Like filmmaker Ryan Coogler, I wanted to uncover the truth about Oscar Grant, the 22 year-old man who was shot on the platform of Fruitvale BART Station on New Year's Day four years ago. And like Coogler, I got sucked into the web of myths around Oscar Grant, which at this point is so thick and labyrinthine that it seems impossible to untangle the man from the legend, or the myth from the social allegory.
I said, in the first sentence of my article, that Oscar Grant was handcuffed at the time of his death. That in fact is not true -- or at least, it's a major point of contention, and within hours, readers had chimed in to correct the record.
Oscar Grant wasn't handcuffed. Rather, he was lying face down with one arm pinned beneath his torso and another flailing at this left side, and several officers restraining him -- two of them backed away when BART cop Johannes Mehserle pulled out his gun and fired, fatally wounding Grant.
Because Grant appears to be trussed in many of the cell phone videos documenting his final minutes, the handcuffs issue became a major point of contention in media reports -- and in court. Some eyewitnesses testified that Grant was resisting arrest by keeping his hands under his torso, and that Mehserle was struggling to handcuff him. Mehserle claimed he thought Grant might be reaching for something in his waistband -- in some cell phone videos, he appears to be yanking on Grant's hand before drawing his gun. Some say Grant couldn't free his own hand, owing to the weight of Mehserle and Officer Anthony Pirone on top of him. Whatever the case, if you accept the premise that Grant's hand was pinned beneath his torso, rather than behind his back, then he couldn't have been handcuffed.
Yet many still debate the issue, especially now that journalists are using Coogler's film, Fruitvale Station - and not the original cell phone videos of the incident - as their primary source material. Of the reviews I've read analyzing Fruitvale Station, roughly half say Grant was handcuffed at the time Meheserle drew his gun and fired.
What's perhaps most interesting about the handcuffs issue is that most journalists -- and law enforcement -- thought they'd put the issue to bed four years ago, and now it's resurfaced anew. I'd thought Fruitvale Station would become the official narrative about Oscar Grant, the one that will foreclose on all other testimonials about his character, or about the cops' motivations. But it turns out Ryan Coogler has reopened the Pandora's Box behind the Oscar Grant case, and made it a national conversation. In so doing, he's forced us to reconsider all these questions.