By William Bixby
The shooting of Oscar Grant III at Fruitvale Station stands as a great American tragedy though it was not necessarily reported that way by the American media. A young woman lost her lover to police incompetence and brutality. Exorbitant and unnecessary police force left a mother without her son. An innocent child was orphaned by a random, but fairly common act of violence by localofficers. The untimely shooting and death of Oscar Grant III was a horrible event, however there is even more underlying disaster in this story than what befell Grant. The incident at Fruitvale is more than a simple police detainment gone wrong. This incident exposed the hidden profiling and mischaracterization of minorities by government officers, the media, and the general public, and showed that these types of incidents occur on a much larger scale than most Americans realized. It shed light onto the real disparity between the way that minorities are handled by the people who are supposed to protect them as opposed to the way that the majority is treated. The ugliness of police interactions with Black people in the United States stepped into the spotlight. It is a travesty that servants of the public treat members of the community so recklessly, it is a tragedy that no one believed that these things happened (and thought Black people were playing the race card), and it is unsettling that it took a fictionalized adaption of real-life events to expose the truth.
Relationships between the police and the Black community have been strained for more than half a century. There has been a longstanding standard of police corruption and exploitation in the poorer communities of America that stretches as far back as the Jim Crow era and reaches up to the recent rash of police shooting incidents against unarmed Black men. The justice system has failed minorities, and police departments within the judiciary have flourished at the detriment of minorities for nearly 50 years. The police are empowered and trained to profile, fine, and imprison minorities for the financial well-being of the government. Prison is a cash machine fueled by the systemic policing of inner city youth. Minorities fill prison walls at the behest of prison officials and the agencies that they serve. A 2013 report from ITPI (In The Public Interest, a comprehensive research and policy center on privatization and responsible contracting), uncovered that private prisons brokered deals with the government on the state level that include clauses guaranteeing high occupancy rates. In layman’s terms, in order for prisons to continue receiving their allocations of state and federal funding they have to keep their prisons full of inmates, and some private institutions promise 100% capacity. Because of these practices, today, over 2 million Americans are incarcerated. And unfortunately, most of these imprisoned Americans are minorities. Though people of color only make up about 30% of the population in the U.S., they account for nearly 58% of the population in prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one Black man in every three will spend some time in prison. Black and Hispanic men are three times as likely to have their cars searched after being stopped by a law enforcement officer than White men. The NAACP reports that there are currently 14 million White users of illicit drugs and 2.6 million Black users. Ultimately, 5 times as many White people are using illegal drugs as there are Black people using them, but Black people are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned behind drug charges than their White counterparts. In fact, according to the Sentencing Project, African American people serve nearly as much time for drug charges (58.7 months) as Caucasian people serve for violent crimes (61.7 months). Fruitvale Station has taught us that the judicial system is structured to incarcerate minorities.
And, this disproportionate incarceration of minorities as compared to the majority leads into the second disparaging part of the Fruitvale Station incident. People, especially the majority, want to place racism into a neat, easily recognizable box. They think of racism as a pure vitriolic hatred expressed solely by ignorant militarized inbreds, and they believe that racial discrimination only exists within the context of those angry bigots. It is both sad and discouraging that most Americans still have no idea how often racial stereotypes play into our preconceptions about people and their intentions. Black men are believed to be volatile, unpredictable criminals, so every move that they make is seen through that negative filter. No matter what credentials they have earned, no matter what positive actions they have made, the general public believes that Black people are always capable of and on the verge of violence. The perception is that minorities are one inflammatory incident away from criminality at all times, so they are treated accordingly. Women clutch their purses in elevators. Men cross the streets with their families when minorities approach them. Policemen behave more aggressively with them. But, no one wants to admit that these perceptions exist and that these behaviors happen at all. The problem that Fruitvale revealed is that no one wants to seem racist, even when their actions suggest that they have obvious prejudices. American police departments will not accept that there are ingrained prejudices that negatively affect the way that minorities are policed. White criminals who are armed and even those who kill publicly (like James Holmes or more recently, Dylann Roof) are often apprehended by officers without violence committed against them. They are said to be troubled rather than being labeled violent, and the media points to the misfortunes in their lives rather than branding them criminals. But minorities, specifically Black and Hispanic men, face more incidences of brutality with the police than their White counterparts. They are treated differently by the general public and by government officials because of negative preconceived ideas about their character. To the general public, minorities are criminals, but officers can not be allowed the same prejudices that the general public espouse. They have more responsibility than civilians because they have the right to use lethal force and have been trained to kill. They are trained to enter situations as an authority figure for conflicts to be resolved, but if they believe that a person is naturally aggressive, then their level of aggression is elevated. A person that expects a fight enters a situation with a different mindset than a person who expects peaceful resolution. The language is different. Posturing changes. No one believes that profiling exists, so the problem cannot be addressed appropriately. Oscar Grant and his friends were apprehended unlawfully, they were handled inappropriately, and finally, Grant himself was shot while unarmed and incapacitated because he was seen as more of a threat than a White person would be in the same situation.
