Fruitvale Station and the Notion of Cultural Obligations

 

 

I believe in cultural obligations. This is something that my mother taught me at a very young age. I had to be about 8 years old when Young Guns II came out in the movie theater.  It was the sequel to the completely awesome and rendition to the story of Billy the Kidd starring Emilio Estevez and Lou Diamond Phillips. Needless to say I was pretty excited about it. Back in those days my mother would take my siblings and me to the movie theater about four times a year. So I was super stoked that we were getting a chance to go while this highly anticipated film was still showing. Even though I was in the 3rd grade there was never a time in my life when I couldn’t watch rated R movies so naturally I recommended that we all watch the gun-toting western together. My older brother had different intentions.

“We should watch Mo Better Blues,” he told my mother.

“What! That stupid jazz movie? Don’t nobody want to see that crap. It looks hecka boring,” I protested from the back seat.

“It’s a Spike Lee joint,” he said with passive authority.

“So what it’s gone be boring,” I continued on.

My mother probably weighed the options for about a quarter of a second.

“We’re going to see Mo Better Blues,” she said in her ‘and that’s that voice.’

I was pissed and the most I could do about it was suck my teeth. I suffered through what seemed like five hours of music with no words and multiple hardcore sex scenes. Well the sex scenes weren’t bad but I would have much rather seen Billy the Kid and The Regulators kill all those backstabbing hypocrites that were trying to run them out-of-town. I didn’t understand it at the time but my mother was teaching me a very valuable lesson. Black people are obligated to support other black people even when it hurts. And while I was sitting in that theater watching Wesley Snipes, Spike Lee, and Denzel Washington get into debates about issues that I couldn’t care less about, it REALLY HURT. After the movie was over she spoke to me about our responsibility as black folk. She told me that if we don’t look out for one another then no one else will and I got it. Very reluctantly, I got it.

 

Now several years later I sit here in front of my house composing this entry a day before the release of Fruitvale Station a story about the life and tragic death of Oscar Grant. To be straight up about it, I really don’t want to watch it. And that’s not because I don’t think it will be a good film because I think it’s going to be great. As a matter of fact last Saturday I actually met a brotha that plays a role in the movie. No it’s not that, the thing is the incidents that are chronicled in the movie are still extremely painful for me.

 

I was one of the thousands of people who marched through the streets of Oakland demanding justice for Mr. Grant after he was shot in the back by transit cops as he lay down in handcuffs on New Years Eve of 2009. I AM OSCAR GRANT was the slogan and when I said it I meant it. Because I have been to the Fruitvale BART Station several times, because he had a daughter the exact same age as mine, because I went through a phase in which I had no idea where my life was going, and because we were both young black men growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area I empathized with him completely.  I wrote about it extensively. I became enraged about it and ultimately depressed when Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to only two years for Oscar Grant’s murder. This isn’t like a movie on Fred Hampton or Ghandi—No, this is something that I actually lived through. It’s not even old enough to be historical.

 

But alas Fruitvale Station is a black movie. It was produced by Forrest Whitaker and directed by another young black man named Ryan Coogler. It also stars Octavia Spencer and was of course filmed in my hometown of Oakland, CA. But I still do not want to watch the movie. It bothers me that the Black American experience is so saturated with pain that even our leisure activities induce a certain amount of trauma. Why is awareness always a tragedy in the mind of the young black man? The story of Oscar Grant like the story of Trayvon Martin reminds me that my life is completely dispensable and I’m torn because part of me does not want to revisit that moment but another part of me knows that I can never actually leave that reality.

 

Whether I want to acknowledge it or not does not make racism less prevalent. Even when I’m eating my ice cream at the creamery, viewing art at the museum, or smelling lavender roses at the rose garden, racism is always lurking. I realize that I try to run from my issues as often as possible. I don’t want to confront the pain of my subconscious mind just like I don’t want to deal with my emotions. I feel like the film Fruitvale Station is guaranteed to make me confront both and even worse it will make me confront both of these untapped entities in a very public setting.

 

Tomorrow is the local release date of the film. I won’t see it tomorrow but I will see it before it leaves the theater. And it won’t be because I heard good things about it or because I feel like I need to learn more about the life of Oscar Grant but it will only be because I feel like it is my duty as an African-American to support the film. I will support the film because that’s the way I was raised.

-YB

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Lost in the Details: Notes on the Murder of Trayvon Martin

March 15, 12

It’s amazing how technical some folks get about the law when a young black man is murdered by a white police officer. What is even more amazing is the asinine things that people say when a fake cop, whom for whatever reason is allowed to carry a real gun, kills a young black man.

Let’s use the most recent case of George “The Jackass” Zimmerman as an example. The Jackass was a rogue volunteer captain of a Florida neighborhood watch group before he decided to use deadly force on 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Apparently this wasn’t your average neighborhood watch group that The Jackass was heading. It was not by any means an organization that encouraged community members to sit on their porches and document suspicious behavior, and it for damn sure wasn’t about planning neighborhood movie nights.

