Fruitvale Station (2013) is a powerful debut film by Ryan Coogler, about Oscar Grant III, a 22 year old African American from Oakland who was killed on New Year’s Eve, 2009 by a policeman during an arrest on the BART subway platform. The film comes at a particularly appropriate time, given the outcry over the Trayvon Martin killing and the horrific murder of Sammy Yatim by an undisciplined and poorly trained Toronto police officer.
Coogler’s film does some subtle and effective messaging, for me the way the dominant (or white) culture responds to the dress and mannerisms of minority youth. When Coogler shows these young men in a group, their clipped language, gestures and sheer nervous energy place the viewer at the same distance we might feel when seeing such groups in public places. Fear eclipses our rational belief that these are just ordinary young people out for a good time. But then the way they are treated by the police (who act as guardians and representatives of our fearful society) actually produces their alienating behaviors.
In the Yatim and Grant killings, it wasn’t just one police officer involved in the incident. Large groups of police were present at both incidents and not a single officer urged restraint on a colleague. In other words, all the officers present were responsible to some degree for the outcome. At best, one can see some officers turn and walk away from the scene, enforcing the culture of silence that seems to prevail when dissent results in being ostracized from the group. The killings of Oscar Grant and Sammy Yatim had one other thing in common that one only wishes was present in the Trayvon Martin affair. Cell phone cameras. Having police incidents visually recorded results in public mistrust, well deserved public mistrust, for police actions. Whereas Zimmerman can lie about or obscure the truth that isn’t seen, the taped beating of Rodney King, the RCMP murder of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport, the police killings of Grant and Yatim and other such incidents reveal a shocking level of disregard for human life on the part of police. As much as one might detest cell phones, this use of them, highlighted in Fruitvale Station, is beneficial. At least the police sometimes get charged and have to construct another story aside from being attacked by a man with a stapler or an isolated young man with a small knife or a person unarmed altogether.
An example of an unrecorded police killing, one of Canada’s worst, was the murder of teenager Ian Bush by an RCMP police constable in a northern BC town. Bush was apparently a little drunk outside a hockey arena and refused to give his name (as reported by the RCMP) to the constable. These are not exactly unusual behaviors by a Canadian youth. He was arrested, brought into police headquarters and, so it seemed, summarily executed with a shot to the back of the head. But no, that’s not what happened, according to Paul Koester, the RCMP officer. Ian Bush attacked him and during the attack the constable was able to take out his gun and somehow shoot his assailant in the back of the head. When the inquiry lawyer asked the RCMP constable to demonstrate the contortions that would have made this explanation possible, he refused to do it.
“Const. Paul Koester told homicide investigators last year he feared Bush, 22, was about to choke him into unconsciousness, telling the rookie police officer to “take [his] last breath.” With Bush on Koester’s back, Koester said he pulled his pistol as a last resort, reached behind Bush, hit him with the barrel a few times and then shot him once in the back of the head on Oct. 29, 2005.” (Vancouver Province)
Yet he was cleared! A cell phone camera would no doubt have forced Koester to tell a different story but that doesn’t mean he would have faced justice. The RCMP have shown themselves to be more interested in good PR than the self-examination needed to change the sometimes violent and sexist culture of the force.That they lie is indisputable as is the leniency they have gotten from inquiries and the rare court charges.
It is very rare for a police officer to face a murder charge in the line of duty. The officer in the Oscar Grant case was charged with murder, reduced at trial to manslaughter. He was given two years in prison and paroled in eleven months.
No doubt Yatim’s killer and the guy who tased him afterwards will get off with lesser charges than are merited. Imagine killing someone in that way and being suspended from your job “with pay” as a consequence. That kind of kid glove treatment may well result in more reckless shootings.