Zach, lies and videotape

Friday, October 28, 2011

By Lisa Russ

When I picked up my son Zach from school on Tuesday he asked me, “Mom, what were all those helicopters doing here today? Was there a robber?”

I sighed. All of these important conversations of course happen in the car, while I am rushing around and probably not at my best. “No, not a robber,” I said. “Remember I told you about the people camping out by my office?” He didn’t but I reminded him. “Well, the mayor decided it was time for them to leave, and so the helicopters were there to make sure everyone packed up and left safely.”

LIE. A big lie. I hated telling it, and I still feel mixed about it. I realized two things right as I said it.

First, I am not ready to tell Zach that the government and the police attacked our people.

Second, many kids Zach’s age (six years old) already know about that, because it happens in their neighborhoods and to people they know on a regular basis.

This isn’t theoretical to me. It’s my life. I know that many of my friends' kids know a lot more about the real deal than Zach does. Because of the second point, they have to. Or because their parents are braver than me, and even though they don’t see it around them regularly, they want their kids to know about it.

We are white, we live in the sweet Grand Lake neighborhood of Oakland. I drive a car with a current registration, and don’t have a warrant out for my arrest or an expired tourist visa.  We are not threatened by the police on a regular basis.

When Zach was 3, like many of his ilk, he was fascinated by police. Initially nervous about their bulky size and visible weapons, he was quickly taken in by their friendliness and because he never had a reason to be afraid—nothing bad ever happened in front of him.

My kids, and many white kids, wealthy kids, middle class kids, hills kids, lucky kids, grow up believing that the cops are here to help us. Call 911 if you have an emergency, and expect a hero to show up and help get the cat out of the tree, or comfort you through an asthma attack, or help mediate a fender bender.

When Oscar Grant was killed, Zach was too young to really notice what was happening, but by the time Johannes Mehserle was sentenced, he asked about it. I told him what happened—but I minced words then too! I didn’t tell him that Oscar Grant was riding BART, because I didn’t want Zach to be afraid of BART. I didn’t tell him Oscar Grant worked at Farmer Joes, at the meat counter, where we shop on a regular basis. I did tell him that Mehserle shot Oscar Grant, that Oscar Grant died, and that Mehserle was in court so a judge could decide if he did it on purpose or by accident.

So when he asked about the helicopters, I didn’t tell Zach that the police unleashed an attack on people who were demanding a just economy.  I didn’t tell him that former Marine Scott Olson was at Highland Hospital, with a serious head injury, after being hit by a teargas canister thrown by the police.

Why this matters: for white people like me, police violence is an exception, not the rule. Zach will eventually catch on. I (almost) promise that next time this comes up, I will tell him the truth, though I long to protect him against knowing many hard truths about our world, almost as if by not telling him, I get to create and live in a different place.

For white people like me, when the police do get out of line and engage in a brutal assault, caught on camera and video and facebook and twitter, there is national outrage. Progressive opinion makers call it out, from Jon Stewart’s What the Fuck Happened In Oakland Last Night? to MoveOn’s video calling on Mayor Quan to stop the violence, to every major outlet I have seen.  That’s what white people THINK will happen when our rights get squashed. We expect outrage, media coverage, petitions and vigils.

Scott Olson’s injury has provided a lightening rod, of course. He is handsome, he is a Marine, he is young and looks sweet in his picture with his dog, and my heart goes out to him and his family. I join in the prayers for his recovery.

I also remember that when Oscar Grant was murdered on Jan 1, 2009, it took days for the issue to build any traction in the media, and no offense to my heroes at or the Jon Stewart Show, but I am pretty sure they didn’t lead with stories decrying police brutality, or make national ad buys demanding reform.

And again, this is not theoretical. It’s a question about real life. What happens next time the police unleash their force on an unarmed civilian in Oakland? What if it’s at Occupy again, but this time it’s a homeless person and not a Marine?

But even more likely, what if it’s business as usual? A young black man on his way from here to there, looking the wrong way, and paying for it with his life?

Police brutality is real in Oakland (and NY and SF and LA and…), and black and brown Oaklanders, poor folks, the homeless, immigrants and young people live with that every day. No one ever had to sit them down and say, “Listen, I was lying to you. The police were not protecting the protesters. They were scaring them and hurting them. The police are here to protect us, and sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t, and some times they hurt people for no good reason.”

Many kids in this city and every city grow up knowing this like they know the sky is blue and that it’s better to take a band-aid off quickly. They know it because they live it.

Here’s what would be radical. Next time the police use excessive force in Oakland, whether it’s at a protest or a 7-11, whether it’s a sweet-faced Marine or a young black man with his friends, let’s see the same level of outrage.

I write this knowing there will be a next time. I write this with the comfort and the unease of knowing it will very likely not be my child who is on the receiving end of that, but it will happen again, it will happen here, and the only thing I am left wondering is, what will happen next?


  1. What a beautiful reflection of the inherent tensions of being a mommy, seeing the truth and then telling it. Considering where, when, how and knowing that to even consider and have control of the conversation with your son is an enormous privilege. Continuing to be grateful for how much I learn from you, mama.