Oscar Grant and Social Narratives

Situations such as the shooting of Oscar Grant provide us with a rare opportunity to examine the narratives of our society in their most naked form. Once one can detach from being a partisan of one predetermined “side” or another, these underlying stories become painfully obvious. Which naturally does not diminish the core fact: that an unarmed man was shot in the back. In order to evaluate the situation fully, however, I find it useful to apply a kind of “two truths” approach. In the Two Truths school of Mahayana Buddhism, the fact that the ultimate reality is emptiness does not negate the need to engage the impermanent, transitory existence we experience in samsara. In much the same way, the stories that make up the layers of confusion on both “sides” of the Oscar Grant situation cannot be ignored. For their labyrinth of distortions throws light on the Big Question of Why We Are So Totally Fucked Right Now.

What we have here is two opposite stories each with equally compelling emotional cores. On the one hand, there is the Conventional Law and Order Story. In this narrative, the police are inherently good. They exist to protect society from the forces of chaos and disruption. They may make mistakes, but most would rather they erred on the side of being a little too
rough than allowing the devil in the door.

In the language of the Eight Circuit Model, the police act something like society’s second, territorial circuit. They are seen in purely defensive terms. It is important to understand this: the police are never perceived by those deeply embedded in the common worldview to be aggressors. So, it is easier to believe that an Oscar Grant ultimately “brought it on himself” than it is to consider the possibility that the officer in question held a prejudice against him and acted blindly based on that prejudice.

From the other end, we have the Oppressive Racist Society Story. This, too, is a variation on the second circuit base narrative of delineating cultural “space” and “boundaries.” From this point of view, ethnic minorities, primarily Black and Latino communities, are the object of institutional oppression. The police are tools of that oppression. Another gang, this one working for the economic and political interests which wish to “keep the Black Man down.” In this scenario, the territorial imperative is expressed in terms of siege, rather than maintaining established boundaries. (Mostly. One could argue that a certain level of cultural power bestows itself on those who “top from the bottom.”)

Both of these stories have an element of truth, and an element of falsehood, or exaggeration. This happens at exactly the moment when the two parties transform into synecdoches, when “Oscar Grant” becomes a signifier for “All Black Men” and “Johannes Mehserle.” becomes “All Cops.” At that moment, the situation disintegrates into violence and name calling, since all one can do is decide which party is “correct” based on how they feel about which group.

Part of the reason We Are So Totally Fucked Right Now is that we tend to get forced into “buying” one of these stories in the same way we buy a brand of soap or a video game system. One is expected to either be willing to riot or march in the street, or to be perfectly content with the fact that people are getting shot in the back. That there is a bigger story to be told here, about how we relate to figures of authority and to marginalized populations, gets lost in the ruckus of “no justice, no peace!”

Until we learn to look at the underlying stories involved, and how we react based on them, that phrase will describe our world perfectly.

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