Fruitvale Station

BART Fruitvale Station

BART Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station (2013) – dir Ryan Coogler

I’m still trying to work out what Fruitvale Station, the film about the ‘accidental’ shooting (in the back whilst being pinned down on the platform) of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 is trying to tell me. The film takes its name from the station on the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system where this all took place.

It’s one of those films where there’s no need to shy away from talking about the ending as it’s about an actual event and the fact that a young black man ended up dead is well-known. I say ‘well known’ but I don’t know if that is really the case.

I tried to work out why I had no memory of the incident but then realised that at that time I was in China and followed events from the perspective of that country. However, even there I think I would have been aware if the reaction on the streets was such that had followed the criminal outcome of the trial of the police officers in the Rodney King case.

Yes there had been some reaction on the streets, both peaceful and more angry, but it was contained by either the organisers or the authorities. Perhaps when such events are happening all the time it gets difficult to expect people venting their anger in public. What it almost certainly does create, on the other hand, is a simmering anger where an increasing proportion of the public feel alienated from the society in which they live.

(Here it might be worth mentioning that, each year, something like 400 people die in the United States at the hands of law enforcement agencies. That’s quite an horrendous figure but we in the ‘non gun-toting’ United Kingdom should be careful about taking the moral high ground. It’s reckoned that about 50 people die in police (and other security forces) custody each year. Here they are rarely shot (although incidences of shooting are on the increase) but are more likely to be suffocated or crushed to death. What we should remember is that the population of the United States is 5 times that of the UK so living here is an even MORE dangerous activity than in the gun happy US of A when it comes to contact with the law.)

Although Oscar (as were most of the others who were detained after an altercation on the packed train as people were heading back home to the Bay Area after seeing in the New Year in San Francisco) was black that didn’t seem to be the main reason they were picked out from the crowd – although ‘institutionalised racism’ is never to be discounted, even in police forces with a substantial number of black or ethnic minority officers.

Inept transport police, whose attitude was aggressive and threatening from the start and, not surprisingly, on the receiving end of abuse from those who felt themselves to be falsely accused and detained, ended up killing Oscar by a single shot to the back, which punctured a lung which the hospital surgeons couldn’t put right.

There are similarities to the Rodney King case in the fact that the whole incident was recorded by tens of camera phones and the whole affair being posted on YouTube even before he was dead the next morning. But in our society even that is not enough to convict the police as the one who shot Grant was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served about a year and a half in gaol.

The forces of the state getting away with murder is nothing new but in countering this fact of life and demanding justice it’s no good in changing the victim into a saint and cry ‘it’s not fair’.

Oscar Grant wasn’t an angel. Why should he have been? Unless you get a lucky break it’s hard for working class children of whatever colour to have it easy in the United States. Figures show that their income has barely managed to stand still in the last 20 to 30 years, long before the most recent capitalist crisis and even during times of ‘prosperity. The ‘American Dream’ is a lie and the sooner the US working class recognise that the better it will be for them and – as their country is never backward in attacking and invading other countries – much of the rest of the world.

However, here the film makers decide to show that despite all the odds and the difficulties he was facing that on the very day before he was to die violently at the hands of the American state he was really going to turn over a new leaf. So the injustice he suffered was greater because he was trying hard ‘to get his life back’? This is a superficial approach and is no way to demand justice. If he had been really ‘bad’ does that mean the police were justified in killing him?

Rodney King wasn’t, by all accounts, the most likeable of characters but what was important in his case was the way that the State rallied around to distort the justice system to ensure that their agents and toddies would be kept from harm. The result was that Los Angeles burnt in 1992.

Investigating the case further I discovered that the family, within days of his death, had put in a ‘wrongful death claim’ against the BART with a compensation claim of $25 million – this was later raised to $50 million. Now, so soon after the event the family would have been vulnerable to all the legal vultures that descend in such circumstances, where the percentage fees for large claims are irresistible.

However, the family stuck with this claim and Grant’s daughter received $1.5 million and his mother $1.3 million EVEN before the case was resolved in court. Why is it that whenever things go wrong in capitalist society the loudest cry seems to be ‘compensation’. (It is interesting to note that $3.8 million is exactly the same that Rodney King got when he sued the city of Los Angeles.)

