannes Mehserle. As "Officer" Mehserle, Johannes Mehserle served as one of the many law and order functionaries of the United States, sent out to contain the potentially explosive force of righteous anger. In order for him to effectively implement his role, it is important that the white officer be confused about the system he serves and the potentially revolutionary force he must police. If he understood the system, he would understand who and what he is "serving."

 

Of course Officer Mehserle is bewildered by Oscar Grant when he confronts him on the BART platform, not only because his experience is incommensurate with Grant's experience, but also because the "hate" and "contempt" in Grant's eyes reflect Mehserle's true position far too well to maintain comfort. The officer is startled and confused by the loathing expressed by the colonized subject. Perhaps Mehserle eventually comes to believe that if he can just make the system work as it should and demonstrate his real commitment to the "hostile" youngsters in "chaotic," urban communities, all will be well. Of course, this is a terrible deception. The system already works as it should. Mehserle's struggles, his failures, and even his successes have been accounted for and calculated to accelerate rather than impede the oppression of his charges-the Oscar Grants of the city.

 

Try to imagine Mehserle, later, after the shooting incident, looking at his name on the police report-OFFICER MEHSERLE, a powerful synecdoche of his interpolation into the system he serves. Suddenly Johannes Mehserle has truly become Officer Mehserle. The title gives his role the power of the overseer, the privileged servant of the oppressor. In this context his name has become monstrous and unrecognizable. Here we see a colonizer gazing directly at a "mark of power," something that forces him into the nauseating realm of ambivalence. Though the name seems wrong, it is correct. It is certainly "spelled right." It just seems to break down. Like Heiddigger's broken hammer, its essence is most clear, most real, but most disturbing when it falls out of the utilitarian structures it usually inhabits. Officer Mehserle is not used to seeing himself as a servant oppressor-as a cold, white title in hard black print. He is made to realize, however briefly and however subconsciously, that his original desires, as a "caring" public servant, will be twisted to serve the requirements of the system. What can he do about it?

 

For millennia, people in positions of power, including white people, have resisted participation in oppressive systems in powerful but constrained ways. Individuals make choices regarding how they will behave within the systems they occupy. Mehserle could absolutely have chosen differently on New Year's morning, but he couldn't have changed the BART Police Force on his own, much less what it means to be a police officer in general. Neither Mehserle nor any of us has the power to do this as an individual. Systems are embedded in history and bolstered by other mutually supportive systems. They resist change.

 

That is not to say that individual resistance is meaningless-quite the contrary. Individual acts of resistance are the sources of hope-the Biblical yeast that has the potential to leaven the whole loaf over time. (The problem is that we can't wait for the loaf to rise while more black men are killed by police officers.)

 

And in any case, that is not what Mehserle did. He did not choose to move against the grain but, as most people will do, he remained embedded in it, so of course he is defended and confused about the system he serves. He convinces himself that the "insanity" is limited, safely bordered on all sides by civilization. Even after the moment of confrontation with the horror of having served his true function, he will soon revert to an understanding of his role as the bringer of civilization, offering the rationality (or better, rationale) of "law" to the system and "order" to chaotic communities.

 

The language of "law and order" within law enforcement is used to mask both the murderous effect on the oppressed, and the dehumanizing effect on the oppressors. This is the "brutalization" and "decivilization" which Cesaire describes in Discourse on Colonialism: "First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism . . . ." [1]  This is the state of our current system-masking the murderous effects of empire systems on oppressed people and silencing the dehumanizing and brutalizing effects of empire systems on "servant" oppressors. (Furthermore, all of us occupy, at different times, the roles of both "oppressed" and "oppressor.[2]")

 

It will never be sufficient to talk about Oscar Grant and Johannes Mehserle as individuals. We must speak of them as parts of an empire system. Human communities are driven to demand that the "secret" sources of conflict result in the adoption of a single person who becomes the scapegoat for absolutely everyone[3]-Officer Mehserle, in this sense, becomes the common adversary of our focus, the surrogate of our collective neurosis. Mehserle,  

                                                                                                                                               

becomes a byword among the people,

and a creature on whose face to spit ....

