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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/17/13

We've Become a Nation of Us Versus Them

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I saw the movie "Fruitvale Station" the other day. I wept at the end. Real tears, not just some glistening in the eyes. This, even though I knew what was going to happen, since the outcome of the movie had been disclosed at the beginning.

My experience tells me a couple of things:
  -- The director did a terrific job of story-telling.
  -- I felt strongly about something going on in the movie.

As for the movie itself, I am apparently not alone in my opinion. This independent film by first-time director Ryan Coogler is receiving rave reviews and awards, even though it has only been recently released. Still, I was surprised at my strong, personal reaction.

I probably shouldn't have been. The reason I saw the movie in the first place is that my oldest son, Max, recommended I go. He doesn't do that a lot. I "should" see it, he texted me. Not the usual Hollywood movie, he said. Yes and yes.

But there was also a personal connection for Max and me with the movie. It is based on a true event, the arrest and fatal shooting of an unarmed young man by police in Oakland on New Year's Day, 2009. Max had been arrested by police in Oakland during the Occupy demonstrations in 2011. The police response to the Occupy demonstrators--who were unarmed save for cell phones and cameras--was also violent. Their civil disobedience was met with tear gas grenades, flash bang grenades, and rubber bullets--all fired at the demonstrators, not in the air. Civilians were hurt, thrown in jail, and treated like criminals, because someone decided they represented a threat. It was a threat just like the one young black males apparently represented to white police officers in the 2009 fatal-shooting case. They had been hauled off a BART train for fighting, while the white males who started the fight were ignored.

In Oakland, the shooting victim, Oscar Grant, and his friends fit a profile. They were young black males, argumentative, and not meekly compliant with police orders to lie down with their hands behind their backs. Trouble. It was the same with the Occupy demonstrators. Trouble. Even though they were demonstrating against injustices in society that affect police as much as the rest of us.

There has been a disturbing trend in cities across the country in recent years to respond to peaceful civil disobedience, such as the Occupy movement, with military-style tactics, as if the demonstrators were an invading army rather than neighbors, friends and family members of the police themselves. I don't know where this profiling of Occupy demonstrators came from, but it seems unlikely to have happened simultaneously in so many places at the same time. Some federal agency had to have decreed that the demonstrators fit a profile of troublemakers --potential domestic terrorists even--who had to be quashed, rather than American citizens exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and voice their opinions.

What's really disturbing to me is how everyone down the line from that profiling decision seems to have accepted it, in place of judging the demonstrators on their own.

I am not anti-police. Far from it. I believe a well-trained, appropriately armed police force is essential to maintain order. However, I do not believe most local police forces need big, armored vehicles to handle peaceful demonstrations. I do believe much more training on dealing peacefully with people in emotionally charged situations, rather than with weapons, would be a major benefit to all police departments.

Mostly, I believe that when there is no threat of force from the subjects involved, police should be trained to resist the tendency to make it a situation of us versus them. We are you. You are us. Oscar Grant was someone's son, someone's father, someone's partner. He was a human being. He had done jail time for selling marijuana. He had been fired from his job. And he was apparently struggling to overcome the profiles that said this was his lot in life.

Yes, the profile said he had to project a certain arrogance in order to survive, but he was only out to celebrate New Year's Eve with friends and wound up shot dead by a white transit cop who said he mistook his gun for his Taser. The cop was convicted of unintentional manslaughter, and served eleven months of a two-year sentence. In Oakland, with its long history of out-of-control police response, Grant's death sparked demonstrations, including one every New Year's Day at Fruitvale Station.

There are stories similar to Oscar Grant's in cities across the country. The film was released during the Trayvon Martin trial in Florida. The day I saw the film, a federal judge in New York City ruled that the police force's program of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional because of obvious racial profiling--a welcome wake-up call only if city officials hear it.

This being a movie, there are things that were added to, or left out from, the actual incident that might affect someone's opinion of it. I get that. For many there will be a strong message of injustice still to be rectified. Still others may see it as a shameless effort to manipulate anti-police sentiment.

I'll keep it simple. In Oakland, in 2009, a cop shot an unarmed, handcuffed, 22-year-old black male to death. Shouldn't have happened. In Oakland in 2011, cops fired tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets at, among others, my son Max, then 19. He was armed with only a camera. They handcuffed and arrested him. Max is not black. He's alive and well. But if one cop can mistake his gun for his Taser, why can't another one mistake real bullets for rubber?

I wept for Oscar and Max, and because we have become a nation of us versus them. Go see the movie.
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Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)

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