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Oscar Grant Was Not the "Exception"


After a month of mixed emotions and avoiding watching “Fruitvale,” the feature film about Oscar Grant III, I walked out of the theater stumped. Last night, my sister asked me to join her to watch the movie, particularly because of my relationship with the rebelliousness against police violence in Oakland since Oscar was killed.

I’m a newcomer to the movement – I’ve been organizing around and against the violence of policing in Oakland since I returned home after living far away for academic studies. As I was trying to find my footing after my return, my invitation into this organizing process came in the form of a bloodied eye and a stolen phone as I watched windows shatter at the corner of West Grand and Broadway the night that a jury told Oscar’s killer that he was acquitted of murder and guilty of his lowest possible imprisoning charge. That was July 8th, 2010.

Before I saw Fruitvale, I heard that the film humanizes Oscar and reminds us why Oscar was (and is) worth fighting for. This review was consistently upsetting: Oscar’s story is not exceptional because of his sweet, caring personality, or that he was the “peacekeeper” among his friends (which we often heard from his family members in the months after his murder).

Oscar was a Black man who was targeted, put in-and-out of State cages throughout his life, and killed by the fist of the State. According to research by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person was killed by police or racist vigilantes every 28-hours in 2012. While that research doesn’t focus on other forms of policing or imprisonment, the story of the mass-caging of Black people is part of a well-known and all-too-often normalized part of our society.

Nothing about Oscar’s experiences that are portrayed in Fruitvale are exceptional, which is exactly why it’s worth watching. Rather, the film portrays his experiences – from imprisonment to a loving family-life – as normalized.

Fruitvale does an incredible job – not of portraying Oscar as an exception, but as part of the norm. It does an incredible job of reminding us* that we* often don’t think twice when the State puts someone in a cage. We* often don’t think twice when someone is killed by police or vigilantes. The film reminds us that Oscar is not an exception. It reminds us that his experience was the norm.

But the movie doesn’t remind us that the reason Oscar became an exception is because large groups of people made him the exception. And this is where the movie falls short.

At the end of the film, before the credits, the screen goes black, and a few sentences of text tell viewers that there were “protests and riots” in the “Bay Area,” and that his killer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and freed after 11 months in a California State Penitentiary.

The film does not mention that it never would have existed had people in Oakland not maintained anger-fuelled protests that ranged from candle-lit vigils to tearing the city up. Had we not engaged in and sustained such a broad range of tactics for more than a year, we definitely would not have any feature film about Oscar, let alone strong anti-violence organizing processes that spawned from that struggle including the ONYX organizing committee, the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition and many more. Even our local Occupy movement, which is tightly intertwined with the movement around Oscar but quite a different struggle, would have had a radically different character had we not maintained rebellion after his murder (many Oaklanders continue to refer to our city’s central plaza as “Oscar Grant Plaza” after Occupiers gave it that name).

* * *

As I walked out of the theater, wiped my tears and hugged my family members, I shared my frustration with them – that as an anti-violence community organizer, I have a hard time understanding how the effects of criminalization are so normalized that we* don’t rebel each time someone is targeted.

Then took a breath and glanced at emails I’d received while watching the movie. The Oakland Police Department (OPD) had responded to a public records request I submitted last month. They told me that the name of a man they’d killed early on the morning of July 8th is Hernan Jaramillo.

Immediately after Hernan was killed, the OPD told reporters that they had tried to detain him against his will for “psychiatric evaluation.” As the cops tried to stuff the 53-year old man in a police car, he resisted. Hernan’s life ended on the street, after police violently pulled him from his house and tackled him on the street. In other words, Oakland police beat Hernan to death in front of his own house. They never alleged that he’d done anything criminal.

Mainstream and small-scale media covered Hernan’s death when it first happened, but there has been absolutely no follow-up. As far as I can tell, this is the first time that his name is being published in relation to his killers. This is because we* accepted Hernan’s murder as part of the norm.

Let’s* remember that the legal system defines criminality. When we learn how the law treats people – from solitary confinement cells to the streets – we start to understand that it tries to make our communities safer by eradicating the lives of poor, Black and Brown people.

The Fruitvale film is powerful and worth your time. Our society needs to be able to think of all those in our geographies as humans, and this film is the most powerful example of that, that I’ve seen (perhaps it stands out extra-strong to me because of the familiar names and geography).

But the movie also falls short. It does not remind us that as long as we let Oscar Grant be the exception, we let Hernan Jaramillo be the norm. Public outrage and anger should be the norm EVERY time someone is criminalized – targeted, harassed, contained, caged or killed. Those are ways to increase harms and violence, not ways to make our communities safer.

Justice means nothing until criminalization is the exception.

Jesse Strauss is a writer, organizer, musician and member of Critical Resistance. Born and raised in Oakland, he has studied social and economic development in Latin America and reported for Al Jazeera in Qatar. 


*By “us/we/let’s,” I refer to our broader society.



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