Finding the Words for This Tragedy

By Julianne Hing Mar 23, 2009

An officer guards the building where Lovelle Mixon and two Oakland police officers were shot and killed. photo credit: Getty Images All day I’ve been sifting through the news reports from the tragic fatal shootings of Lovelle Mixon and four Oakland police officers this weekend. I keep clicking through the articles on San Jose Mercury News, MSNBC, even Xinhua, a Chinese news agency, looking for some new detail, some piece of evidence to explain, if not vindicate, Lovelle Mixon’s desperation. It’s a knee jerk defensiveness borne out of my distrust of cops. Sean Thomas-Breitfeld recently contextualized his attitudes about the police within this country’s long history of abusive policing over at the Movement Vision Lab:

I tend to not trust people with badges much, and this isn’t just an anti-authoritarian streak either. For many people of color mistrust of the police is commonplace, but the media’s focus on “racial profiling” oversimplifies and minimizes the problem. Excessive policing isn’t limited to annoying traffic stops and doesn’t happen only on the basis of race. It is an overall environment that unfairly and automatically casts suspicion on too many of us – whether because we are Black, Latino, immigrant, Muslim, or gay – and in the last few months it’s become clear how far-reaching the problem of biased policing is and how urgently we must come together to end abusive policing practices and restore community trust across the lines that currently cast suspicion.

While folks in Oakland are grieving, and seething, over the weekend’s loss–many have tied the deaths on Saturday with the death of Oscar Grant at the hands of BART police mere months ago–it’s not clear that an explicit abuse of power was at play this weekend. I rushed to defend Mixon because so often police act with impunity. Because as Sean says, for many communities, racial profiling and targeting by police is more the norm than an aberration. All over the Internet, Mixon has been called a monster and an animal, a career criminal who’s better off dead, an example of why local PD’s need to reinstate "shoot to kill" policies. The deaths of Lovelle Mixon, Sgt. Mark Dunakin, Sgt. Ervin Romans, Sgt. Daniel Sakai and Officer John Hege deserve a more clear-headed explanation. What we know is that Mixon was out on parole. He told his uncle he’d had a hard time finding work with his felony conviction on his record. He said he feared returning to jail. We know that people who’ve served time in jail face real, unjust barriers to finding work after they get out. We know that in this recession, Blacks and Latinos have been hit harder by job losses than their white counterparts. What we know is that the cops who first pulled Mixon over at a traffic stop did not fire at him. We also know that the SWAT team that entered the apartment building where Mixon was hiding out had the deaths of their colleagues fresh in their mind. But we also know that at every step of the criminal justice system, people of color, especially young Black and Latino men, are disproportionately arrested, convicted and jailed. We know that guns get dumped in inner-city neighborhoods because firearms trafficking is made too easy by lax enforcement and gutless gun manufacturing laws. We owe it to the five people who died this weekend, to their families, and to all our communities to explain this weekend’s tragic, bloody losses without resorting to the kind of savagery and racism and hero-worship–of either side–that’s rushing around this racially charged tragedy. Saturday’s shooting deaths were the result of a confluence of structural factors, race chief among them. Nothing happens in a vacuum. And yet, some incidents cannot be explained with stock answers, or even our best, most thoughtful judgment.