What the companies the size of BART pay out is chicken feed and in order to make sure there is no loss to the company they will merely put the price of a ticket up a cent or so. What it does do, on the other hand, is give the impression that any wrong can be righted if enough money is on the table.

A foundation has been established in Oscar Grant’s name to help those who are victims of such ‘injustice’ and perhaps some of the money from the compensation claims have gone to pay for its expenses. That doesn’t make the taking of the money any more acceptable.

If, as the film seeks to portray, on the day before his murder Oscar really was trying to find a way to provide for his family he surely wasn’t thinking that his death would be the quickest way to secure his goal.

The Railway Man (2013) – dir. Jonathan Teplitzky

British POWs on Burma Railway

British POWs on Burma Railway

The Railway Man concerns a surviving POW of the Japanese who was forced to work on the Burma Railway (of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame) and his post traumatic stress at his treatment, manifesting itself more than 35 years after the event.

As one of the other survivors says ‘war leaves a mess’. A bit of an understatement but obviously true but our realisation of that fact doesn’t make us any less likely, willing or even enthusiastic to send an ever-increasing numbers of men and women into conflict zones.

If the autobiography upon which the film is based, as well as the film itself, was arguing, if nothing else, that ‘war leaves a mess’ then surely we should be doing all we can to prevent such a mess from being created in the first place. This is especially so in a country that has been playing fast and loose with war since the disgrace and national shame of the Malvinas War of 1982.

Since then another Prime Minister, with an equal eye on history, has indulged his fantasy of long-lasting fame and, faced with gutless, opportunist and pusillanimous politicians and a weak population who oppose initially but support when ‘it’s our boys (and girls)’, has taken us along a road of never-ending conflict. When GW declared (probably the only true thing he ever said) that the ‘war against terror’ doesn’t have an end even he, I’m sure, didn’t expect that conflicts would be sprouting throughout the globe like poppies on the pockmarked, once agricultural, areas of Belgium.

So, I suppose, I’m asking what’s the purpose of this film (or any such like), this story of a personal tragedy?

Is it to ‘remind us’ that the British were the ‘good guys’ in the 1939-45 war? Is it to say, in the long-held Hollywood tradition, that the love of a good woman will bring resolution and redemption? Is it to say that revenge isn’t necessary and would probably have an even worse effect on he who perpetrated that revenge (as was the main point of the most recent film about South African apartheid, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)?

Because the whole idea of forgiveness is ludicrous if we allow the circumstances where such acts of barbarity can be committed to exist in the first place.

It’s the same about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In WWI it was described as shell shock and treated as a weakness and very often as an excuse for cowardice. This was the case even in the years following the war when damaged men were seen and written about throughout Western European society (I’ve never read or heard about the effects the war might have made on those soldiers from the British colonies of the time, from India and Africa).

Now it’s a recognised illness and has been (although grudgingly by the state) accepted as a consequence of conflict since the United States invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s. However, in those major wars the majority of the soldiers involved were conscripts, not all, but the majority. For me that paints a different picture. To forcibly take a young man from his home environment, send him to a strange and exotic land where he’s invariably like the proverbial fish out of water, expect him to kill, commit atrocities in the name their particular State, and put his own life on the line it’s not then surprising if some of them go doolally.

However, what I do find difficult to accept is the present tranche of the military that have, are or will be fighting in this never-ending war against terrorism. OK, it might be acceptable for the first to have gone into Afghanistan in 2001 and even some of those who were part of the invasion force in Iraq in 2003 but the ‘War on Terror’ has been going on for near on 13 years now.

As most private soldiers on the front line are in their late teens or early twenties some of those would have been in their first years of primary school when the wars started and when the first casualties of PTSD they would have been in their first years of secondary school. Before they joined up weren’t they aware that ‘war leaves a mess’? Were they so blinded by state propaganda and their bloodless experience of playing video games that wars hurt people? That their friends might not make it back? That innocent men, women and children are often casualties of war? That they might see done, or even do, things they would not have thought themselves capable before leaving home?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have relations of the military killed in these conflicts declaring, proudly, before the press (and in that way justifying the military aspirations of the State) that their son/daughter ‘died doing what they loved’, when what they did was kill people. Psychopaths and serial killers can’t get away with that excuse so why can State sponsored killers? On the other hand some will say that they have been permanently scarred psychologically by their experiences of war. They should have known better BEFORE taking the Queen’s shilling. They should have gone into it with their eyes wide open.

