• Mon, Jul 15 - 4:59 pm ET

Sick Of Hearing About Trayvon Martin? Do Us All A Favor And Watch Fruitvale Station

Scene from Fruitvale Station July 2013This has been a big weekend for deleting Facebook friends, am I right? It seems like no matter where you fall on the spectrum of caring about the Trayvon Martin case and the verdict in favor of of George Zimmerman‘s innocence, you fall there HARD and as soon as you hit the ground, you need everyone in your social media sphere to know exactly how and why.

Through my travels along the tangled webs of the internets in the past few days, I’ve learned that my Facebook friends fall into all manner of categories. Some fancy themselves new internet lawyers with a baffling and tenuous grasp of our country’s legal system, some want to boycott Florida in the form of Amazon products that are shipped from there, some are just fundamentally racist, and some of them are just my regular friends doing regular stuff. Granted, these traits are all very troubling (especially the being friends with me part), but they’re not my main concern, and I’ll tell you why.

I don’t mind people getting a little attention-seeky with their statuses (statusi?)  or whatever. As annoying as it is, it’s their own Facebook page and they’re entitled to embarrass themselves however they’d like, as am I. I personally was devastated by the verdict, but I chose not to speak about it on my social networking pages because I like to keep those free for pooping references and documenting my trips to Chipotle. Lots of people did, though, and as much as I thought a lot of their opinions were ignorant and offensive, I’d much rather people be invested in some regard, whether or not I’m able to talk them around to my way of thinking. (Note: I’m not able, in case that was still up for debate. Just like they’re not able to talk me around to their way of thinking.) People will always be close-minded and set in their ways, and I know better than to argue with an internet full of racist, ignorant instigators. What bothers me the most is the people who don’t care at all.

Because there are a lot of them. I had one friend post a status sarcastically saying, “Omg it’s the end of America justice is dead the world is a pile of shit how can we live super important everyone knows my feelings everything is fucked oh no I’ve never heard of this crying all day why”, and someone commented on it, “THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING ABOUT OUR EVERY DAY LIVES BEC– zzzzzzzzzzz…” These are both intelligent, college-educated, theoretically socially-aware people publicly bragging about their lack of vested interest in a national case that could serve as a precedent for decades of race-relations litigation to come. And not only bragging, but actively cutting down those who did elect to choose a side. I couldn’t understand it. It’s one thing to choose to refrain from the discourse, or to post an incendiary opinion, but it’s hard for me to get behind the decision not to care at all, especially when it’s so self-congratulatory.

BUT. I have a solution. For those people out there, whoever you may be, this is me admitting that I don’t understand your perspective. I’m sorry that I don’t, and I wish that you could understand mine, but barring that, I have a solution — get to a theater and watch the movie Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan. I reviewed it last Friday, it’s easily the best film I’ve seen this year, and it holds some very helpful parallels to the situation with Trayvon Martin.

The movie follows the last twenty-four hours of Oscar Grant’s life, the young man who was shot and killed by transit police in the early hours of New Years Day 2009 while handcuffed facedown on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. The incident was recorded by multiple witnesses on their cameraphones, all of whom can be heard shouting in indignation at his treatment and then screaming in horror when he is shot. The official explanation in Oscar Grant’s case is that the man who shot him, Officer Johannes Mehserle, mistakenly thought he was holding his taser when he fired the fatal round, but no one will ever really know what went through his head in those moments.

Regardless of what he intended, it cannot have helped that Oscar was black and that Officer Mehserle was white. The tension between the two groups — officers and Oscar’s group of friends — is evident in both the original footage and the film, and it undeniably escalated the incident. Although unarmed and handcuffed, the transit officials felt threatened enough by the group to keep edgily circling them and shouting, and to force Oscar onto the ground, although he had not been resisting. Even a taser was inappropriate under the circumstances, and it’s clear that no mix-up between a firearm and a taser would have taken place had the officer been calm and cool-headed. But he wasn’t. He made a snap judgement about the situation, arguably based at least in part on the race of the participants, and a young man died because of it.

