We are strangely alone on the platform of Fruitvale station. A cop comes over to us and motions us to leave. It has something to do with a dark shape on the southbound side of the station, just beyond our vision.
This was the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009 in Fruitvale, Oakland, California. An incident which would rock the entire San Francisco Bay Area had just occurred: a young black man, Oscar Grant, already restrained by police, had been shot without provocation, in full view of an entire train of revelers, some of whom videoed the incident. When the video became public, riots followed. A movie about the incident, Fruitvale Station, was just released in theatres in the USA.
I missed the shooting by minutes. This isn’t an eyewitness story of a tragedy. It’s a story of what a tragedy looks like a few minutes later.
I left my friend’s New Year’s Eve party around 2:15am. Fruitvale, to outsiders like me, has a dangerous and run-down air about it. Even the name tells you this place is part of the Bay Area’s economic past. Not counting the usual eruptions of gentrification around any major transit hub in the area. My friend, an accomplished programmer, lived in a converted work-live loft space, just a few blocks from the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station.
Another guy, also making his way back to SF, joined me as I left. In Fruitvale, the BART is an elevated train, so we could see it from blocks away. I remarked that a train had stopped at the station for a very long time. It pulled away a few minutes before we arrived.
People are streaming out of the station, but nobody is going in. This seems strange, but New Year’s Eve crowds are unusual in many ways. We hear something about an incident that occurred in the BART. But nobody is stopping us from going up. We pass through the turnstiles and walk up to the brightly lit top level.
It’s quiet. We are the only people on the platform.
A cop waves us away.
Far away and on the opposite side of the BART station, some other cops are swarming around what seems to be a man, face down. I assume he has been handcuffed and is in custody. I shrug at my companion, and we traipse down the stairs.
We discussed the first order of business - how to get home now? There was a bus station at this BART, maybe we could use those?
There were a number of people with the same idea milling about there, with everyone discussing how they were going to get home now, barely pausing to note the ambulance that arrived at the station which removed someone on a stretcher. Eventually we got the idea to share taxis to get to the next station. One guy joined us, a young black man.
Once we were in the cab, the conversation turned to what had happened, and our new friend exclaimed that the police had shot some guy, for no reason. He launched into an anti-police tirade. I was more than a little skeptical. He was excited, almost babbling, and his words were highly styled, assembled from hip hop clichés. I knew something had happened, and someone had been hurt, but his story just seemed outrageous. So I didn’t engage. But he didn’t pursue this subject that long. For most of the car ride, we talked about the music that was playing on the radio.
I’m not naive about the police. As a student journalist in Montreal in the 90s, I’d personally caught police lying in official reports, and queer and AIDS activist friends of mine had had their demonstrations disrupted by cops who removed their badges before engaging in latex-gloved beatings. On the other hand, every time I go to Halloween in the Castro, there’s some knifing or other incident. It just seemed like another night in the Bay Area.
But it wasn’t. I’d been in close proximity to an event that would rock the city for weeks after, and the odd thing was how normal it all seemed. I’d missed the screaming and the violence, and assumed that the police were cleaning up some bad situation. Which, in a sense, they were.
From the opposite side of the platform, she walks until she is parallel to us, and then orders us to leave. I demand an explanation and she refuses to be more specific. I ask if the trains will be running through here sometime later and she says no. She doesn’t make eye contact. Her hand, palm facing us, defends her body, while she looks down and off to the right. She seems to be disavowing any connection with whatever has just occurred.
This is what it looks like minutes after a young black man is shot down in America. No sense of chaos, horror, or even guilt, just a cop annoyed that she has to clean up someone else’s mess, and instinctively aware she has to clam up about what really happened.
I wonder if this is what life is like in situations where oppression is more systematic. What are the odds that you will actually witness something disturbing to your conscience? The vast majority of the time, you’ll just see the aftermath, and second-hand reports. Everything seems like it’s under control. The sun rises the next morning. The cops are still polite to you. Nobody around you is panicking. I guess that guy must have done something. What’s for lunch?
But mostly, I keep thinking back to the young black man who joined us in the cab.
At the time I thought that his lack of commitment to his story meant that he didn’t really believe it, or was embellishing. Now I wonder if he noticed that two white guys had no reaction to the story of a young black man being shot in cold blood. And something in him decided not to bother.
Update: my reaction after seeing the film.