Fruitvale Station shines light on race, police accountability

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August 22nd, 2013

Omaha, NE — The film Fruitvale Station, now playing in theaters nationwide, chronicles the last 24-hours of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III’s life. Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer New Year’s Day 2009 after being pulled off of a train heading to Oakland, Calif. Grant was unarmed and pinned face down on the train’s platform when the fatal shot was fired. The officer who fired the shot, Johannes Mehserle, was eventually tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served a total of just 11 months in prison.

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Grant’s story, much like Trayvon Martin’s, Emmett Till’s and countless other young African-American males, have sparked discussions and protests across the country.

Hamza Farrah, 24, recently viewed the film at the Ruth Sokolof Theatre in Omaha. He said he felt a personal connection with Grant as a young African American male. Farrah said it’s frightening to think that the people who are sworn to protect and serve can also cause such great harm. Growing up he said he was taught by his elders to just listen and obey police officers and to not act “black” around them.

Michael B. Jordan portrays Oscar Grant in the film Fruitvale Station. The cast and crew of the film captured the scene of Grant's shooting on the exact train platform where he was shot New Years Day 2009.(Photo Courtesy Weinstein Company)

Michael B. Jordan portrays Oscar Grant in the film Fruitvale Station. The cast and crew of the film captured the scene of Grant’s shooting on the same train platform where he was shot New Years Day 2009.(Photo Courtesy Weinstein Company)

 

“This movie is very important to show,”said Farrah. “It gives you a conscience of what’s happening across the nation; from Trayvon Martin to the Oscar Grant story. It shows you that race still matters and that people are treated differently because of the color of their skin.”

The film’s associate producer, Haroula Rose, said the cast and crew didn’t expect all of the attention the movie has received. Earlier this year, Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It also received the Prize of the Future award at the Cannes Film Festival. Fruitvale Station is director Ryan Coogler’s first feature film.

“I knew that it would be a great film because he[Ryan Coogler] just happens to have that ability to make something special, but I don’t think any of us knew what it would do,” Rose said “We just felt lucky to be making a movie about such an important story.”

Rose said they wanted to tell a story to solemnize Grant’s ordeal and educate people about social injustice. She said people living in homogeneous environments may not interact with people of different backgrounds, which can instigate fear when all they see are negative stories in the news about people unlike them.

“It’s making it be about a human being and somebody who had all kinds of complicated issues in his life and wasn’t a bad guy,” Rose said. “It gives him back his sense of humanity. That’s the whole point– to see it as a real three dimensional person instead of a statistic.”

Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice and an expert on police accountability, said 400 people are shot and killed by the police annually. While majority of those shootings are justified, there are a number of cases where the facts are unclear or the officer is at fault, according to Walker. He said the cell phone footage of Oscar Grant’s killing, much like the video footage captured of Rodney King’s beating in 1991, has transformed police accountability.

“For the first time we get a visual record of what happened,” Walker said. “The important thing is that there are tens of millions of people, white Americans, who just don’t believe these things happen. To see it happen made it real for them. It transformed the public reaction to it.”

Professor Walker said it is all too common for officers to escalate minor incidents into major ones while also using excessive force, such as with the Omaha police beating of Octavius Johnson this past March.

He said race and ethnicity also play a large role in police misconduct.

“It’s people of color who are the victims, for the most part, of police misconduct,” Walker said. “Race is at the center of policing. My view is that if we can fix police problems we can go a long way toward fixing our race problem in this country.”

Mistrust is created between citizens and the police when officers are not held accountable for wrongdoings, according to Walker. He said research has shown that police depend on the public for their cooperation in dealing with crime and disorder, but when people don’t trust the police they don’t report crime and that hampers effective crime fighting.

Professor Walker said new developments such as de-escalation policies, which encourage officers to resolve conflict before it heightens and the computerized early intervention system, which tracks officer performance to gauge where improvements need to be made, show progress and promise.

How that progress is measured is yet to be seen when young African-American men continue to be racially profiled and killed by the people with the authority to protect them.

Perhaps if Mehserle and his counterparts had stuck to policy that fatal night on the Fruitvale Station platform, maybe Grant would have exited the train station, gone home to his four-year-old daughter and started the New Year with the rest of his life in front of him.

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