We bought tickets to see Fruitvale Station, a film about Oscar Grant, a young black man shot dead by an Oakland transit cop when a text beeped my cell phone; it read – George Zimmerman acquitted. Waves of rage and grief rolled through me. Swaying on my feet, I stared at the phone.
Here I was about to see a film about twenty-two year old Grant, who was killed by Officer Johannes Mehserle, when another man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for the murder of sixteen year old Trayvon Martin – who, like Grant, was just on his way home. Two black men, young, innocent and dead. I saw their faces float over each other in my mind and overlap.
Next flickered the face of Sean Bell, also innocent, also killed by police. Next I thought of Ramarley Graham from the Bronx, who, chased by cops, ran into his grandmother’s house to flush weed down the toilet and was shot dead. Many others followed, but it led back to me facing a cop. Opening my eyes, I thought of my own arrest for being in a park after closing and the arrogant rage that sizzled in the officer’s eyes when I asked him if cuffing me filled his quota.
This is life as a target. You have a constant alarm in the back of your mind. It rings when a police car drives by or when you’re followed in a store by the staff. Or when the white people next to you begin re-enacting a black comedian’s act and you tense up to fight over their saying nigger but they gingerly sidestep it and leave laughing as you sit there like a tight steel coil.
In a multitude of ways, we are hit. And the more others think we’re dangerous, the more we’re punished. At the very least, whatever shade of brown our skin is, it’ll be blackened by slurs or bruised by suspicious stares. If we are born into poverty, the low expectations of others become its own prison. Crowded in a tiny world, we fight to get something and the scars of struggle are used as evidence against us. Pushed and pulled, many of us cross the law and land again in jail or hear the gunshot that kills us.
And in a multitude of ways, we defend ourselves against this fate. Some, like me try to look hipster safe with a satchel and black rim glasses. Some go corporate, some dive into church. And some refuse out of pride to use bourgeois camouflage and keep it real with hoodie, grill and some tattoos. But whatever we do, it may not matter. Standing in the street, I stared at the text on my cell phone announcing the verdict. And then I watched men of color walk by and knew once they heard it, the alarm we share will ring and we will glance at each other, feeling the same danger.
“Can men of color be safe without being innocent,” I asked Tim. He looked at me quizzically.
“George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin,” I said and saw Tim’s face pucker.
“Oh man,” he blew out a long hard sigh, “That’s a punch in the gut. Especially now.”
We both stood there, quietly turning the verdict over in our heads when a woman asked us, “He was acquitted?”
She was a waitress from the restaurant, outside for a cigarette break. Next to her a tall black man with thin dreads leaned in to our conversation. I spread my arms and told them, “George Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of Trayvon Martin.”
The dread shook his head as the waitress jabbed her cigarette in the air and repeated as if trying to spit out the news, “That ain’t right. It ain’t right. He killed that boy for what? Skittles? And they just let him go? It ain’t fucking right.”
“Next Christmas,” I said, “I’m going to ask mom for a bullet proof vest.”
“Word,” the dreadlocked man nodded, “Make sure you wear it everyday.” He pressed his hands over his chest, “Hell, I need to get one right now.”
We laughed bitterly, said goodbye and carried the sadness into our lives. Tim and I went to Kingman’s Lucky Lounge, sat on the stool and ordered drinks. As we gulped beers, a tall black woman, teetering on heels sat next to us and made small talk but her eyes seem focused on something far away. Finally she said, “Did you hear about the Zimmerman verdict?”
We said yes and told her about going to see Fruitvale Station. “Bring a Kleenex. It will make you feel it right here,” she said and tapped her chest. Standing up, she looked off and then turned back to us. She was struggling to speak, but then lowered her eyes to ours and told us about her brother, a hot-headed young man with dreads, saggy pants and a full time job. He was a responsible man, but with a short fuse, who argued with cops when they stopped and frisked him.
“Are you worried that your brother will end up like Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin,” I asked.
She blinked, sucked in her lips briefly and said, “Yes. Definitely. My nephew was stopped by the cops and had weed on him, while throwing it away, they shot him.”
“Permanent damage,” I asked.
