The other morning I walked onto the Fruitvale BART station platform, ready to catch my train. This is the station where BART officer Johannes Mehserle murdered 23 year old Oscar Grant.
So when four BART police escorted a young Black man off BART, it’s no surprise that he moved very slowly, describing his intentions to pull his ID from his pocket, and asking why they took issue with him. “We got a complaint that you were playing music too loud.” The man replied, “Why didn’t they ask me to turn it down? I would have. This is unnecessary.”
Many bystanders watched this exchange. Some even visibly expressed disagreement with why this young Black man was being detained. They watched for a little while then continued on to catch their train. I stayed and videotaped the police. In staying, I learned that someone on BART felt annoyed at his music so they called the cops. I learned that he was late to work himself and that keeping this job is how he takes care of his family.
“Can you just write me the ticket, so I can get back on BART and get to work?” the man asked. “Not yet, we’re waiting to see if you have any warrants out for your arrest.”
The man waited in silence. The cops waited with their hands on their radios and guns. I kept videotaping. After some time, he began to cry. He put his hand in his pocket – a move that was met with the cops declaring “Sir, do not put your hands in your pockets!” But he already had, and he pulled out a tissue to blow his nose.
“Please turn around, you are under arrest” directed the officer. They got word from dispatch that allegedly the man had a warrant out for his arrest, to which he responded that the matter was resolved in February. “We can’t do anything about that, sir” the BART cops replied, “You engaged in criminal activity, we have to take you in.”
More people gathered. Some people got ready to board their train, some just getting closer to watch. A few people noticed that I was still videotaping, nodded in agreement, and then walked away. I asked the man if he wanted me to go with, to follow him and the four officers to wherever they were taking him in the station. He said yes. We introduced ourselves and acknowledged how unfair this situation is.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” a cop asked me. I knew that any response I gave, if it reflected any of the rage, fear, concern that I was feeling inside, would have only added to the tension of the situation. And because my intention was to document the cop’s actions and do whatever possible to support the man’s safety, I didn’t reply. I just kept the video going.
They walked him handcuffed through the BART station into an office, quickly shutting the door behind them. I waited for 45 minutes in the parking lot reading up on CopWatch manuals and legal options in a scenario like this.
Finally the office door opened and I asked the young man if there was anyone I could contact to let them know where he was. He said, “No, thank you. I will call them when I get to jail. But thank you for staying with me.” I stayed as they sat him in the cop car. We nodded to each other as the car passed and they drove off.
As I walked back to the BART station, my legs were so shaky that I had to stop. My skin felt piercingly cold and on fire all at once. I screamed “It’s a fucking set up!” I was by myself and overwhelmed, thinking of so many Black lives lost by police intervention based on racist fears: "that he had a hoodie, that he was pacing in front of my house..."
I am furious that one person’s preference on the morning commute train station led to this young man potentially losing his job, going to jail or prison, jeopardizing his family’s well-being, and humiliating him through the station.
I am enraged at how easy it is for one person’s privilege to summon the hands of racist institutions. And how easy, timeworn it is for these institutions to detain and police Black and brown bodies and communities.
I am disappointed that other BART riders let this be normal, that other riders observed this interaction just as one would a pigeon shitting on the platform.
I am disgusted that instead of engaging directly, the person who called the cops used technology to hide behind their racism. The all-too-handy apps or phone lines to deploy the State apparatus allowed this person to avoid witnessing the consequences of their actions.
What I witnessed is a perfect example of why activists of color urge people to avoid calling the cops, and do everything possible to resolve the situation in other ways. Organizations like Critical Resistance and Arab Resource and Organizing Center are challenging policing and imprisonment structures, and developing community responses that avoid the violence of the police.
It is not okay to leave Black and brown people to face the state alone. It is imperative for white people to take action against racism and alongside people of color and support the strategies coming from this leadership.
In moments like these, as individuals on a BART station platform – I dare you to disrupt your normal commute or schedule. Taking action against racism can at times be scary, uncertain, powerful, beautiful even – but it all requires a willingness to get outside our comfort zone.
I dare you to sacrifice your comfort for something more meaningful like human dignity, shared struggle, and the chance to build a more just world. I don’t know if staying, videotaping, and waiting outside an office was the "right” thing to do, but it did feel human to do it. Until we transform the system, there are roles we can play to help police interactions be less lethal, and build our collective humanity in the process.
With rage and hope,
Please read and share these resources about what to do instead of calling the cops:
on behalf of Catalyst Project