Cecil, Oscar and Trayvon

When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I had not yet started high school. As the book described the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, the case for his innocence was pretty clear-cut. Atticus Finch showed that Tom, due to his disabled left arm, could not have possibly raped the woman in the manner alleged by the prosecution. So I was shocked when I read that the jury found Tom guilty. My mother explained to me that in the depression era South, and in much of U.S. history, injustices such as those the book depicted were quite common.

A few years later I saw the 1962 film version of the story. Seeing the guilty verdict on screen, I was struck by how there was no shock or surprise at all. Not with Atticus. Not with the onlookers, both white and black. Not even with Tom. Despite Atticus’s brilliant arguments and Tom’s airtight defense, the outcome was practically preordained and everyone knew it.

I saw a similar reaction a couple of months ago at a party my wife and I threw. One of the guests learned of the Trayvon Martin verdict on her phone. It happened that at this point in the party most of our guests were African-American. Their reaction to the verdict had a little anger and some disappointment. But mostly it was, as my wife later described, a sense of, “Well, what did you expect?” As far as I could tell, there was no shock or surprise. Our guests had little or no faith in the criminal justice system, at least not for this type of case. You can’t be very disappointed if you don’t expect much.

My wife and I saw Fruitvale Station later that month. The film’s chilling depiction of Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART security officer on New Year’s Day 2009 showed the transit security making a bad situation much worse. As most are aware, one of those officers shot Oscar in the back while he was kneeling on top of him. Oscar was unarmed, handcuffed and in no position to harm the officer. The film’s kicker comes with its reminder that the officer, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, served a mere 11 months in prison.

Like many, I could not help noting how the Oscar Grant tragedy echoed the Trayvon Martin killing. Once again a young unarmed African-American man died. Oscar Grant was coming home after celebrating New Year’s. Trayvon Martin was coming home after buying Skittles and iced tea at a convenience store. They both suffered from quite possibly the malicious intent, but, at a minimum, the negligent mistakes of others. While Oscar’s killer got off easy, Trayvon’s got off completely.

The lack of consequences resonated early in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. In 1926 Georgia, a white man murders Cecil Gaines’s father in cold blood in front of many witnesses. Nothing happens to the murderer. Cecil explains that he grew up with the understanding that a white person could do anything he wanted to a black person without facing any justice at all.

Near the end of the film Cecil, has tears in his eyes as he sees Barack Obama elected President. I had tears in my eyes the same night. Like many I had learned in school about slavery, the Jim Crow laws and the many forms of injustice African-Americans had suffered in U.S. history. To me the injustices were just that, history. While I was never so naive as to believe that discrimination had vanished completely, I still mostly viewed it as part of America’s past. Obama’s election to me was a culmination of barriers broken, struggles won, goals achieved, and, most of all, wounds healed. The Butler also presented Obama’s victory that way. So, as the credits rolled, I and others in the audience could feel satisfied.

Of course movie storytelling works so well because you can finish any time that serves the film and the audience best, as The Butler did. Reality invades when the lights come up. Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin may very well have had the same feelings of joy that Cecil Gaines did when Obama was elected, but they did not get the happy ending. Daniels noted this disconnect in a recent interview, saying that, “When (screenwriter) Danny Strong wrote those words, ‘Any black man could be killed by any white man and get away with it,’ Trayvon Martin had not happened. I end the movie with hope. He’s (Cecil) walking down and Obama’s giving that famous speech. And then I come out of my edit room and Trayvon Martin has happened.”

Looking back now at the America shown in To Kill a Mockingbird and the beginning of The Butler, I certainly believe that our country, and the criminal justice system, treats African-Americans much more fairly. In the shadow of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, I can trumpet not only Obama but also Eric Holder, the first black U.S. Attorney General. I can try to look at the Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin cases as isolated incidents. But the facts show that there are still striking disparities in how white and black people are treated by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. It’s not just history, it’s now.

So can I say to a black person that all Americans are treated equally under the law? As a white man, I have never lived a day that I did not feel that the law protected me. I always believed that if I did not commit a crime I would not get in trouble with the law. I always believed that, if I were a victim of a violent crime, the law enforcement and criminal justice system would respond appropriately. Of course nothing happened directly to me to challenge these beliefs. Can I tell a black person that he should feel the same way I do? I wish I could, but I can’t. Not when I see what’s still going on in America. Not when I see what happens to people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not when I see the lack of consequences for minority lives that are lost. Maybe our country can grow to the point where it treats everyone the way we would want to be treated. I just hope it doesn’t take more Oscar Grants or Trayvon Martins for that to happen.

Adam Spector
September 1, 2013

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