In some respects by their supposed ‘suffering’ they are negating the real horror and suffering of those who were forced, against their will and better judgement or conned into believing in a greater ideal of King and Country and whose mutilated bodies became part of the mud of Flanders fields. The adverts appearing on TV and cinema screens at the moment romanticise the military and have the same effect of deluding the young people who are still lining up to join the army.

One the other things this film sparked off in me was an investigation into the roots of waterboarding. Due to the publicity of its use in the last 13 years or so, primarily against Al-Qaeda suspects but probably against anyone the Americans don’t like, I held the general idea it was a relatively recent innovation in the treatment of people over which you have absolute power. It couldn’t be further from the truth and, if you think about it, the roots had to lie in the past.

Why? Because it’s low tech, cheap and needs only a few items which are always to hand.

It’s use is documented by the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the 15th century, but there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t used long before that. It was used by the Inquisition to extract confessions of consorting, fornicating and generally being a servant of the Devil and, as is the nature of torture where people will say anything to make it stop, thousands admitted to whatever they were being accused. This fact, however, didn’t stop the United States Army from institutionalising this treatment as a form of ‘enhanced interrogation’.

In the Spanish-American War, which started in 1898 and which spread to war over the control of the Philippines, it was a regular form of treatment of prisoners and a sketch of the procedure was even carried on the front page of Life magazine, dated 22nd May 1902 – so no real reason for the Americans to be shocked about its use. There was even an army manual about it.

And the Americans took the practice to those places it sent soldiers during the 20th century. I thought I knew quite a bit about the invasion of Vietnam but I hadn’t come across mention of the practice before. (Notice, in the picture below, the smiles on the faces of the perpetrators.) So waterboarding became torture just for the fun of it more than 40 years ago and continues as such to this day.

Water boarding in Vietnam

Water boarding in Vietnam

One of the ‘niceties’ of waterboarding is it doesn’t actually cause any physical harm. If the body is angled so that the head is lower than the body it’s impossible for a person to drown. The trick is the victim thinks they are. It’s this fine distinction which allows the likes of Donald Rumsfeld to have made typically contradictory statements over the procedure and its effectiveness as a means of gaining information, specifically about the whereabouts and eventual assassination of Osama Bin Ladin.

But it all depends on who is being waterboarded in the first place. The now replaced Republican officials of the Bush-era have been reportedly joking at their parties about all sorts of war crimes. However, in 1947 a Japanese soldier was sentenced to 15 years in gaol for waterboarding a US citizen – I don’t have any more information. The British Army used it against Republicans in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and its inconceivable it wasn’t used against anti-colonial movements in Africa prior to that.

Finally on this matter. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times for his supposed involvement in the September 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. It is reported the US intelligence forces gained 10 pieces of information from Abu Zubaydah, but nothing that was world shattering showing either he knew nothing or he was really tough.

Tougher, it seems, than US Navy Seals. Someone with a sense of humour in the US Defence Department thought it would be good to introduce waterboarding into the training programme. On average the recruits lasted 14 seconds. After a while it was decided this part of the programme was not particularly good for morale.

American Hustle (2013) – dir. David O Russell

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Seventies fashion gets a lot of stick nowadays, as does the hair that went with it, but films with stories from the 70s are definitely in vogue at the moment (with Behind the Candelabra and Lovelace being two that come to mind). To the ensemble cast of actors that are up for a number of awards in American Hustle you could also add the clothes and even the music.

The Mob, Politicians and Corruption appear so often in the same sentence when discussing US society that it’s not a surprise that they come together here – with the FBI added for good measure.