“They removed his breast-plate,” she said, “Let’s just say he won’t be playing contact sports anytime soon.”
She and I looked at each other until it seemed our faces blurred away and only our eyes were left. I saw fear, helplessness, swallowed rage and tender love for her brother. And then we blinked, went back to drinking beers and small talk. Tim and I got up to go, we said goodbye to her. Outside, Tim said, “She was watching us earlier but really focused on you. Do you think it’s because I’m white? Maybe she didn’t feel, I don’t know, safe to talk directly to me?”
Seeing Fruitvale Station
We took our seats in Grand Lake Theater, a tall, cathedral-like cinema with a man playing an organ. Talk of the verdict could be heard murmuring through the aisles like low voltage. The words “Zimmerman” and “verdict,” “racist” sparked between people as the lights dimmed.
The trailer for The Butler blared on screen, Forest Whitaker appeared in a tux serving white presidents in the White House and I groaned. “Remember when I asked if men of color can be safe without being innocent,” I said to Tim. “This is what I mean. For so long the discourse on race demanded we have to be noble, long-suffering, turn-the-other-cheek characters to earn our humanity.”
On screen, Oprah, acting as the mother, slapped her Black Panther son as violins swelled and history climaxed in her husband, the butler, being celebrated after decades of silent work.
“Everything you are, everything you have,” Oprah said to her militant son, “Is because of that butler.” Tim turned to me, “I’m white and even I felt that smack. Weird, I can’t see her as a character – only as Oprah.”
“Thanks to her, we’re all characters,” I said, “Between her, Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels there’s nothing left for us to do but suffer elegantly.” And then Fruitvale Station began – a blurry cellphone video showed police surrounding black men who sat next to a wall at the BART station. When Grant got up, they wrestled him down and as he squirmed in their hands, a cop took out his gun and shot him in the back. The sound echoed through the theater and a cold wave swept over us.
As the film unfolded, we saw Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) in bed with his girlfriend Wanda Grant (played by Octavia Spencer) who berated him for cheating; we saw him hide a bag of weed before getting his daughter Tatiana and we saw him at the supermarket, trying to get his job back and failing. His boss does not give him a second chance because he was late one too many times. And then we saw Grant’s major flaw, a temper that can flare out of control.
And yet, Grant reined the rage back in out of love for his family. He never lashed out at them, but swallowed his disappointment and silently bore the weight of shame. It is this struggle to save face and help others even when he has nothing that allowed us to see ourselves in him. As the film progressed, I felt the audience melt into the story because Grant had our flaws, our scars and our confusion.
In scene after scene, we hugged his daughter, picked her up and flew her like a glider, raced her down the street and soothed her fears. He tried to make money by selling weed, but sat on rocks at the shore and remembered his time in prison. Cheeks sore from a fight, he faced his mom during a visit. Finally she told him that his reckless living was breaking his daughter’s spirit. Rising in tears, she said it’s her last time coming to see him and walked away as he screamed for a goodbye hug. The guards wrestled him down and his voice echoed as she walked away.
And then we saw him dump the weed into the ocean. Grant tried to find a way to take care of everyone, but was lost. When he confessed to Wanda that he was fired, she exploded until Grant, in a numbed voice said, “I’m tired.” He stared at some distant ideal image of himself that he could never seem to catch up to and said he just wanted to not fuck up for thirty days. It’s just long enough he reminded Wanda that Oprah said it took to form a habit. She stroked his face and saw his vulnerability and wearily forgave him.
The film showed him inching to self-realization, but hanging over each kiss and hug was the foreknowledge of his death. And then the New Year’s scene of the BART: a former inmate confronted Grant; they brawled; the police came; the men are put against the wall and Grant tried to talk his way out. Everyone in the audience was silent. I felt my stomach clench like a fist as the police kneeled on his neck and one stood up, pulled out his gun, aimed and shot.
The screen goes black and in the dark I felt his life, Martin’s life, Bell’s life and many others draining away. Here are the men of color that we are and that we love being murdered in front of us. People openly wept. It was hard to stand, hard to walk, hard to leave.
We are being killed and don’t know how to stop it.