by Cynthia Pease
We’re going to jump forward this week to 2009. I recently saw “Fruitvale Station,” and it’s been haunting me. Ryan Coogler’s film about the murder of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) policeman on New Year’s Eve is not only heartbreaking, it’s senseless as well and could be classified as a lynching.
I do not remember this tragedy, although the young star, Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant said in an interview that he heard about it on the radio and went right to YouTube to see the footage that witnesses were shooting. It all happened at Fruitvale Station in San Francisco, and many people who were on the train filmed the murder with their cell phones. In fact, the movie opens with the actual footage from a cell phone, and it’s watching a nightmare that you know no one can wake up from.
Oscar Grant was on a train with several friends and his girlfriend Sophina, with whom he had a young daughter, in the wee hours of January 1, 2009. Oscar got into a scuffle with some other passengers, and the operator called ahead to the BART police. Arriving at Fruitvale, Oscar and two of the friends got off the train and were standing on the platform talking. BART officer Anthony Pirone approached them yelling and holding Tasers on them. Pirone pulled another friend off the train by his hair, using expletives. Sophina, meanwhile, was on the lower level of the train station and called Oscar on his cell phone. It was at that point that Pirone pinioned him to the ground, making it difficult for Oscar to breathe. Officer Johannes Meserhle had joined Pirone and shouted that he was going to tase Oscar. Instead he pulled his revolver and shot Oscar pointblank in the back. Oscar died seven hours later.
The spare movie goes over the last day of Oscar’s life, having to sum up the parts of a young man in very little time, and does it excellently. Oscar ‘s not a hero; he’s got lots of issues, but there is a sense that he is someone who wants to figure out his life, become more stable, and take responsibility for his daughter and his girlfriend.
There are flashbacks to his time in prison when Oscar’s temper gets him into trouble. During a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer in a role made for her), she tells him she can’t see him until he can get himself together. While she’s visiting, a white prisoner gets in Oscar’s face and Oscar lunges for him. His mother walks away quickly, the pain of tough love etched in her face.
Oscar has lost his job because of chronic lateness, but Sophina thinks he’s still working. While she’s at work, Oscar goes to the grocery store where he used to work to ask for his job back. While there, he flirts with a young white woman who is going to cook for her boyfriend that night and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Oscar calls his grandmother for a recipe and gives it to her. It will turn out later that the young woman is one of the people filming Oscar’s murder early the next morning.
Oscar doesn’t get his job back, which his girlfriend finds out about later in the day. This young man has charm to spare and manages to convince her that he will get another job soon. They go to dinner at his mother’s house and later they meet up with some friends to go into the city for the evening.
And all the while, you know what’s going to happen and your heart is breaking over and over again.
Pirone is portrayed in both the film and in witnesses’ statements as a bully. The film does not portray the racial epithets that the trial transcript says he hurled at Oscar. He appeared, though, to be looking for trouble and, when he saw a group of young black men, he inadvertently found it, though they weren’t the problem.
Mehserle’s defense was to be that he mistook his revolver for his Taser, but he never mentioned this at the scene, though witnesses said he did look surprised. What he kept repeating at the time was that he thought Oscar was going for a gun, though the young man obviously couldn’t move and one of his arms was trapped under his pinioned body.
Meserhle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which he appealed saying that there should be a lower standard for police officers. He was denied a re-trial and sentenced to two years in prison though he was out 11 months.
Last August, Bob Egelko of The San Francisco Chronicle reported that appeals cases could find the BART system itself responsible for the incident.
“But in this case, the appeals court said, evidence already presented to a federal judge would entitle a jury to conclude that Pirone had no reason to believe the men had committed any crimes, had no reason to hold them for investigation, and ‘had no lawful basis to detain the group’.” he wrote.
“The court cited U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel’s findings in 2011 that Pirone had never asked the train operator if anyone was injured, if any weapons were used, if anyone had come forward to talk about the fight, or if the operator could identify any of the five men as participants. Pirone, by his own admission, never entered the train himself or looked for evidence of any crimes, Patel said.
“A jury could rely on that evidence to conclude that Pirone had no reason to detain Grant and his friends, Judge Mary Murguia said in the appeals court’s 3-0 ruling.
” ‘Pirone encountered a group of black men who were doing nothing but talking when he arrived’ at the Fruitvale Station, were not committing any crimes, and posed no apparent threat that would justify his pulling a weapon and holding them,’ Murguia said.”
If you watch this movie, that’s what you will conclude as well. And I do urge you to watch it, though you know how it ends, though it will break your heart. We must witness to the ongoing racism inherent in this country and then do all in our power to eradicate it.