By design, I didn’t see “Fruitvale Station,” a fictionalized account of the life and death of Oscar Grant, during its opening weekend. Fruitvale Station opened the weekend of the verdict in the George Zimmerman case — the case we will always think of as the “Trayvon Martin case,” because even as we correct others for referring to Martin and not Zimmerman as the defendant, we all know that, sadly, it was actually Martin who was on trial. I could not bear seeing Fruitvale at the same time I was mourning Trayvon Martin, whom the trial resurrected, desecrated, and then murdered all over again.
I finally steeled — or rather, resigned — myself to seeing Fruitvale this weekend. Three weeks after the Zimmerman verdict, I thought seeing Fruitvale would feel much like swallowing much-needed but bitter-tasting medicine. Instead, I found it cathartic. Fruitvale gave me an outlet to release my frustration and anger over these senseless deaths of young black men that keep occurring, and that few outside the black community really seem to care about.
The importance of “Fruitvale Station” lies not in its devastating final 20 minutes, but in the random, joyful normalcy of the 70 minutes that precede them. As director Ryan Coogler notes, after Grant was murdered, people either invoked his name as a rallying cry, or labeled Grant, like Trayvon Martin, a “thug” who deserved his fate. Fruitvale Station is, at its core, an attempt to restore Grant to his rightful status as a human being. Oscar’s last day on Earth is depicted as a day that foreshadows both his impending death, and what Grant’s life may have been like had Officer Johannes Mehserle not fired his service weapon into Grant’s back.
Oddly, some critics have accused director Ryan Coogler of turning Grant into a hero. But Coogler doesn’t gloss over the less positive aspects of Grant’s life. There is a flashback to Grant’s stint in San Quentin in which he demonstrates a quick, explosive, and dangerous temper. There is a scene in which Grant makes a move that could either put him on that proverbial path to the straight and narrow, or dig the hole he’s already in even deeper. In showing both the positive and negative facets of Grant’s character, the movie also challenges you to re-think the “thug” label.
When a yuppie white man admits to Grant that he, too, was once involved in crime, as a way of getting his life started, one has to wonder what the difference really is between the young white man, who married his girl and started a successful web design business, and Grant, who is thinking of marrying his girl but whose prospects are far dimmer than his new friend’s. Why is Grant any more a “thug” than the young white man? Why was Grant imprisoned for his crimes, while the white guy not only served no time for any of the crimes he admits to committing, but prospered as a result?
Fruitvale Station also is, indirectly, an indictment of respectability politics. Oscar Grant uses the N-word, wore baggy (but not sagging) pants, wasn’t married to the mother of his children, sold weed, and had spent time in prison. None of this caused Grant’s death.
Jay Smooth’s brilliant deconstruction of the respectability hustle emphasizes that respectability politics “serve not to help another person with their problems, but instead, to implicitly blame that person for their problems, so you can feel better about seeing them have problems.” At best, respectability politcs rest on the false hope that if one stops dressing, stops acting, stops talking — in sum, stops looking like the thing that is feared, then one will be accepted, protected, and not “othered.”
This “pull your pants up” message does not counsel the person who is actually out there doing wrong to modify his or her behavior — it simply counsels them to don a mask of respectability so they won’t get caught. And there is a disturbing flip side to the respectability message that its proponents ignore. If you believe those who don’t look, act, or dress like thugs deserve to be left alone, then you also believe those who dress, act, talk and look like thugs, deserve whatever happens to them — including being shot.
Even if this advice made even a modicum of sense, it’s nearly impossible to define what makes someone “look like” a thug. In 1940s Los Angeles, it was zoot suits. In the ’60s, it was Afros, dashikis, bell bottoms and platforms. In the 80s, it was Adidas sneakers with untied shoelaces. In the ’90s, it was Timberland boots and plaid flannel shirts — the same style called “grunge” when worn by bands like Nirvana. When Trayvon Martin was shot, his hooded sweatshirt — a clothing item worn by kids from six months to 96 — was deemed to be the culprit. In the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, the focus has been on sagging pants.
The only common denominator among these clothing fads is that they are all styles worn at one time by blacks and other persons of color. If young black people are wearing it or saying it, it is thuggish. Anyone who thinks black forms of expression should be criminalized, is foolish — no matter their color, politics, or motivations. In any case, as Melissa Harris-Perry has pointed out, talking about clothing and not race, law enforcement policy, and criminal justice is classic misdirection.
When New York City Mayor Bloomberg argues that even more blacks should be stopped and frisked by the NYPD because a higher percentage of blacks commit crime, he is justifying a law enforcement policy that treats young black men as dangerous criminal suspects who must be controlled. The young black men who are thus racially profiled are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Even when they have committed no crime, profiling makes it acceptable to treat the innocent as if they are guilty of wrongdoing; the presumption of guilt is nearly impossible to overcome. When unarmed black men are shot – whether by a police officer, a subway vigilante, or an overzealous fake neighborhood watch captain — the shooter usually receives the benefit of the doubt. The victim almost never does.
Whites ignore issues like police violence and stop and frisk, at their own peril. The routine murder of young black men by law enforcement (and quasi-law enforcement) is more than a race and civil rights issue — it is a human rights and civil liberties issue. When you condone the killing of a man for no reason other than that society has deemed men of his race to be dangerous, you condone the harassment and murder of anyone the state, for whatever reason, deems dangerous. If one person can be murdered because of how he or she looks, then all of us can. Under such an arbitrary and capricious standard, none of us should feel safe.
It is impossible to know whether Oscar Grant would have wound up back in San Quentin, or could have looked forward to a happy future more like that of the yuppie who hands him his business card. And it doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether, at the moment of his death, Oscar Grant was doing anything that posed a threat to law enforcement or passengers at the Fruitvale Station. The answer to that question is a resounding no.
And that is the lesson of Fruitvale Station: whatever one might choose to call Oscar Grant — whatever Grant’s future did or did not hold — in those moments just before he was shot, he was simply a man who did not deserve to die.