ALEX COHEN, host:
Police have arrested former transit officer Johannes Mehserle for killing an unarmed man in Oakland, California, on New Year's Day. A cell-phone video shows Mehserle shooting Oscar Grant in the back as he was lying face down. Soon after Grant's death, downtown Oakland erupted with protesters smashing windows and destroying cars. A more peaceful demonstration at City Hall is planned for this afternoon. Youth Radio's Brandon McFarland has been reflecting on this latest drama in his hometown.
BRANDON MCFARLAND: The symbol of Oakland, an oak tree, is tattooed on my right forearm, except I've added roots to symbolize my ties to this place and its people. There are so many things about Oakland to be proud of. I'm proud that the Black Panthers were founded here, that turf dancing thrives here, that our community-college system is good and well-attended. And that our music slaps. That's right, especially MC Hammer.
But it was a different Oakland musician, Tupac Shakur, who gave me my first feelings of Oakland pride. The actor and rapper always spoke his mind, and was just as intelligent and socially conscious as he was belligerent. This is typical of Oakland. Dudes express in the deepest sentiments, but with words straight off the streets. In the beginning, Tupac's music was about rebuilding African-American communities and ending black-on-black violence, picking up where the Black Panthers left off. And there's one more inauspicious Oakland connection: After jaywalking in 1991, Tupac was assaulted by cops from the Oakland PD, right there in downtown Oakland, right there where protesters stood up for Oscar Grant and said they were sick of police brutality.
The murder of Oscar Grant is tragic, and it is significant. People here are frustrated and pained by what happened. Last Wednesday night, when protesters took to the streets, it was like everyone in the city just said, hell, no. I don't agree with the way some reacted. But I do understand why they lashed out because I don't have to look too far back in my own memory to when I've been pulled over, detained and almost arrested for no apparent reason.
But it's not fair to put all of Oakland's ugliness on the police. Citizens here do more wrong to each other than any police department. A lot of Oakland isn't beautiful. There are some streets I won't even walk down, and I'm desensitized to violence because, like most Oaklanders, I have friends and loved ones who've been shot and killed. And even though I lived in Oakland when I was in high school, I went to Berkley High because my parents felt like Oakland public schools failed them back in the day.
This might be the ugliest part of my city: that it continues to fail people the same way it did generations ago. Schools were bad for my parents, and they're still bad today. Black folks were dehumanized by cops in the '60s, and on New Year's Day 2009, a 22-year-old black man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a police officer. It's hard to believe that all this ugliness makes up my beautiful city. For NPR News, I'm Brandon McFarland.
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COHEN: That essay was produced by Youth Radio.
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COHEN: NPR's Day to Day continues.
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