At this honest men are shocked,

and the guiltless man rails against the godless;

just men grow more settled in their ways,

those whose hands [appear to be] clean become stronger."[4]

 

We cry for somebody to isolate the evildoer-in biblical terms, the "Jonah" whose presence is blamed for stormy sailing--and say, "Here we've got him, we've got him, and we're going to throw him out here in the ocean [or into the profoundly dysfunctional prison system], and then the race storms will subside."

 

Mehserle is transformed into a marvelous drug, dangerous, but in moderate doses, palliative, capable of soothing all illnesses. For everyone to join in cursing Mehserle is divine work because it strengthens the groups' harmony and applies a sovereign remedy to the community's wounds. Thanks to the scapegoat, even the most disinherited (young white anarchists for example) can participate in "the protest." In fact, thanks to Mehserle, they are partially integrated into the society that excludes them. But it is not just a question of the rabble. At the other extreme of the moral and social ladder exactly the same thing happens: The "innocent", the "righteous" (for example liberal whites and "ministers" of every hue)-those whose hands are "clean"-all take great comfort in the misfortune of the scapegoat.[5]

 

There is a direct connection between the casting down of the scapegoat-"a creature on whose face to spit"-and the consolation of all "good citizens," the strengthening of the social order. This connection is so scandalous that most people refuse to even consider it. Rene Girard points out that according to Etienne Dhorme, a literal translation of ‘I have become a creature on whose face to spit' would read: "I will be a public Tophet," referring to a valley that was synonymous with public shame because it marked a place where the Judeans practiced human sacrifice.  Mehserle conveniently becomes a public repository of our collective shame because he stands in for all of us who seek to mask not only our practices of human sacrifice, but also our shame at our shared complicity in the system's sacrifice of countless Oscar Grants.[6]

 

All Americans, no matter their race, ethnicity, or class, cleave to sentimental conceptions of everything. In other words, we want the benefit of having an emotion-for example, righteous indignation-without paying for it.  It is sentimental and unrealistic, given America's demonstrated history of racism, to suppose that Oscar Grant or any people who have been forced to live with and who consequently, have internalized countless forms of oppression and exploitation will continue to step onto life's "platform" filled with love and forgiveness for white police officers and free of any "race" hatred or animosity. It is also sentimental and unrealistic, after the centuries-long build up of fear, in white people, of reprisals by oppressed peoples in America and around the world, and the centuries-long build up of collective shame in white people about their never-ending complicity in the American empire's sacrifice of black people and other people of color, to believe that Mehserle-a foil, a man soon to become an object of unanimous execration, analogous to James Earl Ray-was anything but overwhelmed, confused, and terrified at the mere presence of a group of black youngsters gathered anywhere.

 

Not only that, but when Mehserle pulled out a gun and shot Oscar Grant in the back in the early morning hours of New Year's day 2009, the weight of history was resting on a BART platform. Though not visible-countless murdered black men lay on the platform with Grant-witnesses all-Lamar Smith and Emmit Louis Till, Rev. George Wesley Lee and Medger Evers, John Earl Reese and Willie Edwards Jr., Herbert Lee and Louis Allen and William Louis Moore and Rev. Bruce Klunder and Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr. and Ben Chester White and Wharlest Jackson and Martin King, Jr.  Mehserle was confused and overwhelmed by the invisible power of this silent cloud of witnesses, and he reacted by succumbing to the terror in his own head and heart.

 

Johannes Mehserle is trained by this history to be afraid of his own shadow. He was blinded by his shadow. Oscar Grant was rendered invisible (while under surveillance) as he became Mehserle's shadow. Mehserle unquestioningly acts out his assigned role in the civil war that exists in his own soul and in the soul of all American servant oppressors everywhere.

