Today the verdict for Oscar Grant came down. It was involuntary manslaughter. It was the first time I’d come across information that Johannes Mehserle (the former BART police officer who shot Grant) sobbed when he testified about realizing that he had his gun in his hand. Right away an image came to mind of how many people would think, “Oh, he just made that up.” Or, “He put on a good act so he could get acquitted.”
A lot of people are, justifiably, very angry. It’s the first time a police officer has been tried in over 30 years; there’s a lot of frustration. And I’m sure there are a lot of people outside, and in this room, who think that involuntary manslaughter is not enough. And I’m sure there are people who believe he should be acquitted. We get very fixed ideas about how things ought to be and its really, really difficult for us to let things be as it is. I wonder if just for a moment, wherever you sit, you might just be with what it is.
That it’s not just “involuntary manslaughter,” but the loss of life. The loss of life and the pain, that even if it was Mehserle’s intention, it must be his to bear. It’s the pain that any of us must bear when we harm another. And then, the compounded pain of having to cover that up and get tight, to make ourselves believe it was justified. And then, carrying the pain and frustration of people—and peoples—burdened by a system that doesn’t see them.
Is it just for this one person to carry the burden of those thousands upon thousands of people, with their justifiable anger and resentment? Is it just to rest it on the shoulders of one man? A man who had the wherewithal to sob?
Maybe it’s an act. But whether the sobs are real or not, you can’t deny the suffering. In every direction, you can’t deny the suffering. Because if we deny the suffering of others, we deny the suffering of our own hearts. And if we deny the suffering in our own hearts, we make believe that somehow there will be justice if one person bears the burden of a system that has been flawed for hundreds of years—hundreds. Since the birth of this country, it’s been a flawed system.
It’s in the denial of our own suffering that we keep seeking
these petty expressions of justice that don’t speak to the root. That don’t get at what’s really
- What is it that we’re cutting off in our own lives?
- What is it that we’re refusing to see?
- Who is it that we’re refusing to see, to acknowledge the
pain and the suffering of?
- What is it that gives rise to an entire society that can have this kind of act occur and split us into pieces? Not over how do we fix this system…but over, “Is this guy going to get sent away to prison for life, or is he going to get acquitted?”
He’ll never go free; I should say that. No matter what, he’ll never go free. Even if he walks out of the court with no time served, he’ll never really go free.
What is it that we have to see? What do we have to deconstruct? What are we holding onto that it’s time to dismantle in our own hearts so that we can create more space for real justice? This is justice that arises, not out of a sense of punishment, but out of a sense of love, justice that serves and embodies love. Not justice that is confused and mistaken for punishment.
Responsibility and Accountability
And that’s not to say that people shouldn’t be held accountable, because absolutely people should be held accountable. We have social and legal agreements that say folks under 18 can’t be held accountable until we classify them as adults. Why is that? How do we make this distinction that if you’re under
18 you can’t be held accountable for your actions? Because they don’t know enough yet.
They’re not equipped to make decisions in such a way that they’re able to be responsible, therefore they can’t be held accountable.
We have a society that doesn’t let people grow up in a way that lets them be responsible. We haven’t taught people to be responsible. So we can’t really hold people accountable until we take the responsibility as a society to teach people how to be responsible. And no one can be responsible, if they can’t love. And they can’t be responsible for loving others if they can’t be responsible for loving themselves. If you can’t love yourself, you cannot know how to love others. And if you don’t know how to love others—I’m not talking about romantic love, but agape love…Universal Love.
I’m not even talking about filial love, but the love that arises out of compassion. Compassion precedes that love. The love that arises out compassion arises out of recognition.
If you cannot recognize—if you cannot see—you cannot love. If you can’t see people, you cannot love them. If you can’t see them for who they are and what they are and where they are in all their differences, not their sameness…in all their differences. That’s where it gets ugly: when people are different and you can’t make sense of them easily. If you can’t see people for their differences, and appreciate their differences—not like them…I’m not talking about like them—who cares about that? I’m talking about love, the magnetic energy that is a vibration of your cells in relationship to other living cells. If you can’t see people’s differences, if you can’t see people for who they are, you cannot love them. And the main reason most of us cannot see others is because we can’t see ourselves…we won’t see ourselves.
It’s hard to hold the whole truth of who we are. It’s hard. But if you don’t want to hold the truth of who you for yourself, do it for us. Do it for us, because we need every single one of you. I need you to see me for who I am, and I know you can’t do that if you cannot see yourself. I need to be able to hold you accountable for how you show up. But I can’t do that if you’re not responsible for yourself, because you don’t even know who you are.
When we don’t reconcile the challenge of meeting ourselves, we look for false justice. We punish rather than hold accountable. We seek retribution rather than resolution. We try to get our broken hearts met by breaking everything around us in equal measure.
And when we find that our hearts are not met, we try to break more. It’s an unstoppable cycle of violence and trauma and pain and suffering, and it all begins with our refusal to see ourselves.
There are a lot of dark and unexamined places that our culture teaches us we can buy our way away from, that we can consume our way to the land of bliss and happiness never to meet the “me” again. If you just consume enough, you’ll eat the pain away. How’s that working for you?
The thing about our pain and our suffering is this: until it is met and seen for what it is, it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s like the dark places in your refrigerator, things hidden in little containers that you refuse to open, because you don’t quite remember when it got there. So instead of facing the smelly tempeh that might be in there, you eventually run into an infestation of things that can kill you, because you didn’t want to deal with it when it was just plain stinky. That’s really how it is. In fact, in my experience, things are never as bad as the idea you create of them.
Somehow, when we get caught in our stuck ideas about ourselves, we create better images of who we are, and we believe worse images of who we actually are. So we create fantasies and we believe fiction. Neither of these things abide in truth.
So that you don’t leave thinking that I’m all doom and gloom, I’ll give you some homework. Take it home with you, but start it right now:
Think about one person or situation that you’re not allowing yourself to see because to see that will mean that you have to see yourself. And take the first step to opening your eyes. Just one little step. Don’t try to fix it all at once, but take the first step to truly seeing.
Start the movement toward dismantling punitive justice and discovering the justice that comes from love.
—yours in truth, aKw
dedicated to everyone that loves and would have loved Oscar Grant. and to Johannes Mesherle, in the name of justice, in the name of love.
angel Kyodo williams, is founder of urbanPEACE and it’s Center for Transformative Change. Happily, she is no longer its director, but the official Intellectual Guru Emeritus. A social visionary and leading voice for transformative social change, she is the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace.