Fruitvale Station and The Central Park Five: Two Sad American Tales

George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin prompted two very different responses in my Facebook feed. Some felt that we should respect the fact that the justice system had run its course; we should not second-guess a jury who had seen and heard all the facts and made a good-faith effort to weigh the evidence and make a decision. Others felt that this was an extreme and racially motivated injustice. The second group included several mothers of young African-American boys, mothers who fear for their sons’ future.

This sort of divide can be found whenever there is a racially charged tragedy. I do not pretend to understand what it is like to be a young black male living on the edge of poverty. To learn more, this weekend I embarked on a virtual walk in those shoes by watching two films: Fruitvale Station (Weinstein) and The Central Park Five (PBS).

Fruitvale Station is the first full-length film, now widely released in theaters, from director Ryan Coogler. In the first hours of 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a police officer while being held face-down on the floor of the Fruitvale station on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system as he returned from downtown San Francisco New Year’s Eve celebrations. In an interview, Coogler says that after the shooting, Grant was portrayed as either a saint or a thug. In his movie, Coogler attempts to paint a portrait of Oscar Grant as a human being: a real person with gifts and flaws, a family he loved, and, until that night, a future he hoped to make better than his past.

Coogler succeeds, for the most part. Fruitvale Station offers viewers a glimpse into the life of a young man who has served time in prison, who loves his mother, who struggles with a quick temper, who has sold drugs, and who is still learning what it means to be a good father. Grant wanted to make changes in his life; his tragic death took that possibility away. While this was a mostly balanced portrayal, some of the fictionalized moments seem to tip the scales toward the saintly. Coogler is from the same East Bay area that Grant came from, and he is able to tease out the details of daily life. Michael B. Jordan gives a fantastic performance as Grant, drawing viewers in and showing them a complex human being. There’s no escaping the fact that, whoever Grant was at 22, he never got the chance to find out who he could have become.

This theme continued into my next cinematic foray, The Central Park Five, a documentary from directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon now available on disc. In April 1989, a female jogger was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park in New York. The documentary examines the complete breakdown of the system in the wake of the rape. Many youths were in the park that night, some committing crimes of their own. But five boys emerged as suspects in the rape. These five, ranging in ages from 14 to 16, had never been in trouble before and did not even all know each other. Under intense pressure from police, they gave contradictory confessions to crimes they had not committed. Afterward the boys were demonized by the press and by city leaders. They were wrongly convicted and sentenced to prison; each lost at least seven years of their lives to incarceration.

Poor police work was exacerbated by a climate of fear in a crime-ridden city. Crack had come to New York, and when it did, people were afraid. According to historian Craig Steven Wilder, “It would have been irrational not to be afraid. But the people who suffered most with the rise of criminality, gang wars, drug wars, were actually the people we blamed. Most of the homicides were young, poor, working class, black and brown kids. And the dominant social message was no one cared if you lived or died.”

Now grown men, the five recount their experiences of utter confusion and fear as they slowly realized what they were being accused of and where the accusations would lead them. Sixteen-year-old Korey Wise was tried as an adult and sentenced to Rikers Island, an adult correctional facility nothing in his young life had prepared him for. This documentary is heartbreaking. Life as they knew it was over for these young men, and it was hard to come back from that, even after they had been cleared of all wrongdoing.

My pastor recently pointed out that when part of the body of Christ grieves, we all grieve. Part of the body of Christ is grieving right now. One step toward being able to come alongside fellow Christians who are feeling pain over the Trayvon Martin case is to seek more understanding of that pain.

Neither of these movies is suitable for children—both include profanity and violence—but each could be a powerful experience for a thoughtful adult viewer, and either one would lend itself to discussion. Fruitvale Station is a fictionalized “day in the life” film, a way to enter into a modern cultural experience that you may or may not otherwise understand. The Central Park Five, a factual and first-person treatment of a specific event, shows how being a minority male at the wrong place and time can lead to the end of life as you know it.

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This articles ends with "... shows how being a minority male at the wrong place and time can lead to the end of life as you know it."  That may be true but it is also true that being a majority male (whatever majority means) at the wrong place and time can lead to the end of life as you know it.  Which means this: being at the wrong place and time can lead to the end of life as you know it.

Here's an example, also a "factual and first-person treatment of a specific event."  About 20 years ago, a good friend of mine was forced to a stop on a country blacktop road by someone in a big 4-wheel drive pickup, after the pickup driver had chosen my friend's car for a mile's worth of playing "cat and mouse."  After forcing the stop, the driver, a really big guy, hopped out and ran back to my friend's car, where my friend was still in the driver's seat (my friend was on his way to church choir practice when he was stopped).  My friend had a permit to carry a concealed firearm (he was a retired police officer).  As a precaution, he had removed his handgun from the glove compartment during the cat/mouse maneuvers and placed it on the seat next to him. 

My friend rolled his window down as the big guy approached, assuming they would verbally exchange, even if heated, and he would defuse whatever had the big guy fused in the first place, and then he'd get himself to choir practice, although now possibly late. The big guy wasn't interested in defusing.  He immediately punched my friend's face multiple times, screamed he was going to kill him, and reached for and grabbed him in a way that suggested he was going to pull him right out of window and do what he just screamed he would do.  My friend had his glock in hand by that time, and shot the big guy, killed him.

