Understanding the Backlash to the Dialogue Around Lovelle Mixon

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

On Tuesday Samhita Mukhopadhyay posted the article Understanding the Dialogue Around Lovelle Mixon on Feministing, discussing the case and response to Lovelle Mixon. A 26 year-old black man and parolee in Oakland, last weekend Mixon died after shooting and killing four Oakland police officers.

Some excerpts from Mukhopadhyay’s article:

I do not deny that Mixon was armed, dangerous, a career criminal and potentially linked to the rape of a young woman. Lovelle Mixon’s actions are deplorable. But if we look at them within the context of police brutality, they sadly start make sense.

The power that resides in the laps of armed police officers is terrifying. Imagine living in these conditions, in the kind of world where you can be gunned down just for being young, black, male and walking down the street. This story is almost impossible to understand given dominant narratives around race, class, gender and black masculinity. It is considered OK to kill young black men, often violently. We may be outraged, but not nearly as outraged as when cops are killed.

Mukhopadhyay also drew from David Muhammad’s article at New American Media, which starts by saying (and I share this sentiment):

Four Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers killed, another shot, and a young assailant dead. This is tragic and unfortunate. Period.

While Mukhodpadhyay was as clear as Muhammad that Mixon’s actions are inexcusable and should not be seen as justice for Oscar Grant, within half an hour of her article going up, some Feministing commenters flipped. Choice reactions:

Turning a multiple cop killer and rapist into the poster child for a conversation about police brutality is apologism at its worst…If you were saying the same basic things to explain awat why he might have been led to rape the woman he’s excused of raping than no one on these boards would accept it. But I feel that since this happened in Oakland, after Oscar Grant, and since he’s black and these were white cops and because of the racial history it’s somewhat okay for you to seemingly excuse his actions.

This next very short comment misses the panoply of stats that Mukhopadhyay provided to illustrate that ex-convicts and poor folks in general sometimes cannot secure their basic needs by following the law:

Actually, that’s not true. Not committing further crimes is the surest way not to end up back in jail.

And this:

His actions were never fueled by police brutality, they appear to be fueled by possibility that he did not want to pay for additional crimes he knew he committed.

You’re conflating the brutal murder of Oscar Grant with a career criminal who knew he was caught and reacted like a wild animal cornered, doing anything and everything to escape being brought to justice.

I also take issue with the point that you make about cops killing young black men, statistically a much larger percentage of young black men are killed by other young black men.

And of course a few commenters who called Mukhopadhyay an apologist for Mixon were also quick to say “But you can’t say I’m racist! I was incensed by what happened to Rodney King!”

Listen: the difference between Rodney King (and Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant and Jeffrey Reodica and so many other young men of colour slain by the police) and Mixon is that the others were unarmed and innocent. The similarity is that they all lived under a policing system that devalued their lives and assumed them guilty solely because they were darker-skinned.

Now, Mixon actually was guilty. But Mixon’s guilt doesn’t neutralise the rottenness of the system. In other words, just because Mixon was actually a dangerous felon doesn’t mean that we are absolved from the duty to question how justice and innocence is defined and meted out in our culture.

In responding to Mukhodpadhyay’s article (which I personally thought was a very careful and calm attempt to use Mixon’s actions as a jumping off point for a discussion on the criminalisation of race) I said:

I like to think that as human beings our brains are big enough to be able to simultaneously understand that what Mixon (allegedly) did is horrific, and that there is also a long context and history of disproportionate state violence against black men (and other men of colour).

Is it really impossible for us to have a conversation about the effect of racist, classist and cruel systems on the behaviour of Americans? Are we so thick-headed that we can’t even consider that the state of the prison system or the racist nature of American policing somehow affected how Mixon saw the world and how he made choices?

The system didn’t make choices for Mixon – in the end he decided to commit violent crimes and he decided to kill four police officers. But the question we need to ask is how much, over the course of his life, did his political context contribute to his personality?

In another New American Media article by Kevin Weston, Weston compares Mixon to Nat Turner, which at first surprised and upset me. Turner led a revolt against a system which tortured, enslaved, dehumanised and bred his people with a precision that makes me physically nauseous whenever I really think about it. Mixon shot some cops because he allegedly didn’t want to go back to prison for multiple rapes. Originally I was slightly horrified by the comparison. But when I thought about it more, I felt confused.

In an article by Earl Ofari Hutchinson that Mukhopadyay also quotes, Hutchinson outlines the almost unwinnable odds that ex-convicts face:

In 2007, the National Institute of Justice found that 60 percent of ex-felon offenders remain unemployed a year after their release. Other studies have shown that upwards of 30 percent of felon releases live in homeless shelters because of their inability to find housing. And those are the lucky ones. Many camp out on the streets.

A significant number of them suffer from drug, alcohol and mental health challenges, and lack education or any marketable skills. More than 70 percent of all U.S. prisoners are literate at only the two lowest grade levels. Nearly 60 percent of violent felons are repeat offenders. They are a menace to themselves and, as the nation saw with Mixon, to others. In some cases, they can be set off by any real or perceived slight, insult, or simply lash out from bitter rage. Mixon was one and he made four Oakland police officers victims and left a terrible trail of grieving and distraught families and a shell-shocked city and police department.

And here is a quote from Mixon from before he went to prison in 2002 for his role in a carjacking (which btw reminded me of the beautiful and heartbreaking book A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca, which renders the devastating real life effects of systemic racism and our abhorrent prison systems)

Mixon told authorities that in the attempted carjacking, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and did not act responsible and allowed someone else to act just as bad,” according to the report. “Now I have to take responsibility for it all.”

Mixon also is quoted in the report as saying he planned to move away to “a better area, get a job, and hopefully in about two or three years get my own business, raise my kids in a responsible way.”

“I wish I could fix or make up for what happened,” Mixon was quoted as saying. “But I can’t, so I am going to attempt to make the best out of it and learn as much as possible to help me when I get out.”

At the time, Mixon had a 1-year-old son but was not paying child support because he was unemployed, the probation report said.

Weston ends his article with the following line, as well as an Obama-ized shot of Mixon (see the bottom of Weston’s article) that outraged many Feministing readers:

In the meantime, I’m telling all the young brothers I know that stay in Oakland to pump their brakes – there are mad cops out there and your life is worth even less than it was 48 hours ago, when it was worth almost nothing to anyone.

Turner mobilised an organised rebellion; Mixon made a split second decision. Turner was a revolutionary who had very specific intentions when he acted (See the amazing graphic novel Nat Turner by Kyle Baker); we have no idea what Mixon was thinking when he shot the Oakland cops. I want to be clear when I say that as people I do not think they are similar. I also do not think that the murders they committed were similar.

What I am puzzled and troubled about is whether or not the conditions and context of their lives is at all similar. Now, this is not a question posed for rhetorical effect: I really want to know what you think. I’m unsure and am honestly troubled by the ramifications of the idea that the two systems under which Turner and Mixon lived are comparable.

Can you reasonably yoke the unspeakable conditions that motivated Turner to revolt and kill 60 people, to the systemic prejudice that must’ve – at least in some small part – shaped Mixon?