Two days before George Zimmerman was acquitted in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a film that concludes with the shooting of an unarmed black man by an armed white man opened in select theaters.
The individuals represented in the film Fruitvale Station are not Martin and Zimmerman, but taken together, the film and the recent case offer an important lesson on how tragedies happen and how some of them might be prevented.
The film, which is now in wide release, explores the true story of Oscar Grant III. On New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Grant was fatally shot by a transit police officer on an Oakland, Calif., train platform. Grant was unarmed and lying face-down.
The officer who shot Grant, Johannes Mehserle, and another officer, Tony Pirone, were responding to complaints of fighting on the platform. According to their reports, they were attempting to arrest Grant, who was not cooperating.
While Grant was on the ground, the officers allegedly saw him reach for something they suspected was a weapon. Witnesses testified they heard Mehserle tell Pirone, “Get back, I'm gonna tase him.” But instead of using his Taser, he shot his pistol.
At Mehserle’s trial, his attorney successfully argued that he had used the pistol instead of the Taser by mistake. Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, not murder.
The shooting and the verdict sparked protests and riots. The incident also triggered a legal battle between Grant’s family and the Bay Area transit system. While the transit agency initially apologized to Grant’s family, it later defended the officers on the scene and blamed Grant for failing to comply with orders. Grant’s daughter eventually received a $1.5 million settlement.
Rather than focusing on the shooting or its aftermath, the film takes place primarily in the 24 hours before the shooting, when Grant is going about his daily life. The shooting is shown at a distance, as it might have been seen from the BART train that was in the station at the time, making the details invisible. The names of the officers involved are changed.
These decisions allow the film’s writer and director, Ryan Coogler, to portray Grant as an imperfect young man who has done bad things but is striving to improve himself and his life, oblivious to the impending tragedy. The story is expertly told and moving. For this reason, the film is well worth watching.
However, while Grant appears as a fully-drawn individual, the officers involved do not. I am not sure why Coogler chose not to use the officers’ real names. There is no obvious legal reason to obscure their identities, since their names are already a matter of public record.
The filmmakers also chose to retitle the film between its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and its ultimate release, changing the name from Fruitvale to Fruitvale Station. The title change makes the context more specific and avoids tarring the reputation of the entire Fruitvale neighborhood. Withholding the officers’ names, on the other hand, protects no one. By making the officers into anonymous representations of institutional authority, rather than real people, the film misses an important aspect of Grant’s death - the fact that fallible human beings were involved on both sides.
In the film, we don’t hear the officer who fired say first that he is going to use his Taser. We don’t see any movement of Grant’s hand that might have scared him. What we see is something that looks like a senseless act of arbitrary violence, a man shot in cold blood for no reason.
Mehserle and Pirone may have acted irresponsibly. Their fear and subsequent overreaction may even have been a result of racial bias. Quite possibly, if Mehserle had been trying to arrest someone with a different skin color, he would have taken the time to notice he had drawn the wrong weapon before he fired it. It seems unlikely that the real-life officer consciously decided to execute an unarmed man in front of numerous witnesses, the way his character appears to do in the film.
There is evil in the world, and sometimes it is the cause of tragedy, as in the recent case of the Cleveland kidnappings. More often, however, tragedy arises from bad decisions made by imperfect, but not evil, individuals - decisions compounded by misunderstanding, faulty assumptions or plain error.
Despite many assumptions to the contrary, Zimmerman most likely never set out to kill an unarmed African-American youth. Had that been his plan, he would have probably chosen a place that would have afforded a better chance to avoid prosecution. The most likely scenario to explain what actually happened is that Zimmerman made a series of bad decisions, leading to a confrontation in which both Zimmerman and Martin apparently feared what the other might do.
If we see individuals like Mehserle and Zimmerman as inherently evil, it’s hard to imagine how we might prevent similar events from happening in the future. Limit guns all you want, but if someone wants to commit a racially motivated shooting, that person will find the means to do it. If, on the other hand, we see these incidents as the result of human error, a clear course of action emerges: We need to reduce the number of circumstances where human imperfection can lead to tragedy.
This should be a key consideration in New York City’s current fight over “stop-and-frisk.” In 2012, New York City police conducted 532,911 stops, an average of nearly 1,500 a day. Since 2002, there have been over 4 million stops. Every one of those stops has the potential to go tragically wrong. Each time a stop occurs, an otherwise innocent person might become frightened and respond with violence, or a police officer might mistakenly draw a gun instead of a Taser.
Focusing on the humanity of shooting victims like Grant and Martin helps us appreciate the scope of what we lose through these tragedies. Fruitvale Station accomplishes that. Stopping future shootings, however, requires that we see that the shooters too are, for better and worse, only human.