Marion County investigated, decided not to prosecute.  Among many other things, blood sample results showed the big guy had had quite an amount of both alcohol and heroin in his system.  And his personal history as to these sorts of things was not good at all.  There was a small story in the paper about it.  Except for a swollen and bruised face, it seemed this was then end of it.

But a couple weeks later, a Portland (Oregon) union leader who was an Oregon House Representative got on the House floor in the Capitol building and denounced the supposed fact that the Marion County DA was showing favoritism to ex-cops and that this gun-happy ex-cop should be prosecuted.  His denouncement was the headline story in the newspaper the next morning.  The Marion County DA capitulated to the political pressure, got a secret indictment (not hard actually, whatever the facts -- just present half of them), and prosecuted.  My friend spent time in jail before being released on $100,000 bond, then spent his life savings and then some defending himself.  The DA's case, when finally presented, was laughable, so much so that one of the jurors actually visibly and audibly laughed during the prosecutor's closing argument.  The trial took a week plus.  Defense had to go all out because a conviction meant my friend would die in prison because of minimum sentencing rules (or because he had a heart condition to boot, or because he would be an ex-cop, even an ex-chief of police, in a prison full of felony convicted inmates). 

It took the jury a mere one hour to both deliberate and each lunch.  They signaled they had a verdict.  Not guilty.  Yes, my friend was happy.  His family and friends (I was one of them) wept in relief, wiping out a year-plus of stress, anxiety, bad dreams and worry -- literally a year of nightmare.

But my friend's life was never close to the same.  Two weeks after the acquittal, the newspaper did an article in which the newspaper interviewed the big guy's family, ignored the facts that came out of the trial (including all the forensics results that fully corroborated my friend), and essentially declared my friend a cold blooded ex-cop turned gun-happy killer.  My friend turned pretty bitter.  He was financially pretty destroyed, his retirement cancelled (he went back to work as a private investigator hiring himself out to defense lawyers in Marion County -- little wonder about why he did that), and his reputation tarnished (I spent many hours explaining to people who knew my friend from way back about what had happened -- because they obviously needed the explanation).

In short, my friend, an older, white, Christian, Baptist ex-cop, was at the wrong place and time and it lead to the end of his life as he knew it.

Regardless of what some people like to claim, tragedy and injustice happen to all kinds of people with all kinds of skin colors and all kinds of religious perspectives and all kinds of whatever other characteristics.  Certainly tragedy and injustice doesn't only happen to  "minority _______________" (fill in the blank with your choice).  This case didn't make national news, probably because there were no highly influencial individuals or organizations out there who wanted to raise an indignant national fuss about a retired, white, Christian ex-cop who was dealt a horrible injustice, whose life as he knew it was destroyed, in order to promote a broader, race-defined (or ______-defined) agenda.

This nation would make a lot more progress on race issues (and other divisive category issues) if we  resolved to simply eliminate injustice and tragedy and opposed to racial injustice and tragedy to minority whatevers.

It's curious that initially Kristy mentioned the two different responses to the verdict, however does not continue to cover the actual facts, such as George Zimmerman's nose being broken and his head being pounded into the concrete by Trayvon.  Perhaps the facts are boring, compared to stirring up more racial strife. 

The Central Park Five is a 2012 documentary film, which is also interesting timing as the Central Park crime occured in 1989 and those falsely accused were released about ten years ago when the real culprit was identifed.  Is the purpose again to stir up racial tensions even more?

What is really the point of this article?

Joy: I think the author's point of the article is to associate injustice especially with race.  And that is unfortunate because injustice has no racial boundaries.  Beside my account in my first post, I work with an attorney who after years of litigation finally gained release for his client from the Oregon State Penitentiary, after nearly a decade of incarceration for a crime he simply had not committed.  Once the DA's office decided to prosecute, they were no longer interested in what the truth was.  It took ten years of the man's life.

This once convicted felon was also white.  The case did make the national media, being featured on a segment of 48 Hours, but it didn't grab any national attention by any particular justice seeking group.  Nor, frankly, did the client want that attention.  He just wanted the wrong righted and to be released from prison.

Even after his release, the county that wrongfully convicted him is still "persecuting him," having decided, after taking the man's very valuable collection of gold coins as supposed evidence, that they should now not be held to account for having lost the coins.  They have also insisted that they would re-try him, probably just to make his life as miserable as they can.  The county won't re-try the guy (because they would be embarrassed if they tried), but still it would seem they don't want the guy to have peace.

Again, no racial group in this country has a monopoly, or anything close to it, on injustice, whether on the giving or receiving end.  And the more some try to associate injustice with race, as this article seeks to do, the more likely it is that injustices truly connected with race will increase.

You know, there is a good example of a public injustice done quite recently by the specific intention of the federal government (the current admininstration), that being the arrest of that guy who made the video about Islam that was blamed for the Benghazi attacks.

That action, essentially taken by the President of the United States himself, is an act the public should be absolutely horrified and outraged about.  The administration wanted to deflect a bad political story (and serious administrative failure) and so it found an individual to target.  That is absolutely outrageous in so many ways and yet seemingly none of the usual criers for purported justice said a word.

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