My ‘Fruitvale Station’ moment
Last week, I saw first time director Ryan Coogler’s powerful new film, “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 New Year’s Day killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. Officer Johannes Mehserle, claims he mistook his firearm for his Taser when he shot Grant in the back. The well-acted film is remarkable in that it destroys stereotypes.
In the film, just as in real life, police officers pull several black males off a BART train suspecting them of being involved in a fight on the train. Oscar and his friends feel they’ve done nothing wrong because they were jumped while riding on the train. So they angrily protest their detention. The police, having lost control of the situation early, pour gasoline on the fire by shoving, kicking and shouting at the suspects.
Watching the film, I could hear members of the movie audience gasping when the police manhandled the suspects and questioning why Grant had to put away his phone at the cop’s direction. I agree that the police were too hot and unprofessional in an already tense environment.
But at the same time, I was surprised by Grant and his friend’s behavior. It’s not that I don’t understand their outrage. I do. And while I’ve had my own share of run ins with police, I admit that I don’t know what they’ve endured in the past with transit police or Oakland PD. But that said, the arguing, the getting up from the floor in that situation and the cell phone use in light of how aggressive the police were, shocked me. It wasn’t how I’d acted when I’ve encountered police.
Leaving the film, I couldn’t help but think about an experience I had back in the late ’80s. My best friend, a white guy nicknamed Chumly, and I went shooting at the gun range with “Juan,” a big fun-loving Mexican guy who was dating Chumly’s older sister. Afterwards we decided to go for a drive in Juan’s tricked out Monte Carlo until Chumly’s sister got off work. We often went for drives and listened to music, something a lot of people used to do before gas prices went crazy.
Somewhere out in an unincorporated part of town where there was nothing but roads for a future subdivision and acres and acres of dirt, Juan pulled over in a cul-de-sac to urinate. Before he got out of the car, we noticed a California Highway Patrol cruiser headed in our direction. It pulled in behind us, lights on, siren chirping. The officer climbed out of the car and yelled for us to get our “fucking hands up” where he could see them. We complied.
When he arrived at the window I thought I saw his weapon in hand but I was busy looking straight ahead. I wasn’t going to make any sudden moves.
I was ambivalent about law enforcement. I respected the job they did. But I was wary, knowing that there seemed to be a predisposition for them to see young blacks as criminals. I’d had far too many encounters with police. Some were questionable such as the time a friend and I were pulled over by a cop who questioned whose car we were in. It was my friend’s mother’s brand new Lincoln Continental.
Months earlier, Sacramento police ordered my younger brother and a friend out of their car at gunpoint. It was a case of mistaken identity. And before that, at a park near my house, Chumly and I were surrounded by six police officers. They claimed I fit the description of someone who had scaled a fence and broken out of the jail. If was laughable that they thought a fat bastard like me could’ve scaled a 12 foot fence but I handed over my license and they let me go.
The CHP officer began firing questions at Juan asking him who we were, where we were from and what we were up to. The cop, a slightly built man with a crew cut, seemed amped up and agitated. He asked for Juan’s license and one slowly gave it to him and put his hands back up. The cop ended every question or statement to Juan by derisively calling him “Junior.” Juan explained that we’d been to the shooting range and were just cruising around waiting for his girlfriend to get off work so we could pick her up. The officer ordered me to put my hands on the dashboard and I did slowly. The officer asked where our guns were and Juan told him they were in the trunk. Juan added that his name wasn’t “Junior” and the officer told him he’d call him whatever he wanted to.
“You been drinking today, Junior?” the cop asked.
Juan told him no. I was nervous now, my hair standing on end. This officer oozed hostility. If you’ve ever been in a room with someone who was seething and you were afraid to say or do the wrong thing, that’s the feeling that gripped us all. Only in this case, the seething someone was armed with a baton, Mace and a .40 caliber handgun.
The cop ordered him out of the car. Juan removed his seatbelt, slowly opened the door and then read the CHP officer’s badge number to Chumly and me. This enraged the cop and he slammed the door shut. He removed his sunglasses, puffed up his chest and said, “Before you get out of this car you remember that when you step out, you’re coming up against me. And you’re gonna lose, Junior!”
Juan slowly got out of the car and the cop ordered Chumly and me to keep our hands up where he could see them. I slowly raised my hands back up from the dash. He told Juan to open the trunk to show him our guns. I remember thinking that didn’t seem like normal procedure. I’m not in law enforcement. But why would you conduct a stop alone with three individuals in the car in the middle of nowhere, take one out of the car and want him to open a trunk we’ve told him is full of guns? Opening the trunk would obscure his view of Chumly and me. It didn’t make sense to me and worried me as to what he might be up to.
As soon as Juan started opening the trunk, the cop ordered him to shut it. He told Juan to get back in the car and then he told us to get out of the area and not to come back. I’ll never forget the defeated look in Juan’s eyes when he got back in the car. .
When I think back to that incident I imagine how worse it would’ve been if we were all yelling at this angry cop. If I’d gotten out of the car in indignation along with Juan, there’s a good chance we would’ve been shot. Here was an officer I believed to be hassling us just because he could. But I also know that we played it absolutely right by our deference, no matter how much we would’ve liked to have said, “What’s your friggin’ problem?”
I know that many cops are predisposed to seeing young minorities as criminals. Studies have been done on the “weapons bias” the tendency for officers to more quickly see objects in black hands as threatening. It’s how Amadou Diallo ended up being shot 41 times by New York police for holding a wallet.
Many police see the smallest hesitation during a minority arrest as resisting. If someone is shoving or hitting you, it’s hard not to react to that, which only causes the officer to increase force. But knowing this is the reality, my takeaway is to not give any officer any excuse to escalate force. I have to go into any encounter assuming that the officer believes me to be an armed gangbanger. I’m not going to get the benefit of the doubt if I reach for my wallet, pull up my pants or scratch my head. Chances are I’m not going to get Officer Friendly who wants to get my cat down out of the tree. I’m going to get Officer Stacey Koon, Johannes Mehserle or the overly aggressive hardon that tried to intimidate me and my friends that summer day.
I wasn’t about to rise to that CHP officer’s bait. If we ended up dead, it’s two minorities and a white kid in the middle of nowhere with guns in the trunk. They had to be thugs, right?
My takeaway is for minorities confronted by police to roll over and play dead. The cops may be in the wrong. But I’m not going to give them any excuse to use pepper spray, a PR-24, Taser or firearm on me. They may be in the wrong and I may be in the right. But I don’t want to be dead right.