Shawntai Brown, Guest Blogger
Shawntai Genell Brown is a freelance blogger, playwright, storyteller and poet living in Detroit, Michigan. She is sharing her experience of Film Forward: Michigan on her blog: Shawntai’s Spiral Notebook.
Last night at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, Detroiters kept the moderator dancing the mic around the room, giving voices with something to say a chance with the talking stick. The dialogue was seasoned with a fresh screening of Fruitvale Station, the re-enacted account of Oscar Grant’s life leading up to his murder – which went down in the court records as involuntary manslaughter. When a police officer faces only 11 months in prison for killing an unarmed and handcuffed 22-year-old father on video, a conversation is to be had. And when that young man is black and the officer is white, a national conversation in necessary because it echoes the sentiments of many communities sick of burying their young for police relations.
Sultan Sharrief and Meredith Lavitt led the discussion. The most common response to the film was how black men like Grant are devalued, not seen as human or relatable, and are thrown away by society because of media portrayal, fear birthed by racism, and lack of self-awareness. I expected these comments as they have led the discussions about Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. We went deeper. Moira Griffin expressed that the educational system we rely on to learn about black history leaves out the countless rebellions of black slaves, black freedom fighters, Civil Rights leaders beyond Dr. King and Rosa Parks, or even the history of African descendants in the Americas prior to slavery, British or Spanish settlements. This lack of historical knowledge is detrimental image and understanding of black people groups. For centuries the black race has been bullied, and the results are those of anyone who may have been bullied: aggressive, low-esteemed, isolated, misunderstood, and neglected – but empowered.
Sharrief and many audience members didn’t let the somber ending of Fruitvale Station or the life of Grant sour them. Instead Sharrief posed the question “How are you using your own power?” He said he empowers his film students through art, and challenges them to use their art, words and talents to shape situations with the power they have. There is a response that youth can have despite what they encounter with police. Social media, as in the story of Grant, grants the average citizen who is not a journalist or an officer of the law the power to tell the news from their perspective. How would the Oscar Grant trial have been different without video uploads of his death by fellow passengers on their train? Perhaps there would not have been a trial at all.
An audience member challenged whether social media is enough, pointing out that while everyone recorded, no one intervened to save Grant and his friends that evening at the Fruitvale stop. A black Detroit police officer in the audience shared his perspective (at my rude but necessary nudging), reminding us that he faces peer pressure on the job daily. While people of color are in fear of police, he asserted that the white officer who killed Grant was “operating out of an element of fear.” The California officer’s fear began before the ordeal – as he was carrying a gun when he should have only been armed with a taser. That fear is shaped by the media, but also by the officer being in an unfamiliar setting where he is the minority in the community he serves. Our officers need more training to eliminate prejudice and unwarranted fear. The Detroit officer also talked about needing to have control of interactions with citizens, managing his team members who may have biases or agendas, and managing his peers. He explained that, for him, police and the citizens he protects is not an “us and them” situation. He is a part of the community – the black community and Detroit community.
Detroit wasn’t the only one on the mic. An Australian visitor in the audience compared the disproportionate prison rates of blacks in the US to the similarly horrid incarceration of Aboriginal people in his home.
Azeezah Ford, one audience member, expressed afterward that Lavitt’s comments consistently referred to youth like Grant, Martin and many others as “our children” in “our community.” When people who are not of color take a powerful stance on issues that seemingly used to only matter to mostly blacks and latinos, it feels like things are moving forward. It feels like Oscar Grant didn’t die without power.
The conversation does not end. You can catch another discussion of Fruitvale Station tomorrow at UM-Dearborn at 11am. Feel free to talk back and join the nationwide conversation on Twitter by searching #FilmForward or following me @sb_Diztinction.