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‘Pigs Go Home’: Oakland Riots Bring Out My Demons

New America Media, Commentary, Edwin Okong’o Posted: Jan 09, 2009

Editor’s Note: Young people in Oakland clashed with police Wednesday night in riots protesting the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by BART police. A Kenyan-born journalist who witnessed the violence was forced to confront his own resentment toward police.

The chants of “Pigs, go home! Pigs, go home!” sent a rush of immense pleasure through me as I walked the streets of Oakland Wednesday night, following young people protesting the police killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III on New Year’s Day.

It felt a little awkward for me as a journalist to be so subjective – to want to join the masses in reciting, “Pigs, go home.” But I felt justified because pigs have been tormenting me ever since I was as young as many of the youths in the streets that night.

After graduating from a Kenyan high school 18 year ago, pigs arrested me from my rural village and released me only after my poor parents paid a bribe. On another night, pigs in Kenya’s Rift Valley took me around on foot and set me free after two hours when they were absolutely sure that I had no money to give them.

I left Kenya in 1995 for the United States where, from what I had seen on television shows in Nairobi, the cops were friendly and courteous. But on one night in my first year in America, six Milpitas, Calif., police cruisers intercepted my car as I left a pizzeria with my teenage cousin and his two friends. They pointed guns at us and ordered us out of the car to the ground, face down. They handcuffed us, searched our pockets and when they didn’t find anything incriminating one of them said, “Someone reported that this car was stolen. You guys have a good night.” It is an excuse I would hear many more times.

Over the years I have had several police encounters that left me wondering if I had really made it to the land of the free. Many times during my drive home at night, a policeman would pull next to me at a stoplight. If I glanced at him and quickly looked away, he pulled me over. If I didn’t look at him, he pulled me over anyway. I once was in a car with my cousin when a San Jose policeman followed us for three miles and pulled us over because, he said, the car air freshener could distract the driver’s vision so much that he “might hit a kid.”

Most recently, in March 2008, a Minneapolis cop responding to a dispute between a cab driver and me walked over to the taxi where I was waiting with friends, pointed a Taser gun at us and said, “Get out, or I’m gonna Taser you.” We rushed out of the car to the curb. The policeman continued to threaten us with the Taser gun and ordered us to leave the area. When I told him that I was going to file a complaint against him for the way he handled the quarrel, he ordered me to the ground and took me to jail.

My experience at the hands of the police – coupled with the news that on New Year’s Day a policeman had shot and killed an unarmed black man – explains why I would be tempted to violate the ethics of journalism that night by joining in the chanting.

As I listened to the demonstrators chant repeatedly, “We are all Oscar Grant!” I thought about how I could have easily ended up like him – dead. What if on that night when the six police cars intercepted me in Milpitas my car window had been broken and I couldn’t roll it down when they ordered me to? What if I had refused to get up when that cop in Minneapolis refused to help me to my feet as I lay in sludge, hands cuffed behind my back?

The more I asked myself those questions, the angrier I got. I wished I was one of those young people in the streets of Oakland. I wished I had thrown the bottle that landed on one of the pigs wielding batons. But I couldn’t. Many of the young men and women overturning garbage cans, setting fires and shattering windows were at least 10 years my junior. And I’m a journalist.

So I turned on my small video camera and set out to catch the pigs red-handed like they had been caught by the multiple witnesses of Grant’s slaying.

As the night wore on, the cops prepared to disperse the crowd. One by one, they took their helmets off briefly to put on gasmasks. That tiny moment allowed me to see the faces of the cops standing in front of me. I looked straight into one policeman’s eyes, something I had never before had the courage to do. He rolled his eyes to avoid my stare. Right then, I realized that behind that thick armor – that pig’s skin – was a human being like me. He looked scared. I wondered what he was thinking. Did he worry that this big black man staring in his eyes was going to attack him? Did he have children? Did he fear for them?

Then it occurred to me that one of my college classmates, who I will call Raul, a man who shows all his teeth when he smiles, had joined Oakland Police Department a few years ago.

My brother, Fred, is also a policeman in Kenya – something I often forget during my bouts of rage against cops. I have heard complaints from my mother and other relatives about my other brothers, but never about Fred. Everyone in our rural home speaks very highly of him. When I visited home in 2006, I met many of Fred’s coworkers. Many of them said, “He is the man.” His boss told me, “I hope you are all as good as your brother is.” Yet, after Kenyan cops threw me in jail twice during that visit and conned my mother to pay a $500 bribe, I resented all cops.

I’d be lying if I said that my brother, who works in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, is a saint – that he has never taken a bribe. What I’m saying is that he is not a pig. Like many Kenyan cops, Fred is underpaid and overworked. He makes less than $250 a month. He cannot afford to have his wife and three kids in Nairobi, so he travels to our rural home – a day’s bus ride away – to see them. Despite all that, when corruption comes up, Kenyans direct their anger and hatred toward policemen like my brother.

Things aren’t very different in Oakland.

I stood in the middle of the street and thought about Raul. He might not be underpaid by Kenyan standards, but he certainly is overworked. Oakland has a shortage of 300 officers, according to The Chauncey Bailey Project. Two years ago I sat down with Police Chief Wayne Tucker, who told me that no one wants to be a police officer in Oakland.

I thought about how stressful Raul’s job must be. What if that bottle I saw hit an older officer had landed on Raul? Would he have been as calm as that officer was, or would his inexperience – combined with fatigue, fear and stress – let him down? I had come to conclude that if Raul overreacted under the fear and uncertainty that filled that night, I wouldn’t call him a pig. I turned my video recorder off and tried to find him. I wanted to stand in front of him and tell him that I supported him. After reading a dozen or so nametags, things began to get chaotic and I started to run.

That single night did not make me change my attitude toward pigs. Over the years those pigs have harassed me, used unnecessary force, racial slurs and profanity against me, and even killed people I know. Those pigs judged their victims collectively. They assumed that every black man was a hardcore criminal that deserved to be manhandled and locked up. But the night taught me that stacking officers like Raul and my brother in that filthy pile makes me no different from a pig.

Photo by Edwin Okong'o / New America Media


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