 

We servant oppressors have all been thought of and our consent has already been manufactured-whether we consent to use guns or school books or church bells or television sets or department store mannequins to prop up the system-all of us, rich and poor, gay and straight, progressive or liberal or conservative, are intended to serve an imperial agenda and do the killing in an imperial war.

 

But wait just a minute! We like to think of ourselves as free and independent agents, able to serve our own interests, not controlled by anybody or anything. But as moderns and post-moderns, well-versed in post-structuralism, are we not well aware that we have been recruited from before we were born into a system that pre-existed us and that we are shaped to serve? We are always being pulled this way and that by unconscious forms of racism and classism, by heterosexism-a spawn of sexism-by ageism and ableism, by corporatism, and nationalism and globalism, militarism and capitalism-overarching structures of domination working in tandem.

 

The plantation of this world is so within us! We are fully implicated in a world that does not work, and in a day like this, a time like this, of perpetual violence, horrific brutality, ever-present danger, and constant vulnerability to whichever warlord threatens us, we can hardly imagine, much less live out, anything else.

 

The problem is that most of us face powers that are subtly a deep and constitutive part of our own lives. We have been attending the imperial seduction party for so long that it takes an unbelievable amount of commitment and discipline not to start involuntarily patting our feet and snapping our fingers and gyrating our hips the minute we hear the downbeat of the imperial drum.

 

Yes. We must continue to make ‘whiteness' visible; we must continue to critique disparities of power; we must continue to resist forms of denial of suffering and buy out of the death systems of our collective culture. But the essential primary issue is: where do I stand in relation to systems of domination, exploitation and violence?

 

For example, I believe that if Johannes Mehserle had been able to mount a heroic counter attack, not against his fear of Oscar Grant and the power of the visible and invisible witnesses on the platform but against the terror in his own soul, if he had been able to fully comprehend his own servant oppressor position, to fully understand that he cannot dismantle the master's house with the master's gun, are we to believe that anything but despair would have resulted.

 

Well, maybe. There is a kind of freedom that becomes possible when we understand the reality of the situation in which we are embedded, what it has cost us and why we have consented to pay the price.

 

To stop dancing to the beat of the death systems of our culture(s) will be costly, it will be painful, it will be lonely, it may even be fatal. But this is not necessarily bad news. When we begin to face the fact that we are all tangled up, and we cannot even untangle, much less resist the interwoven systems of domination, oppression, repression and alienation that those systems foster[7]-a broadly shared malady that I call Empire Affective Disorder-we have a new basis for engaging in principled coalitions and implementing collective projects of freedom.

 

Despair is a fine place to begin. I am reminded of the prophetic witness of Jeremiah, who cries out "my joy is gone, grief is upon me; my heart is sick; I cannot even comfort myself against sorrow because my heart is barely beating within me."  I also resonate with the collective depression, with the post-indeed ongoing-traumatic stress of the people of Judah when they proclaim, "The harvest is past and the summer is ended, and we are not saved-we are not delivered!"

 

Real despair is a powerful basis for our collective freedom projects because it has the potential to break down "us and them" divides and move us beyond blame and human sacrifice-sacrifice of any human. In fact, real despair necessitates reaching out to other people; if we don't, we are surely lost. Real despair moves us beyond ego-attachment ant into humility. There is something very powerful about being able to confess publicly our desperation and our need and our failings. See, self-congratulation and self-reliance preclude confession and vulnerability. And when the people of Judah in the book of Jeremiah were able to own that what they had come up with and what they had done was not working, then they made an opening for the Spirit of Life. When we confess that we need God's life-giving Spirit, a vulnerable self-opening to the mysterious presence of God happens. Despair alchemized by the Spirit of Life produces the capacity for holding the dialectic tension between sorrow and joy.  (The singer of the spiritual cries out "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen/ Nobody knows my sorrow/ Nobody knows the trouble I've seen/ Glory, hallelujah!")

