The scene shocked the world. On New Year’s day, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer shot and killed an unarmed black man who was, according to videos, already on the ground and being restrained.
There was an outcry of outrage across the Bay Area: in Oakland, San Francisco, and other cities groups of protestors jammed the streets and destroyed businesses, cars, and property belonging to people who had nothing to do with the tragedy.
The officer has since been charged with murder, but the question still looms large for residents, often poor and black themselves, who suffered at the hands of demonstrators: why did they do that? And what, exactly, did they want?
Certainly they wanted Oscar Grant’s killer to be charged with murder, but there were a shopping list of other demands ranging from more training of BART police to the immediate end to racism and an Israeli pullout from Gaza.
How does that make sense, observers wondered? Even if people agreed with the protestors, how could they possibly give them what they wanted?
Saybrook faculty member Benina Gould, who has studied the causes of conflict around the world, suggests that the question arises because the protestors themselves don’t fully know – at least not on a conscious level.
“There’s a kind of collective unconscious process going on here, I think, that doesn’t focus on just one thing,” Gould said. “There’s a connection between this event and the Rodney King beating in a lot of people’s minds, and there’s a long history of racism and violent confrontations with police, and there’s an enormous sense of frustration and powerlessness … that so many of us feel … about the war, and about the economy. And then this horrible thing happens, that no one fully understands – why? Why did he do it? Suddenly this concrete thing is happening in tandem with all these other things that you have no control over, and when you react to one you react to the other as well.”
In that sense, Gould suggests, the rioters on the street are not much different from everyone else. “Every therapy client I’ve seen today has talked about Gaza and how knowing about that situation is interfering with their lives,” she said. “It’s the way the world operates, and it’s really stressing people out, I think. So if you’re part of an impoverished minority and you have fewer things to help you address that frustration out in the larger arena, it gets worse.”
There wasn’t a simple demand in the protests, she suggests, because the real cause wasn’t something that has an easy fix: it wasn’t a protest against a shooting so much as a protest against the way the world works.
There are also concerns, Gould noted, among many activists for social justice that the Obama presidency will be used by many people as an excuse not to address racism anymore.
“There’s a real fear that problems like this shooting will go underground because people will say the Obama presidency proves that racism no longer needs to be addressed, and then you look at the timing of this event, between the election and the inauguration – it all sort of seems to comes together, doesn’t it?” she asked. “Here was an opportunity for a lot of aggression – and when we look at it as an unconscious process, I think we all really can empathize with the source, even if we know the result is very counter-productive.”