By Lane Holden, AFSC Twin Cities Intern
On April 10, the AFSC Twin Cities Healing Justice Program’s Film Series showed its second film. The series brings to light systems that perpetuate racism in our society today in order to create a conversation about our role in disrupting these systems. The second of four films in the series was entitled Fruitvale Station.
Fruitvale Station is based on a true story—a devastating event that occurred on the morning of New Year’s Day in 2009. Hayward, California was the home of Oscar Grant III, where he lived with and near his mother, grandmother, sister, girlfriend Sophina, and beloved daughter, Tatiana. The film follows Oscar, a 22-year-old African American man, throughout his day, giving the audience a true sense of the character and his values.
We see the full humanity of Oscar throughout his day as he takes his daughter to daycare, his girlfriend to work, and tries to get his job back. Oscar coordinates with other family members to plan his mother’s birthday celebration that evening.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and after his mother’s dinner party, Oscar, Sophina, and their friends take the train into the city. On the train ride home, a previous fellow inmate recognizes Oscar. There is a lingering tension between these two men, leading them to fight.
The police are called to settle the dispute, which is essentially over by the time they arrive. The police make Oscar and his friends sit against a wall in the train station. Frustrated and arguing that they did not deserve to be held there by the police, the agitation and strain between the two groups of men grows.
As the quarrelling heightens, one of the officers pulls out his gun and shoots Oscar in the back. Oscar’s life is at serious risk and he is taken to the hospital, where his mother, girlfriend, and friends wait for him to come out of surgery. Oscar passes away in the hospital.
This heartbreaking true story is a testament to the various systems at play in our society that impacted the outcome of Oscar Grant’s life. Throughout the film, the thing most apparent to me was the way in which Oscar was affected by structural racism—the normalization of cultural, historical, and interpersonal dynamics that benefit whites while simultaneously marginalizing and creating adversity for people of color.
In following Oscar and those closest to him through a day in his life, I was consistently aware of the way in which certain bodies are always under surveillance; certain bodies are criminalized. In this film, it was Oscar and his friends under surveillance. However, the series of events leading up to Oscar’s death is unfortunately a single instance of the unjust treatment people of color are continuously exposed to.
The police officers involved in the train station incident and in Oscar’s death are white men. Oscar and the friends he was with are African American men. The officers approached the situation and detained the young men, making them sit against the wall in the train station. The other men involved in the fight were not found or asked to sit with Oscar and his friends.
Deemed as troublemakers by the color of their skin, the young black men have their pleas of innocence ignored. The arguing between the police officers and the young men brings forward many questions.
Did the biases of the police officers—arguably representative of the biases our society—play a role in their treatment of the young African American men? Would the behavior of the police officers been different if the young men had been white? The structural racism ingrained in our society both manifested itself during the film and prompted powerful conversation in our discussion of the film afterward.
After the film ended, we—the group of Quakers in attendance—discussed the thoughts and emotions we had been grappling with during the past 90 minutes. There was an unmistakable sadness among the group, along with an understanding of the injustice that we had just witnessed in the film.
The group in attendance was almost entirely comprised of white Americans, which I found crucial in better understanding the roots of much our discussion. In my opinion, this movie challenged our own biases.
This movie challenged us to analyze our thoughts and where they come from. What does it mean that we can predict the ending of the movie? We’re appalled at the way the police treat the young African American men, but why aren’t we surprised?
Our society is hierarchically arranged along race and class lines. This hierarchy favors those in our society who have white skin and who come from a middle or upper-class background. The reverse is also true; our society victimizes individuals of color and those who are a part of a low socioeconomic class. Because of this, when incidents like this happen, the conclusion seems foregone.
A few days prior to the movie screening, AFSC Twin Cities Healing Justice Program Director Sharon Goens-Bradley and I conducted a focus group at Ujaama Place, an organization whose mission is to empower disenfranchised young African American men in today’s society.
Fruitvale Station was brought into the conversation. As we discussed the upcoming film series with the men there, the conversation turned quickly from an informational piece about the film series to a discussion about the relevance this movie has in the men’s lives.
Many of the men in the focus group expressed that what they saw in the film—specifically similar treatment from police officers—is something they see almost every day. These comments, in conjunction with the different perspective and discussion we held after the film at the film series event, made it very clear that the outcome of Oscar’s life was a result of bigger systems in our society that target men of color; the police brutality could be viewed as a way in which our society utilizes law enforcement as a way to maintain racial hierarchies and social control.
Following Oscar throughout his day and into his night that ended in the Fruitvale train station was a heart-wrenching experience. Moreover, it was a powerful one. I think this film not only highlighted the injustice present in our society, but also brought forward many important questions to contemplate. What would it look like if we were to model true justice? How can we break down barriers that create silences and missed opportunities about changing these injustices?
Lane Holden is a junior Sociology major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her AFSC internship experience includes work in both St. Louis and the Twin Cities.