George The Jackass decided to follow Trayvon because he looked “suspicious” while he walked down the street with a bag of Skittles to take back to his little brother. Now I’m not sure why this is, but for law enforcement officers (and wannabes) the word suspicious is synonymous with black. I suppose it’s the American way.

At any rate The Jackass decided to confront Trayvon who was visiting his dad for NBA All-Star Weekend even though when he radioed it in to the real cops they told him to stand down. I guess he just couldn’t resist the opportunity to put a young black man in his place—which from a historical perspective, most white men can’t.

From that point on the details are sketchy as of right now. But we do know that The Jackass was bleeding from his nose and the back of his head. And we do know that Trayvon was killed by a single bullet wound to the chest. Mr. Jackass has not been charged with any crime because…well he’s white.

People really trip me out in these kinds of situations. I’ve seen the extremely ambiguous self-defense laws in Florida cited several times in this non-case. I’ve also watched the news media casually bring up the fact that a few homes in that Florida neighborhood had apparently been burglarized in the months leading up to the shooting. I even saw one journalist report that Zimm—uhhh I mean The Jackass was very well liked in the community.

Oh my god. So what!

An unarmed high school students was shot to death by a man who is supposed to be making sure elderly women aren’t mugged on their way back home from the grocery store. He’s supposed to be armed with binoculars, and a walky-talky, OK pepper spray at best. So why the hell is he toting a damn 9mm pistol like he’s in 50 Cents entourage? It’s the most ridiculous thing imaginable.

It’s just as bad as when Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed by a BART cop.  BART is routinely one of, if not thee, safest rapid transit system in the country. So why does a BART cop like Johannes Mehserle need a gun in the first place? The main difference between that incident and this one was the Oscar Grant murder was caught on videotape, but unfortunately it didn’t matter. People watched the video of a handcuffed man on the ground being shot and scratched their heads and said; “Well he does seem to be resisting a little bit. I mean look at him squirm. He’s being belligerent. And on top of that it was New Year’s Eve. I’m sure those cops were having a long day.”

It was this kind of not so subtly racist rhetoric that landed Mehserle a sentence of less than one year for killing an unarmed man in front of dozens of people. And it is this kind of thought that justifies The Jackass not being brought to justice after murdering an unarmed teenager carrying a bag of Skittles.

The general reaction to the tragedies of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin prove that American racism has come a very long way since Jim Crow and the K.K.K.  Just like medicine and technology racism has advanced. It is no longer out in the open like the word “nigger” but rather it is hidden in details like the word “suspicious.” Evil folks don’t hide behind sheets and burn crosses anymore. In 2012 they make up titles and get permits to carry guns so they can continue to kill with impunity and be supported by a society that will never admit that they are enabling these racist psychopaths.

Racism is in the details these days. It’s in the questions that people have and the doubt that is cast over whether or not it’s actually wrong for an unarmed black man to be murdered by a white authority figure.

Because we all know Trayvon instigated the situation and why was he wearing that “suspicious” looking hoody. And as for Oscar Grant, he had drugs in his system and he had gotten into a fight earlier that night. I mean I’m not racist but I just don’t know. It seems a little suspicious to me.

Meanwhile Oscar Grants daughter Tatiana will never really know her father and Trayvon Martin’s parents will never hear their son’s voice again.

Black men continue to be gunned down like animals while we scratch our heads and ponder about silly little details.

-YB

Notes on the Execution of Troy Davis

 

September 24, 2011

Troy Davis is dead and I must confess that while he was alive I participated in no protests concerning his execution date, I did not write one letter to any politician in the state of Georgia or anywhere else, and to be honest I barely stayed informed about his plight. I hate to say it’s because I have given up on justice but the truth is that I believe I have.

I put everything that I could into making sure that the police officer that killed Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009 was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Johannes Mehserle killed Oscar Grant on a crowded BART platform, only to have his deplorable actions caught on a camera phone and shown on news stations around the country yet he still wound up serving about 9 months in jail. At the time of the verdict certain journalists and legal experts were claiming that we should be happy that the police officer was convicted at all. And that a police officer going to jail for such a thing as murder was unprecedented and therefore justice was served.

Unlike with the recent Troy Davis execution, during the Oscar Grant situation I did attend several protests. I did write a few articles that were published; I did engage in passionate debates, I went to town hall meetings, and I did stay informed about the trial up to the minute, but in the end there was nothing. I still haven’t recovered from the spiritual blow that was delivered by that injustice. I did not put my faith and energy into seeing that Troy Davis got a retrial because I cannot give what I don’t have.

When the officers who beat down Rodney King were acquitted we burned things, when Mark Duggan was killed we burned things, yes we riot, we fight, we are warriors, we have determination, we have heart, but we still do not have justice.

One thing I have learned to do is to choose my battles carefully. Troy Davis was put to death and that is a travesty, however, I can’t say that I feel let down. For as a black man I have come to expect this kind of thing to happen.   

-YB