Monday, July 12, 2010
My purpose in writing this post is to examine the incident in light of the ambivalent relationship between BART and the communities associated with Oscar Grant, the impoverished, predominately neighborhoods of color in the East Bay. Planning for BART predates World War II, and financing for the system was put in place in the early 1960s. Trains began running in 1972, with the Transbay Tube opening in 1974. Trains ran between the Daly City station south of San Francisco and the Fremont, Concord and Richmond stations in the East Bay. It is fair to say that no infrastructure project of the last 60 years, with the possible exception of the interstate highway system, has had as much of an influence on the Bay Area.
In conjunction with the interstate highway system, BART facilitated the ongoing suburbanization on the east of eastern Contra Costa and southern Alameda counties, across the hills from Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond,fueling population growth in cities like Concord, Pleasanton, Lafayette, Livermore, Hercules and Pinole, among others. People who moved to these places could take the interstate to a BART station, and then commute to work in the East Bay or the City. Given that three of the four train lines traversed the financial district in downtown San Francisco (and still do), the result was the intensification of highrise development, a process that went by the name of Manhattanization. San Francisco was transformed into a central city employment and entertainment destination after a long history of economically diverse interconnected neighborhoods.
For East Bay cities like Oakland, Richmond and Hayward, BART was just another excuse for white flight, leaving behind, first, islands of poor, predominately African American neighborhoods, and then, as a result of Latino and Asian immigration, poor, predominately neighborhoods of color. The departing middle class could now travel through these neighborhoods while safely esconsced inside comfortable, silver high speed metallic trains. Later, people priced out of expensive real estate markets by the bay found themselves relying upon them as well. BART was a physical manifestation of the phenomenon of physical isolation that rendered lower income communities west of the hills subject to the economic asphyiation of Reaganism and neoliberalism. By placing these communities out of sight, it was then fairly easy to initiate the demonization of the people within them as expressions of various artificially created social pathologies.
There reverse side of this coin of suburbanization was the increased mobility that BART provided for young people, including those who lived the lower income communities of the East Bay. I have traveled on BART frequently over the last 30 years, and I have observed how young people have come to rely upon it more and more as a form of social networking. Before there was Facebook, there was BART. Teens and young adults move between San Francisco, the East Bay and the East Bay suburbs almost effortlessly. Within a day, one could see friends in the Mission, go to a concert in Oakland or Berkeley and then return home. By adding one's bike to the equation, one's range grows even greater. Oscar Grant himself was an example of this in the hours before he was killed when he traveled from Hayward to the Embarcardero in San Francisco to participate in the New Year's Eve celebration there. Without BART, he and his friends may well have decided to do something else because of difficulty of driving into the City and the cost of parking once they arrived.
But there is a problem. The suburbanites that use BART to travel to work and entertainment activities all around the bay find these young people rather unnerving. Like most young people, they can be boisterous and sometimes rude. A few, it must be conceded, commit crimes, although I am not sure whether they do so at a rate substantially higher than older adults. So BART faces a dilemma: how to manage a system so as to maintain the confidence of those who use it to commute to work and travel to evening entertainment events, like, say, a baseball game at AT&T Park. Not surprisingly, the response has been to rely upon a highly visible police presence, and the characterization of young people traveling on the system as anticipated perils.
It was this, the collision between the fears of an older, more suburban ridership, and the social exploitation of it by young people, that contributed to the killing of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. On New Year's Eve, BART trains operated into the early morning hours past the usual midnight shut down of the system. Officers on duty that evening were instructed to anticipate potentially serious problems with rowdy young New Year's Eve celebrants. According to BART, a couple of guns had been recovered on the line in the hour before the shooting, and Mehserle had been involved in an incident earlier that evening when a teen age boy with a semi-automatic weapon had broken bones after jumping over a fence. Given BART's spotty, seemingly self-interested, record of public disclosure and disinterest in promptly communicating with the witnesses to the incident, I will leave it to the reader to decide whether these events actually happened. Just prior to the shooting of Grant, BART police were responding to reports that up to 20 people were involved in a fight on the BART train approaching Fruitvale station.
Grant did not know it, but, as he was traveling home on the Fruitvale line, he satisfied two of the major criteria for being targeted by the police as the source of the reported trouble on the train, he was young, and he was a black male. As the train arrived, another BART police officer, Tony Pirone, was detaining a drunk man in the station. Pirone ran upstairs to meet the train, and forcibly detained Grant, ordering Mehserle to arrest Grant and a friend for, yes, resisting arrest. Of course, one is immediately struck by Pirone's decision to detain Grant, who was, after all, getting off the train, without any apparent effort to determine if the report was true, and, if so, what assertion of authority was required. Immediately thereafter, Mehserle pulled out his gun, shot Grant in the back as he lay on the ground, and killed him. Three eyewitnesses testified at Mehserle's trial that neither Grant nor his friend resisted, and expressed disgust at the aggressive conduct of the officers.