Only in America

Only in America

Emotionally charged ‘Fruitvale Station’ spotlights nation’s deep racial divides

By Carl Kozlowski 07/24/2013

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I’ve seen “Fruitvale Station” twice now, both times with people of every age, race and gender unable to hold back tears by the final scene.

Detailing the tragic events of the last day in the life of a young African-American man named Oscar Grant III, who was ultimately shot and killed by a transit cop while trying to get home to Hayward from San Francisco in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, “Fruitvale Station” is especially timely now, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Grant also was young — only 23. And like Martin, he had a few run-ins with the law. Unlike Martin, however, he was the father of a young daughter.

The film is drawing mostly rave reviews, but here and there one can find some critics wondering if the film’s shocking conclusion — with Grant forced to lie face down on the concrete platform of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system’s Fruitvale Station, hands cuffed behind his back and a transit cop’s boot in his neck while being shot in the back —– is not an attempt to inflame already strained racial tensions.

There is some dispute as to whether Grant was handcuffed prior to being shot in the back by BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, as depicted in the movie. In court, filings by prosecutors indicate that Grant’s hands were behind his back and that he was “restrained and unarmed,” but do not say he was handcuffed. The day after the shooting, BART spokesman Jim Allison said Grant was not restrained when he was shot. A Los Angeles Times video of the incident shows Grant was not cuffed at the time the fatal shot was fired.

But let me assure all of these reviewers that the movie is accurate in every other sense. First, it opens with the disturbing and real cell phone camera footage of the arrest and shooting taken by dozens of witnesses on the platform that morning. But secondly, I know through firsthand experience what it is like to be roughed up by police and suspected of a crime. And I am convinced that if I was not white, I would be dead today.

It was March 2006, around the same time of the morning that Grant met his fate. I was walking along too-quiet, too-dark Argyle Street in Hollywood, having stepped off a bus on Sunset Boulevard and needing to catch another one to get home. I silently wondered why there weren’t more lights or police officers around. That’s when a police helicopter descended out of nowhere and hovered just above a three-story building while shining a searchlight on me.
I waved at the copter while continuing with my walk. As they kept shining the blinding light on my path, I sarcastically scratched the side of my head with my middle finger. Admittedly this was hardly classy, or even smart, but it wasn’t illegal.

After walking another block or so, I heard a voice coming through a megaphone telling me to freeze and drop what I was holding. They then ordered me to put my hands behind my head. I was holding a bag of new CDs that I didn’t want to break, so I said I hadn’t done anything wrong and that I wouldn’t drop them.

That act of defiance was enough for one officer to order me to get on the ground face down, which I did as other officers cuffed my hands behind my back. Then one of the officers ordered me to get up. I still had no real idea what crime they were charging me with, but I knew this would not happen without some help. Weighing more than 300 pounds, I said I couldn’t stand up with my hands bound behind my back. So a total of three officers were required to hoist me up as their commander asked to see my ID.

It was then that I remembered that I had a newspaper business card and my LA Press Club membership card in my wallet. I knew these would convince them to uncuff me and let me go, which they did.

After seeing the cards, the squad leader called his team aside for a little conference. About 30 seconds later, a female officer uncuffed me, telling me that they had mistaken me for another robbery suspect whose description fit me “to a T.” She then attempted to talk me out of writing about the encounter.

I was wearing glasses, a porkpie hat, a pinstripe jacket, a T-shirt and red checkered Vans that night. There was no way someone else fit my description “to a T.” The next morning, with the help of my editor, Kevin Uhrich, I raised a little hell with their superiors by phone.

Uhrich talked to the watch commander and asked for a wanted poster of the other suspect. In an effort to prove one actually existed, they faxed over a poster of a robbery suspect who also wore a porkpie hat, only the man was African American.

“When’s the last time you met a 300-pound Polish cat burgler named Kozlowski who was African American?” Uhrich asked sarcastically. I eventually wrote about the incident, and I actually received an apology from the LAPD.

I thought that was the end of it, but when I finished viewing “Fruitvale Station” for the first time last week I joined a few others in the audience in crying. Seeing Grant get handcuffed, held face down and then shot in the back was just too much to bear, serving as a trigger for repressed emotions about my own brush with abusive police.

In July 2010, Mehserle, who was tried in Los Angeles, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. Initially, protests against the ruling were peaceful, but after dark, looting, arson, destruction of property, and small riots broke out, with nearly 80 people arrested. That November, Mehserle was sentenced to two years, minus time served. He was released on parole the following June, having served his time at the Los Angeles County Jail, occupying a private cell away from other prisoners.

Aside from my own emotional trauma, I thought about a young friend I had become tight with in recent months, an African-American singer-songwriter named Clive Aden.

Clive grew up in South Los Angeles, but had managed to stay out of gangs and trouble in his youth. He was always determined to make something of himself with his incredible talent for writing and performing powerful lyrics about his life’s struggles and successes.

I had been a Big Brother mentor to an African-American teenager 15 years ago, when I lived in Chicago, and felt much the same kinship with Clive, seeing from the start that he had the potential for greatness, if given the chance.

Yet, in our often candid conversations about race and class in America, I realized for the first time just how badly the deck was stacked against Clive and other young black men. I took him with me to see “Fruitvale” last Thursday, to see whether it affected him the same way or differently.

Notably, Clive did not cry. For him, the story depicted in the film was all too real: He had seen and experienced police harassment far too many times to believe the events depicted were wrong or exaggerated.

“Rarely ever are cops friendly in situations, and in my experience, what I’ve encountered is that a lot of cops are assholes where we live and where we’re from,” says Clive. “Just the other day, I’m walking down the street, just trying to go to work, and the cops pull up on me and want to search me, and I didn’t want to consent to a search. But they made me consent to the search before I could leave.

“For me, I’m just smart about it,” he continues. “I’m not the guy to want to be tough to prove the point. I let the cops be tough and get on with it, don’t provoke them to make the situation become worse. Most days, I comply,” Clive says. Unlike me, apparently, “Most people comply,” he said.

Then it dawned on me: If that were Clive — and not me — flipping off the police helicopter that night, he might not be around to tell of it.

Clive went on to note that the LAPD will “rough up [African-Americans] for anything. They’ll hold your hand until it hurts, and when you try to move to help ease the pain in your hand, they’ll make it tighter, or they’ll make the cuffs tighter. You want to retaliate so badly, but you can’t do anything, and it sucks.”

Clive believes “Fruitvale Station” won’t change anything. Nothing, he says, can change the underlying hatred that African Americans all too often feel directed at them for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Yet, Clive hasn’t let this disconnect with law enforcement affect his own sense of openness, his willingness to embrace others outside of his community. He knows there’s positive heat on him, including a recent glowing full-page story in the LA Weekly and a headlining spot at a recent Grammy Museum concert. He just has to keep his head up and look beyond the forces that are trying to drag him down.

Amazingly, he still regards America as “the greatest country in the world,” despite all the extra hoops in life that he has always had to jump through.

“Behind all the injustice and discrimination, there’s a lot to offer here,” he says. “I realize I come from one of the humblest of beginnings, but I feel I’m on the brink of being one of the top artists in the world, and that can only happen in America. In America, there’s a million and one of those stories.”

Sadly, however, there also remain far too many stories like that of Oscar Grant.

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