It’s incredible how much of that transfers directly to the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case. Both men young, both men black, both considered suspicious by the … party, although both were unarmed. We may never know for sure what took place in the altercation between Trayvon and George, but the culmination of their interaction was surely a result of a series of panicked choices on the part of the gun-carrying party. In both cases, some crucial step of critical thinking was skipped over in favor of the rash decision to defend a life that was arguably never in danger. I’m of the (perhaps unpopular) opinion that George Zimmerman targeted and stalked Trayvon Martin, so it’s my belief that if he’d stayed in his car, if he’d waited for the police to arrive, if he hadn’t been armed that night, if he’d considered that the human being opposite him might have a personality and a life dedicated to something other than terrorizing his, then Trayvon Martin would be alive today.

Similarly, if the police involved in the death of Oscar Grant had evaluated the situation instead of reacting to it, rejecting their years of training and experience because they felt threatened by an already-subdued group of young African-Americans, we would live in a world where Oscar Grant was still alive, and the movie Fruitvale Station didn’t even need to be made. But it did need to be made, and the reason for that is simple: both of these men, Johannes Mehserle and George Zimmerman, were allowed to extinguish human lives with largely no consequence. Both killed young, unarmed men, and both were essentially excused from responsibility in those interactions because they happened during moments of duress. Both men assumed their lives were in danger — not because they necessarily were, but because that’s what they’d decided. They took matters into their own hands and, in my opinion, decided to end someone’s life because that was a power that they wielded, as gun-carrying humans over the age of eighteen. And that’s where the problem comes in — when people start misinterpreting ‘power’ as ‘right’.

After resigning his job, Officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in July of 2010. He was found not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, and in November of 2010 was sentenced to two years, minus time served. He completed his sentence on June 13th, 2011, and is now on parole. He served a total of 365 days in jail for shooting an unarmed, handcuffed young man in the back.

George Zimmerman has served even less time, having been declared not guilty of second-degree murder and of manslaughter. He was arrested on February 26th, 2012 after the shooting and served five hours before posting bail, then another twelve days, from April 11th to April 23rd, before he again posted bail. Two hundred and ninety-three hours of jail for ending a human life. That’s maybe something to care about.

Which is why I’m so grateful that Fruitvale came out this weekend, because it’s qualified to illustrate the importance of these cases more ably than I ever could. I’ve been unable to impart my feelings of the injustice of this situation on anyone who didn’t start out agreeing with me, but I feel strongly that the imagery and immediacy of the film are much better-suited to bring the point home. We’re all committed to accept the verdict in both these cases, as they were trials decided by a jury of our peers, and as citizens of the United States, we’ve pledged to accept that, however much we might (or I might) disagree with them. What I can’t accept, however, and what I won’t accept, is goddamn apathy. So get your ass down to a theater and see Fruitvale Station, goddamnit. It’s time to start caring about something, and this is an excellent, if tragic place to start.

(Image: Slate)

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  • Olivia Wilson

    Wow, it’s crazy that a movie so connected to real-life events is coming out during the unfolding of said events. You get what I’m trying to say, right?

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      If you’re saying that whatever personal drama you’re going through on your Facebook right now supersedes the importance of this case, then I am right there with you.

    • Olivia Wilson

      Well, not quite. But good luck with your personal Facebook drama and I’ll just be silently thankful that I forget my Facebook password often.

  • j

    Thank you for that incredibly thoughtful and sensitive analysis / commentary on those fatal race-related killings.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Oh I’m so glad you liked it! Thank YOU so much for sharing your comment!

  • MCR

    Interesting that a film like this would come out so close to a similar event; but then, I suppose the odds of that happening would be fairly good whenever the movie was released.

  • MCR

    This may seem odd, but I’m reminded of some historical events. Many battles of the War of 1812 were lost by the U.S. because of their excessive, almost hysterical fear of Indians. As you may know, Native tribes fought on the British/Canadian side, many travelling great distances from the U.S. to Canada for the purpose. They wanted to back the side with better past treatment of Natives, primarily.
    In many cases, the mere sight of a large number of Native fighters among the relatively few British forces was enough to secure a surrender. The Americans, in general, seemed to have an exaggerated fear of violence from Natives, and would go to any length to avoid it.
    During this period, Natives were also being hunted like animals and killed routinely wherever they were found, partly to take their land, but also out of an openly acknowledged fear of violent attack if they were left alone.
    Maybe I’m being fanciful, but I see a parallel.

  • Elizabeth Parker

    This is actually screening next Monday in my area – thanks for the heads up. I definitely want to see it :).

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      You’re so welcome! I hope you like it!

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