Of Trains and Tragedies (Reflections on Fruitvale Station)


It would probably be impossible for me to go to bed after what I just saw. Technically, I shouldn't even be writing this considering the fact that we are on vacation. We drove down to South Florida at the start of the weekend to see my grandma and the rest of the fam. Among a list of other things like going to the beach and sitting out by grandma's lake, we already knew we wanted to see Fruitvale Station. Mental note: choose lighter entertainment for future vacations.

I knew I wasn't ready to face Oscar Grant, but as a leader and out of respect, I knew I needed to watch it. And that's the thing. I don't think the world is ready to face Oscar Grant. I'm certain mainstream America isn't. And I know the church isn't. The real tragedy is just that. We don't hear Oscar Grant. We have not sympathized with his struggle. And I can hear the Bill O'Reillys, Don Lemons, and Uncle Ruckuses of the world already. They will say, "Pull up your pants." "These are the consequences of your actions." "Nobody made you sell drugs." "You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps."

These are the ones who assume that Oscar's got boots to begin with. And if he has boots, where does he get the straps? I don't know. I never had any straps. Ask your dad. Speaking of fathers, anybody notice that there was not even a mention of Oscar's dad in the movie? Anybody seen Oscar's dad? Tell him his son's looking for him.

To mainstream America Oscar is a problem. And it's not because he's a convicted felon, it's not even because he got into a fight on the train. The cops never even took the time to effectively assess the situation on the train. The cop was at level 10 from the moment he first laid eyes on Oscar. "Arrest them. These punks are going to jail" (paraphrase). The cop never listened to what he had to say.

I have often argued the same point about rap music. We refuse to listen to what they're saying. "It's just sex, money, and cars," says one pastor. Does it matter that he's white? Just admit that you're not really listening. And we're not listening for a number of reasons. But maybe it's just that we don't know how to listen. It really does seem like cops these days don't know how to listen. So often they will escalate, rather than deescalate a conflict. Fact is, we're not listening to Oscar Grant.

In the film, Grant's daughter Tatiana begs him not to
go out into the night because she's afraid he'll get hurt. 
There are numerous dark foreshadowing scenes in the movie. His daughter tells him not to go. His mom warns him while he's in prison. And he even gives a quasi-threat to his boss while begging for his job. But the one that grabbed me the most was the moment when he finds the stray dog at the gas station. For a moment it looked like a boxer, but a pit bull is much more poignant imagery for urban black culture. I'll go with the pit bull. Oscar sees the pit, goes over and pets and coddles this docile beast. Then, in a few short moments, a reckless driver hits the dog and speeds away with tires squealing. Oscar calls for help, but nobody hears him. Nobody comes. Nobody's listening. To so many people, Oscar and the dog are one and the same. We all know what happens to stray dogs. They're dangerous. They lock them up, put them to sleep, or they end up dead in the street...or the train station. Nobody cares.

Speaking of trains. My son loves trains. He's a huge fan of Thomas and Friends, and he has lots of the little toy models of well...Thomas and his friends. Back in early spring, we took a road trip and drove all the way out to California. When you're driving out west you see A LOT of trains. I'm intrigued wondering where are all these trains coming from and going to. Little Christopher is convinced that they all go to Knapford Station. I seriously doubt it. Crazy thing, the route we drove took us through northern California. I looked at the map and was surprised how close we were to Oakland, San Fran, and thus of course, Fruitvale Station. Christopher wants to ride the train. I seriously don't want him to.

And there goes O'Reilly, Lemon, and Ruckus again. They say, "You black people are so paranoid." "Why don't you get over it?" "Let him ride the train." "Nothing's going to happen to him." But that's exactly what Oscar Grant's mom told him. She certainly didn't expect that her son's innocent train ride would be the last voluntary ride he would ever take. Kinda funny how something so innocent as riding the train to hang out with friends on New Year's, or going to the store to get snacks to munch on while you watch the game, can turn into a trip to the mortuary. White people don't normally have those kinds of problems, so they don't really get the fear, hopeless, helpless, nihilism thing. And they hate it when we say stuff like that.

And no, Oscar Grant was not a saint, so you may cast the first stone if you wish. However, Tracy and I agreed that we want to own the movie because we have a son who needs to learn why it's so important to make good decisions. Do the right thing. Stay on the straight and narrow. And if you must take that train ride, be careful because some stupid cop with no self-control might mistake his taser for his gun and murder you. I've never heard of this sort of thing happening to a white person. And yes Son, you can be anything you want. You can be an explorer who determines to ride every passenger train in the world. You can be a train conductor. Or you can be an engineer who designs and builds trains.  But just know, you have to be ten times better than the next (white) man or you'll never get your just due. You could even rise to the highest office in the world, but you'll still be able to relate all too closely with the Trayvon Martins and Oscar Grants of the world. Maybe it's time we read a book about the underground railroad. You should probably work on those kinds of trains. Apparently we still need them.