Coming just two weeks after the Trayvon Martin verdict, Friday's release of the film Fruitvale Station couldn’t have been timed more appropriately.
The film is about Oscar Grant III, the 22-year-old black father who was fatally shot in the back by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police early on New Year’s Day 2009, as he lay handcuffed on the platform of the eponymous station. Like Martin, Grant was unarmed. As with Martin, unspoken assumptions were made about Grant because of his race and attire, and they cost him his life.
Grant’s story touched me for all the reasons you might imagine. But it also hit home on a deeply personal level. Like Grant, I grew up in the Bay Area. Many of the scenes in the movie — friends passing around a flask on the BART platform, Mac Dre dance parties (“going dumb” for those of you who didn’t grow up in the Bay), smoking blunts rolled in Swishers, persuading shop owners into let us use their private bathrooms — represent things that defined my youth, too.
The difference is that my bad behavior was viewed as innocuous and cheeky troublemaking, or effervescent mischief. Growing up white, blonde (at the time), and well-off provided me with blanket protections, and allowed me to avoid the potential consequences of my actions. Grant wasn't just denied those protections. His racial identity meant exactly the opposite; he was immediately considered suspect just for the way he appeared to the world.
On New Year’s Eve, Grant and his friends had taken BART into San Francisco from Oakland, on the advice of Grant's mother. It was supposed to be the smart, safe alternative to driving. On his ride home, he got in a fight — not a particularly unusual occurrence on the train that connects San Francisco to the rest of the Bay Area, especially after midnight on New Year's, when people have had a lot to drink, and emotions are magnified. As tends to happen in these situations, by the time the police made it to the scene, the fight was broken up, and people were ready to move on.
The fight, though, was justification enough for BART police to pull Grant off the train, push him around, throw him on the ground, and handcuff him as he lay on his stomach. Johannes Mesherle, the officer that shot Grant, claims he had attempted to reach for his Taser, not his gun. In all of their years of troublemaking, none of my white, male friends ever came close to being treated this way, let alone shot in the back, as happened to Grant.
After President Barack Obama was elected, we heard a lot about post-racial America: "We can’t be a racist society—we elected a black president! Twice!" This kind of thinking was used to justify attacks on affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act.
The logic is blatantly false, and it’s harmful. We all know that in American culture, darkness symbolizes danger. It’s the reason OJ Simpson’s face was darkened in his mug shot on the cover of Time magazine.
The stories of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Darius Simmons — the 13-year-old who was fatally shot in the chest by a neighbor who thought Simmons had stolen from him — are just the most recent evidence that we as a society have not been able to shed the racial prejudices that we carry with us.
In the eyes of the BART police, Grant was a hoodlum, so it didn’t matter if they roughed him up, tased him, and locked him up. No matter that it was New Year's morning, the fight was over, and Grant was almost home, where his child was waiting.
To Zimmerman, Martin was a “punk” who needed to be stopped so badly that Zimmerman was willing to put his own personal safety at risk. (This part of the defense still troubles me. If Zimmerman was so convinced Martin was dangerous, why did he follow him?)
Thirteen-year-old Simmons (right) was perceived as a burglar who deserved to be shot to death in front of his mother. And not that it matters, but no, the cops did not find any of the neighbor’s stolen possessions in Simmons’ home.
Grant, Martin, and Simmons come from three completely different parts of the country: California, Florida, and Wisconsin, respectively. This is not an issue which affects just one part of our nation, or just some of our citizens. It’s an enduring, systemic aspect of the society we live in, and it will continue to be until we take direct steps to correct it.
The concept of "post-racial America" is an absurd distraction from the issues at hand. We cannot untangle race from our cultural narrative, and we shouldn't want to. Our individual cultures and histories are what make ours such a rich and interesting nation.
Moving past racism doesn’t mean adopting a “color-blind" approach that tunes out everything that makes us unique, cultured, or colorful. It means creating a society that’s equally safe or dangerous to bring a child into, regardless of their race. We’ll know we’ve achieved it when the Oscar Grants of the world are afforded the same benefit of the doubt as I am.
This country is becoming more racially ambiguous all the time. These issues affect all of us, and impact every institution we hold dear — education, democracy, our economy, and the arts. How can we have a healthy, stable society when certain segments of our populace are less likely to be well educated, well paid, or represented in our government and media?
These are issues we need to address publicly and honestly, once and for all. It will require uncomfortable conversations about race, the assumptions others make about us, and the way we perceive others. We need to reexamine the privileges and prejudices we take at face value, and adjust our attitudes accordingly. It’s a process we as a society need to undertake sooner, rather than later. Thanks to the memory of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Darius Simmons, the discussion has already begun.