A few Saturdays ago I sat in an area movie theater clutching my stomach as the film “Fruitvale Station” moved to its conclusion. With sudden impact, the vulnerability of young black men choked me, a high school teacher who has seen many young men removed from the student body for acts that were disruptive, threatening, or violent – or were perceived to be.
“Fruitvale” recounts the early hours of New Year’s Day 1999 in Oakland, Calif., when 22-year-old African-American Oscar Grant and his friends were ordered off a subway train after a fracas in which they were involved but did not initiate, as the filmmaker has depicted it. Even knowing how the film would end, I found myself hoping one of the strangers on that subway train would vouch for Oscar, give him their seat, speak up for him, hide him, do something to help him elude the transit police, to get back to his family, to enable his desire for a life do-over.
Detained by the police in the subway station, the young men put up a vehement verbal resistance, declaring their innocence and their rights, and cursing the police for flagrantly strong-arming them. Forced to lie face down on the station floor, Oscar was shot in the back by one of the officers. Hours later, he died at the hospital.
Filmmaker and director Ryan Coogler does not show what happened in the weeks that followed those horrible hours, the reaction of Oscar’s little girl, the community’s protests, the trial of the transit officer who said he had meant to engage his taser gun, and who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, not murder.
Coogler wants America to see, really see, Oscar Grant, and perhaps to begin seeing other young black men.
The film made it easy to pull for Oscar, depicted as a young man with a natural capacity for random acts of kindness. Spliced into the good, however, were a criminal record and a capacity for doing whatever it took to survive, including dealing drugs.
Yet, viewed through Coogler’s eyes, Oscar’s hard outer layer was not nearly as durable as his gentle core.
Why didn’t the people on the subway train see his core? Why didn’t the police? How did they size him up, and how quickly?
Those nerve-wracking subway scenes took me back to a rush-hour experience on D.C.’s Metrorail a few weeks earlier, a moment that left me skeptical about black people’s commitment to the “it takes a village” wisdom. Had black people in America come to see – as others had -- every young black man in the public space as threatening? At what point had we decided that they are not our business? And why had we?
The Tuesday before the George Zimmerman verdict, a young African-American man, about 16, boarded an evening rush-hour train blasting the music on his Mp3 player. Some passengers exchanged looks of aggravation and disgust. One well-suited black man looked as if he wanted to say something. A briefcase-carrying black man put in his earphones and stared at the floor. The kind-faced black man across the aisle smiled uncomfortably. The sick-and-tired-of-it woman next to me said Metro police were never around when you needed them.
But what if they had been? What if police had escorted the young man off the train? Sure, we all would have breathed a sigh of relief, but would we also have felt sorry for this boy? Feared for him?
Maybe these riders didn’t want to risk a confrontation. Whichever tone one takes in addressing a stranger in such a situation, the fear of being shot is real, given the frequency of gun violence in America.
I forced myself to give the teen the benefit of the doubt. Catching his eye, I pointed to my ear and said, “Your music is loud. Could you turn it down, please?” He turned it down -- slightly.
Five stops from the end of the line, he got off. I was frustrated. All the talk about taking back our communities and saving our black boys, and all we could do was sit seething, shutting out the noise, and wishing for the police?
The young man’s lack of responsibility might have cost him a run-in with law enforcement, or his life. However, our silence might have cost him a sense of belonging to a larger community and a lesson in self-discipline.
As we attempt to vindicate the unjust loss of our children, undoubtedly we will teach the children still with us to be more thoughtful in guarding their freedom and their lives. Moreover, maybe it’s time we adults refresh our view of the young black men we encounter in public, to balance our fear with our hope, to talk to them, to try and see their core.###