Whether he was a thug or an angel, he was still unarmed when he was killed.
Finally, the most insulting and discouraging portion of the tragic incident at Fruitvale Station, is the indifference that most people had for the situation before it was made into a movie. No one cared about Oscar Grant before the Fruitvale Station movie premiered, because a simple proclamation of racial injustice shuts down all discourse that might be had between different groups of people. At the first hint of racism, the majority gets defensive and shifts blame for the incident to the victims, and then minorities turn the victims into martyrs regardless of their part in escalating the situation. Oscar Grant serves as a great example of this phenomena. After Grant was shot and killed by a police officer while handcuffed face down on the ground, the majority pointed to his prior history with the law as a reason for his death instead of chastising the officer for killing the restrained man. Minorities, in turn, transformed Grant into a saint instead of an unemployed felon who was not necessarily opposed to breaking the law. Several other incidents involving minorities being killed mirror the Grant death, for example, the Trayvon Martin shooting. When a security guard attempted to apprehend Trayvon Martin for “walking while Black”, and subsequently shot and killed him, the media and the majority began tearing down the character of Martin rather than questioning the motives of the shooter. The media posted personal pictures of Martin in urban attire, with gold teeth, and holding a gun, in effect, criminalizing him. Supporters of George Zimmerman, the killer, set up a defense fund for the shooter that collected over one million dollars. He actually profited financially from killing a teenager. In stark contrast, minorities posted pictures of Trayvon on social media that showed him as a precocious young teenager. They painted him as an innocent, helpess adolescent. Minorities began marching in protest and started campaigns that publicly questioned how minorities are portrayed in the media even when they are victims. But, the truth was somewhere between those two points. Trayvon Martin had grown into a 5’11″, young man when the fatal incident occurred, and his killer’s body showed signs of a struggle though DNA evidence did not support the shooter’s claims of self defense. An alleged fight escalated into a murder, but no one searched for the truth in the matter because their inimical belief systems about race preempted their need to find justice. In both these cases, minorities and the majority clung to the ideas that keep their prejudices intact instead of searching for absolute truth. Unfortunately, Fruitvale Station showed how racial biases still shape the way that incidents are viewed in America.
The horrific shooting at Fruitvale Station is the sad story of a young life cut short by police violence and ineptitude, but it also serves as a reminder of the state of race relations in this country. Fruitvale clearly showed the divarication between the perception of minority relations with police and the reality of those interactions. It showed the challenges that the prejudices that are ingrained into society’s consciousness cause for minorities and how that affects both their actions and the actions of those policing them. The death of Oscar Grant III showed how racism can override people’s ability to act rationally and be compassionate for fellow members of their society. It exposed how any act can be distorted into what our biases say they should be. But most of all, Fruitvale Station serves as a reminder that though many improvements in race relations have occurred over the years, racial injustice still exists. And, if we hope to become a more inclusive and tolerant society, then some introspection into our belief systems about those who look different from us needs to take place. We, as a society, must look past our prejudices and see those people for what they really are, people.