 

See, like the book of Jeremiah, the aftermath of Oscar Grant's murder is not ultimately about political observation, power analysis or cultural yearning. The aftermath is about what people do with wounds that appear to be incurable; what we do with seemingly hopeless situations; what we do when we cannot find anything that will soothe our wounds and heal our broken hearts; what we do when we have helped to manufacture our own suffering and the suffering of others. What we are going to do when we run out of pat answers and "know it all conclusions."

 

The time for pilot studies on racism and poverty is past. Cognitive dispositions and analysis, data, by itself, has no power to measure the misery or to heal the wound. We have written and read books, we have participated in focus groups, we have sat around at community potlucks and coffee houses and talked and analyzed and deconstructed and reconstructed and organized rallies and created petitions and now, the harvest is past-we have watched many seasons, many years of June, July and August come and go-and the summer is ended-we have picked and picked and we have not been able to gain enough sustenance to sustain ourselves and our movements-and with all of our smarts, and with all of our books, and with all of our group discussions, we are still not delivered!

 

If we are going to be effective against the large scale forces of deathliness, we need the Spirit's life and the Spirit's wisdom and the Spirit's humility and the Spirit's wasteful lovingness, and the Spirit's reckless generosity and the Spirit's ceaseless compassion-which means that we need the Spirit. We can't receive the gifts of the Spirit without letting go of our defenses against it. When we let go of the defenses, we are ready to do whatever God wants us to do. This is really the question you know, "What does the Spirit of Life want to do here and now, through us, in the midst of the current crisis? How does the Spirit want to use us to bring life out of death?"

 

Luke says, "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty," and that is true no matter what the police or the government or any powers try to do to thwart it. This means that there is, despite all of the scripting, something moving in and among us, that is free, not colonized, not domesticated, by the police or anybody else. And this free and un-co-optable Spirit is empowering us, just as the Spirit enabled Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott-white middle class women-to work with Frederick Douglass to end slavery (however tenuous was their alliance), just as the Spirit empowered African American activist Ida B. Wells Barnett to work with white women like Jessie Daniel Ames and Lillian Smith to end lynching. It is the Spirit that longs for the flourishing of all life that enables people to work across lines of difference, to rise above our own self-interest and cross over into solidarity with all others, both laying down weapons and sharing assets.  This is what it means to be a "resurrected" human being. This is what enables us to implement God's mercy and justice and life-releasing power in this world. But, as Jesus says, it is a spring that comes up from the inmost being and spills over. We cannot minister the Spirit's life to others unless we are open to being made more and more fully alive ourselves.

 

Being connected to the power of the Spirit should always produce certain positive outcomes: more life, more love, more grace, more mercy, more compassion, more radical hospitality and welcome, more peace and greater Spirit-activated determination for producing a just and free society.

 

It is ultimately only the Spirit of Life that can interrupt the repetition compulsion-the tendency to act out on others the suffering we ourselves have experienced-and radically break the seemingly unbreakable matrix of domination and control held in place by human sacrifice, a matrix that exists both outside and inside of us.

 

Like the people of Judah in the book of Jeremiah, faithful people all over the Bay Area, are being called by the Spirit of Life, to the work of revolution-to Spirit revolution-to God's own revolutionary conflict.

 

Yes, absolutely resist empire and work to dismantle the domination system as represented by the police force. But the Spirit's way is not just to attack deathliness on its own terms or through its own modes. Audre Lorde spoke the gospel truth when she said that "we will never dismantle the master's house with the master's tools." We will never dismantle the law enforcement and "criminal injustice systems" by invoking or mimicking the mechanisms of those systems.

 

One of the primary characteristics that we see in empire and colonization is that they work from the top down and from the outside in. The Holy Spirit works from the bottom up and from the inside out.  I see examples of this in my own neighborhood of West Oakland. People's Grocery is doing groundbreaking work on food security in this low income community-growing and sourcing nutritious organic local food, teaching cooking and nutrition classes, hiring and training youth to staff produce stands in the neighborhood and advocate for supportive policies and legislation, and bringing neighbors together through the Grub Box program in which people of some means subsidize their own and a neighbor's community supported agriculture shares. At the same time, they are also exploring with Seminary of the Street ways to do deep spiritual and emotional healing around issues of racism, classism and gentrification with both their mostly white interns and largely African American community members. This work is bringing true resurrection life to this neighborhood.

