There was something heady in the air on January 20 2009, so heady, hot and special that I barely felt the bracing cold as I sat outside to watch our President take the oath. Hope was in the air, high energy. There were pronouncements that this was a new, post-racial era. And even as I shared high hopes and high energy, I was skeptical of any post-racialsim. You see, in the same month that the first African American was inaugurated as President of the United States, another African American man, an unarmed Oscar Grant, was executed by a transit police officer. Johannes Mehserle says he mistakenly shot his gun instead of his Taser in Oakland, California, and Grant, unarmed, handcuffed, and the father of a baby girl, was pronounced dead on January 2, 2009.
Fast-forward nearly two years. The day after the grim election night, President Obama somberly took responsibility for the whopping that his party took and for the colleagues who lost their jobs in the Republican and Tea Party rout. This was a different Obama than the exuberant President we saw dancing the night away on January 20, 2009. This Obama was chastened, even humbled, by an election that can be interpreted as a repudiation of his two years in office. Or, it can be interpreted as a referendum on an economy that remains sour, despite tiny positive signs. In any case, the photo of our President biting his lip and eating humble pie was troubling. Every post-mortem of the elections says that Democrats didn't turn out like they could have, that young people didn't come out the same way they did in 2008, that the Tea Party held sway, even though they told lies, and that, given that Senator Mitch McConnell has prioritized the defeat of President Obama in 2012 as his highest priority (higher than job creation, economic revitalization, world peace) there is a real threat that the Obama presidency will be a one-term presidency.
I didn't think the week could get any worse. Indeed, I decided that I suffered from post-election stress syndrome and self-prescribed the cure of some non-political reading. As soon as I roared back from my 48-hour virus, there was more bad news.
Oscar Grant, murdered in the same month that President Obama was inaugurated, was a symbol of police brutality and the devaluation of black male life by law enforcement officials. Such anger and controversy swirled around the Grant case that the Johannes Mesherle was tried in Los Angeles, supposedly more neutral territory. Mesherle sobbed on the witness stand that he did not intend to kill Oscar Grant. A sympathetic jury found him guilty of involuntary manslauthter, the least punitive thing they could find him guilty of. No involuntary manslaughter, no second-degree murder charge. No responsibility for not knowing the difference between a Taser and a gun. Involuntary manslaughter. No gun enhancement, which would have added to his sentence. On Friday, a judge sentenced Mr. Mesherle to two years in state prison, with credit for time served. Mesherle may be out of jail in time to go to the beach this summer. Oscar Grant will never enjoy a beach again.
Perhaps the only thing President Barack Obama and Oscar Grant have in common is that they are men of African descent whose causes experienced a setback last week. If President Obama didn't dance election night away, though, he was dancing by the time he got to India, shrugging of the election results for the business at hand. And John Burris, the talented Oakland lawyer who represents Oscar Grant's family, is weighing his next steps as he continues to fight for some justice for his dead client.
On Friday night in Oakland, young folks and some not so young took it to the streets. More than 160 were arrested. Some of these same folk turned out to vote in 2008, but their taking it to the streets suggests that they don't always trust electoral results to result in right outcomes. They don't feel heard, and they feel a need to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with a justice system that too often produces unjust results where African Americans are concerned. The Tea Party people said they didn't feel heard either, and thanks to our latest election, we will certainly hear from them now. Already their leaders are selling wolf tickets and offering rhetorical smackdowns. What can the young people protesting in the streets of Oakland learn from the Tea Party? What can President Obama learn? It is this learning that will shape the next two years and the outcome of the 2012 election.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.