Monday, August 12, 2013

James Baldwin & The Fruitvale Station

Recently I viewed the film, Fruitvale Station, produced by Ryan Coogler.  This film is a docudrama of the criminal police murder of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland, California in 2009.  The film effectively portrays Oscar Grant as a young Black man who loved his family and usually had positive interactions with those who met him.

The Fruitvale Station

Like many young people today, Grant had difficulty finding and then holding a job.  At one point in his life he sold drugs and served time for that offence.  However, before his murder he decided to stop selling drugs and to do his best to find a job.

When Grant was in prison he gravitated to Black men who were also doing time.  This made him a target of Caucasian gang members.  On his way home from a New Years Eve celebration he encountered one of the Caucasian gang members and there was a fight.

The film then showed how the police intervened in this fight in order to come to the aid of the Caucasian gang members.  In other words, the police only detained Oscar Grant and his African American friends for fighting on the train.  The police murdered Oscar Grant while they came to the aid of a Caucasian gang.

Allen Iverson, who was an all-star player in the National Basketball Association had a similar experience as Oscar Grant.  When Iverson was in high school in Virginia he was in a fight in a bowling alley with young men who happened to be Caucasian. 

Iverson and his Black friends were arrested for this fight and he served four months in prison for this so-called offense.  Iverson eventually received clemency from the Governor of Virginia.  An appellate court also dismissed all the charges against Iverson.  Ironically, the law that initially convicted Iverson was designed to protect people against lynchings.

I wasn’t especially interested in seeing the film Fruitvale Station.  We know of the extreme brutality of the capitalist system and I wasn’t intrigued about seeing one more example of this criminal brutality. 

Take This Hammer

After seeing the film I didn’t think about doing a review for this same reason.  Then, I received a link to a documentary by James Baldwin titled Take This Hammer produced by KQED television.  This film is about Baldwin’s interviews and thoughts about the city of San Francisco in the year 1963.  Thinking about Baldwin’s narrative in 1963 gave me a compelling perspective to the film, Fruitvale Station.

James Baldwin was in no way interested in the typical tourist spots in San Francisco, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Fisherman’s Warf.  No, Baldwin was interested in the Black community in the city that reminded him of the place where he was raised in Harlem, New York City.  In his interviews, Baldwin found that the Black community of San Francisco faced the same problems as Blacks in Harlem.  This is how one person described those conditions.

“Let me tell you about San Francisco.  The white man is not taking advantage of you in public like they doing down in Birmingham.  But he’s killing you with that pencil and paper, brother.  When you go and look for a job, can you get a job?”

Baldwin learned that one of the only jobs available to Blacks was to tear down the homes they lived in.  In one scene, Baldwin stood outside an unfinished housing project.  Understanding the racist character of this country, Baldwin argued that the seeds for the destruction of this project were in place even before the building was completed. 

We might recall that Baldwin made these remarks in 1963.  A recent article in the San Francisco Examiner reported that there was a 37% drop in the city’s Black population from 1990 to 2010.  Even in Oakland, the city with the second highest Black population in the state, the African American population is declining.

Another issue that Baldwin looked at was police brutality.  The San Francisco police arrested one person he spoke to at the age of eight.  The New York City police didn’t harass Baldwin until he was ten years old.  He described two of his experiences with the police in the following passage:

“I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, ‘Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?’  When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.”

There have been many changes in this country since 1963.  Jim Crow isn’t the law of the land.  Many Blacks have managed to attain a college education.  A Black man happens to be the President of the United States.  However, the problem of unemployment might even be worse than it was in 1963.  The murder of Oscar Grant demonstrates that the brutality of the police department is no different from that same brutality half a century ago.

I will conclude with another quotation from James Baldwin taken from his wonderful book The Price of the Ticket:

“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings.  When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.  When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood.  The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.  They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.  They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”    

You can view Baldwin’s documentary Take This Hammer at the following web page:

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