Like all good stories of this type the surreal nature of the plot and unfolding of the story is made even more so by the fact that it is ‘based on a true story’. In 1978 the FBI hired/forced to cooperate a convicted con man in what became known as Abscam. This was an undercover ‘sting’ which set out to entrap, and succeeded in doing so, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey as well as an US Senator and a handful of other top politicians. Although the FBI was successful in both the film and in actuality this operation ended up being criticised for its tactics and the rules of the game, for them, were changed. Whether that was rightful indignation against entrapment or the politicians just trying to make things more secure for themselves in the future is another matter.

Camden was in the 1970s, and by all accounts remains to this day, one of the poorest inner city districts on the east coast. In real life Angelo Errichetti, the Democratic mayor from 1973-1981, was a bit of a populist and seemed to have a lot of support in his efforts to try to revive the district and bring down the high unemployment rate. The trouble starts when he considers that making gambling legal in Atlantic City (at that time the run down, once popular tourist resort on the coast) would lead to inward investment, regeneration of the area and employment opportunities.

Unfortunately for both the fictional and the real mayor in the US gambling means big money means the Mafia WILL have a share, the only question is ‘how much’. By bringing the gangsters into the affair he brings about his own downfall. When the FBI (when it’s not chasing Reds or getting involved in conspiracies to kill a president) smells the chance of a high-profile arrest of a top Mafioso they’re like a dog with a bone and won’t let go.

It’s interesting what goes around comes around.

This part of New Jersey was once a thriving commercial and industrial area when capitalism needed US workers. Through lack of investment and better opportunities elsewhere where labour was cheaper, in Latin America or Asia (a similar situation was developing at the same time in the UK) once so-called secure jobs just evaporated, almost overnight, leaving in its wake decline, deprivation and despair.

In such circumstances people will clutch at anything, even if the best that can be offered is working as a croupier in a casino – in Atlantic City that would mean working to put more money into the hands of the Mafia. So one set of gangsters is replaced by another, perhaps more honest, one.

Because of the FBI sting in the 70s the plan to develop the boardwalk in Camden didn’t come to fruition. Although a number of politicians were caught up in it (I won’t get into the discussion of whether they did what they did because they thought the best way to achieve what they had promised the voters rather than for personal gain – as far as I’m concerned all ‘democratically elected’ politicians are in it for something, whether it be financial gain or personal aggrandisement) none of the Mafia went down. I don’t know if it’s one of the true stories or whether it was put there for artistic effect but the mob boss threw a spanner in the works by showing a command of languages, even though he had been a cold-blooded assassin in the past. Fear of retribution also meant the Mafia were warned off. So the easy targets were caught but the real gangsters were allowed to go free due to incompetence.

For the people of Camden the debacle of the corruption case didn’t mean that national government looked on them favourably. They had gone through the disaster years of Nixon and Carter and they were about to face two terms of Reagan. If the national leaders didn’t come up with anything their future local ‘leaders’ didn’t turn out any better. Three out of the last 5 mayors of Camden have been convicted of corruption. Perhaps it’s something in the sea air?

I wonder how present day residents of Camden see the film? Even though in recent years the area has been developed there’s a stratification between the fortress like casinos and the ordinary people who live there, as was seen when Hurricane Sandy hit the resort last spring

The resort isn’t as sleazy as it was depicted in the 1980 film Atlantic City but it still doesn’t look any different from Blackpool with the sun – although I’m sure that during winter the Atlantic coast is a forbidding place. However, there are treats in store. February offers a Group Wedding Ceremony on the 14th (so get your booking in quick!). August provides the Grape Stomping Festival and there’s the Miss America Pageant in September. All year around you can ‘explore the world’s largest elephant’ or visit Bare Exposure with ‘over a 100 beautiful naked girls’ with a ‘buy one couch dance, get one free’ deal.

But Camden is still one of America’s poorest cities and suffers from all that accompanies such an economic situation. It has almost 5 times the violent crime rate of cities of a comparable size (giving it number one place in country) and two out every five residents live below the national poverty level. Rather than the situation getting better it seems that law changes in Philadelphia are starting to challenge Atlantic City’s monopoly on gambling so even that ‘boost’ to the local economy might be lost in the near future.

Such is the American Dream.