 

Also, we at Seminary of the Street are just beginning to do the work of bringing genuine care and concern to the brokenness of the African American men who are dealing drugs in our neighborhood. We are bringing love and tenderness to the ungrieved losses, the relational estrangement, the internalized oppression, and also are challenging them to be accountable to the tradition of righteous struggle out of which they come. Then, as we build the relational capital and also bring in healing services like massage, yoga, support groups, we begin to form coalitions to make structural changes-meaningful work that pays a living wage, community safety patrols to replace police presence, restorative justice processes....As someone who occupies a number of frequently conflicting subject positions--African American, lesbian, Christian pastor--I recognize that many progressive people would like to jump over the relational work-the resurrection work-and impose the new structures tomorrow, but that simply won't work, and what's more, it just replicates the domination that this community has already experienced far too often.

 

These examples illustrate the scriptural yeast principle. We need to witness the power of a little yeast here and little yeast there, leavening and transforming the texture and the essence of this world system. We need to see the Gospel's principle of light in darkness; a little light in darkness here and a little light in darkness there will, that's God's promise, transform darkness to light. That is the way of the Spirit. It's not grandiose. It's not self-aggrandizing. Sometimes it is dramatic; often it is not. It is how the Spirit of Life--the life giving, life engendering power of God, will rupture in, healing and repairing what is broken and damaged by the deathly behavior of created beings and countering the baffling, cunning, death-dealing forces of empire. Let us be raised from the dead by the Spirit of Life and then we will harness, channel and gush out the energies of love and know the true power of resurrection-rising above ourselves and our own petty interests and living in peace.



[1] Cesaire, Amie. Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: monthly Review Press, 1972.

[2] This is undeniable. We witness what Freud calls "the repetition compulsion"-the tendency to act out onto others the pain that we ourselves have experienced-every time we are confronted with black-on-black community gun violence. Urban black and Latin neighborhoods are too often social Darwinian spaces in which people of color seek to gain access to power, property, and paper (money) by any means necessary. Note, despite the disparities of power, the striking similarities between "gangsterization" in the White House and the state house and financial America, on the one hand, and "gangsterization" in urban microdomination and economic systems (drug dealers and gang-bangers) on the other. Strikingly, we don't see critical masses of people of color protesting the violence and apathy-symptoms of internalized oppression-that have cost thousands of lives in urban neighbhorhoods.

[3] See, Girard, Rene, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. In Things Hidden, Rene Girard's point of departure is what he calls "memesis," the conflict that arises when human rivals compete to differentiate themselves from each other, yet succeed only in becoming more and more alike. At certain points in the life of a society, according to Girard, this mimetic conflict erupts into a crisis in which all difference dissolves in indiscriminate violence. In primitive societies, such crises were resolved by the "scapegoating mechanism," in which the community en masse, turned on an unpremeditated victim. See also, Girard, Rene, Job: the Victim of his People, pps. 69-73. 

[4] Job 17:6-9

[5] Girard, Rene, Job: The Victim of his People, p. 71

[6] Ibid, p.73

[7] Racism is merely one strap (ism) on the imperial boot that is interwoven with other straps (isms). 

Rev. Lynice Pinkard has dedicated her life to fostering solidarity by teasing out the interconnectedness of forms of suffering and injustice. Interested in the intersections between spiritual healing and organizing, Rev. Pinkard has worked extensively with gay and lesbian people of color, people living with HIV and AIDS, and families of victims of gun violence and other forms of trauma. She is currently the Director of Spiritual Community--and a kind of spiritual midwife--at Seminary of the Street, where she is helping to build an intercultural community committed to healing from and resistance to systems of domination and oppression—something she calls “empire affective disorder”--in West Oakland.