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.