The Black Lives Matter movement that has exploded in the months since the police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has brought questions of Black Power and Black Nationalism to the forefront of popular consciousness more, arguably, than any time since the early 1970s. But this has come with renewed surveillance of Black activists across the country. The recent assault of Oakland organizer Jabari Ali Shaw, by conspiring federal and city agents, is a particularly grotesque example of racial profiling and indifference on the part of law enforcement towards Black lives.
Shaw is well known in the community as a dedicated activist. He has organized and spoken at many protests and rallies against the prison industrial complex and the targeting of Black lives by the police. At the Malcolm X Jazz Festival, Shaw addressed the crowd, “The same codes they used in the Jim Crow south is what they use to penalize us. It's the same things they use when they put you on probation. You can't be around four, five people walking in a group. You can't be outside after hours without your papers. I tell you this, the jail system is the same thing with slavery. They got rid of slavery and they put us in jail to get us to work for free. They have concentration camps... and they have contracts to fill them up.” At the 2012 Occupy4Prisoners demonstration at San Quentin, Shaw reminisced about his own time as a prisoner. “There ought to be an opportunity to make a living wage. Your working in those kitchens, you’re not getting paid nothing. They wake you up at 3 o'clock in the morning and work you until 12 in the afternoon washing dishes. It's freezing cold. They don't give you no sick pay, they don't give you no days off and if you don't get up to go to work then you get thrown in the hole.” Voices like Shaw's are reaching more and more people. At the same time, however, many Black Lives Matter activists have felt themselves under greater scrutiny, with law enforcement vehicles prowling around their homes. When asked for an explanation, many are simply told that law enforcement is surveilling an unnamed “suspect” or “person of interest” in the neighborhood.
On the morning of Monday, March 9 th , in East Oakland, Shaw got into a car with his friend Mary Valencourt and his 4 year old daughter. Valencourt was driving, with Shaw in the passenger seat, and his daughter in the back. As they took off, their vehicle was cut off by a black car, and then a black truck pulled up besides them, and three individuals jumped out of the car and charged the vehicle. Valencourt, fearing for their lives, hit the gas. “The neighborhood we live in, they call it the Murder Dubs,” Shaw later told his comrade and Community Ready Core (C.R.C.) activist TurHa Ak. “People get robbed, people get shot, and that's what I thought. I thought some kind of crime was going on.” “There was no way that just by fluke or some accident that these two cars came this way. They had to have sat there and waited for us to pull off to do that. And they could have arrested me or do whatever they wanted to do,” Shaw told Ak “I think I've been targeted because of the way it happened.” Valencourt and Shaw drove around several blocks. At the corner of Foothill Boulevard and 23 rdAvenue Shaw saw a police car behind them. “So,” according to Shaw, “it's like they had these cars strategically placed around.”Valencourt stopped at a red light but their vehicle was suddenly pushed into the intersection, where they hit a bus. “I honestly believe the police car hit us, pushed us, propelled us forth into the paratransit truck.” Their car was destroyed and all three passengers sustained injuries, as did passengers of the bus, though there were no fatalities. Law enforcement agents pulled the passengers out of the car and brutalized Shaw. “I asked for medical attention over and over and over again... They had Federal Marshals in blue jeans and buttoned up shirts with badges around their neck. They had Oakland Police Department. It was like a joint venture of... three different law enforcement agencies.” FBI agents also participated in the attack on Valencourt, Shaw, and his daughter. While in the back of the police car, Shaw called out to passersby the facts of his ordeal. Several witnesses have backed up Shaw's narrative that the vehicle he was in was pushed into the intersection from behind by another car. The US Marshals eventually told Shaw that their pursuit of him had been a case of mistaken identity. The agents who originally accosted Shaw in unmarked vehicles and plainclothes thought Shaw “fit the description” of a different man, a “violent fugitive,” they were pursuing. According to law enforcement's narrative, had Valencourt and Shaw merely laid their own lives, and that of Shaw's child, on the line, they could have avoided the ordeal. In fact, FBI agents had been spotted around the city in the previous days and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has held press conferences announcing that the FBI was collaborating with the OPD to apprehend a few “felons.”
But the notion that Shaw was attacked as a result of mistaken identity is only made plausible when one considers the outrageously broad descriptions of “suspects” deployed by law enforcement that have the effect of not only allowing, but assuring the practice of racial profiling. The agents could have been told to be suspicious of any “Black male, age 25 50, average height.” Following such instructions, one could say that Shaw indeed, “fit the description” of someone wanted by the authorities. Most Black men would. This incident reveals three things quite clearly.
First, not only the notoriously racist and murderous OPD, but Federal agents as well, are willing to put Black lives at risk based on nothing more than racial profiling. The actions of law enforcement in this case, such as ramming a car into a busy intersection, are particularly brazen. However, it should be noted that all of the victims survived. In this way, this instance was less tragic than the roughly 360 people killed annually in police chases, often based on nothing more than a driver “matching a description,” which is to say being a Black man.
Secondly, the corporate media will always back up the cops' side of the story, no matter how blatantly wrong the actions of the cops were. After the Oakland police held a press conference claiming this was a case of mistaken identity that led to the brutalization of a family that could have been killed, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article describing Valencourt and Shaw's vehicle as a “getaway car,” even though the OPD admits Shaw and Valencourt had not fled the scene of any crime. The article states as fact the claims of the cops and federal agents that they were unaware that Shaw's daughter was in the back seat, and that when they found the child she was not wearing any kind of seat belt, although Shaw has specifically challenged both claims. “My four year old daughter was in the back seat of this car,” Shaw told Ak, “They had to see my daughter in the car when they ran up to that car. They knew my baby was up in that car and they still tried to spin that car out...”
Lastly, when a community unites behind one of its leaders, the agents of the state can be made to back down. After the attack, TurHa Ak and his CRC comrades leading the A.P.T.P. coalition response team were at the scene of the crash, independently investigating the incident, and gathering evidence in the face of the OPD. Ak's video interview of Shaw was viewed tens of thousands of times within twentyfour hours of the attack, inspiring activists throughout Oakland to follow and track the movements of the police that day and the next, posting their findings on social media. Because of the relentless support for Shaw, the OPD released him and Valencourt within twentyfour hours without any charges filed, which is rare when anyone, particularly anyone Black, flees the cops. When the community readies to defend itself, it is powerful.
- William West