When three related stories regarding race, labor and BART occur, you need to pay attention, especially in Oakland.

As “Fruitvale Station” opens and retells the story of Oscar Grant’s murder, we also brace for juror deliberations in the Zimmerman trial. Oakland gets angry when the judicial system betrays young black men. A backdrop to these two stories is that BART is in the middle of strike negotiations and if nothing changes soon, Fruitvale station, and all other BART stations will be closing for a while.

The Zimmerman trial has already been disappointing particularly in how Trayvon Martin and his young friend have been denigrated in the media. What seemed like an open and shut case against George Zimmerman, a man who stalked and killed a young African American youth, is now seeming less so.

Those of us who lived in Oakland during the BART police shooting of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle are flashing back to a similar time and feeling of impending betrayal by the justice system and wondering if we will once again need to take to the streets to let the world know that a young black man’s life is worth as much as any other life.

Even if Zimmerman is found guilty, the murder still happened, in the name of security and safety, in a country filled with fear around race and thick with racism.

And as the Sundance award-winning movie “Fruitvale Station” opens, giving Oscar Grant back to Oakland for a moment and skillfully telling a one-day story till his tragic and preventable death, wounds will open up. This shameful, tragic BART incident, revisited in the shared-story format of film, will have an impact on many.

BART has apparently been very cooperative in the making of the film, even allowing movie posters at the Fruitvale Station. A BART liaison to filmmaker Ryan Coogler was quoted to say: “The film is really about humanizing Oscar Grant, and Ryan did a superb job.” (Thank you BART?)

In the real world of BART security we are being told that reforms at BART are underway. A few weeks prior to the film’s opening, in what might be viewed as a PR move, BART released that they’ve hired a retired police chief to review new reforms.

The other BART story is about the strike (30-day stay ticking away…) and it seems that more than the coincidence of timing connects these.

The union has released a video stating that security and safety are of high priority for workers at BART but that management refuses to respond to that need.

Unfortunately, what “more security” usually means is historical racial profiling and the targeting of youth of color and in particular black men like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. The opportunity to make an important statement and connection seems lost on union organizers and begs the question of whether you can publicly make a request for added security without acknowledging the pain and public tragedy surrounding BART police.

It seems to me that this is the perfect intersection for union and worker concerns to build solidarity with social justice organizations. If you are going to make a demand for more security, in the same breath why not ask for public review of reforms and changes? What specifically is BART doing to prevent another tragedy like what happened to Oscar Grant?

BART workers are angry with management and have good cause I can imagine. They have a variety of demands but currently a focus on making visible the high pay of management and a need for more safety and security. They recently stated: “We will be prepared for the bloodiest, longest strike since the 1970′s.”

But will we, their natural allies, friends of labor, social justice workers and concerned community members be ready to stand in support of them?

The union is losing an important opportunity to link worker’s rights and social justice with this connection. In their primary (current) video they flash on a mural of Oscar Grant as if hoping the slight association and acknowledgment will say something. Similar to BART’s decision to cooperate fully with filmmaker Ryan Coogler and to allow “Fruitvale Station” posters in BART stations, it seems to lack authenticity and doesn’t say much of anything.


Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. For guidelines, see: http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines/

14 Responses

  1. Jo Bidness

    Oscar Grant was killed because of a police officer being poorly trained in how to deal with a crisis and how to use his weapons. Why do you think he was poorly trained? Because more training costs money. BART can’t get more money from the government unless taxes are raised, which won’t fly politically. They can’t get more money by raising fares because lots of people will stop riding if they do that (like any product, demand goes down when prices go up). So, they’re stuck working with the money they have. If they have to take station agents who get paid $100K+ to do basically nothing (and have that income guaranteed for life after they retire and make no contributions to that retirement plan or their health care) and pay them MORE, that means LESS money for things like training the BART police properly. So, if you think that that the campaign of these overpaid workers’ unions to get paid even more is somehow in solidarity with getting justice for Oscar Grant, you’ve got it backwards. They are just trying to line their own pockets even if that will make it more likely for situations like that which led to Oscar Grant’s death to occur.

  2. Granate

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t have it backwards here. My point about the strike is that the union can’t expect broad support on issues of increased safety and security at BART if they don’t support and acknowledge social justice issues of profiling and racism. In this commentary I didn’t even go into the issue of pay…

  3. Beth T

    To Jo – the person with the reactionary beliefs – BART workers do not make over $100K – you are misinformed. Also – It’s RIDICULOUS to say the the Oscar Grant case was about money and not racially motivated

    Secondly, I think the writer makes really interesting points about race and also makes some thoughtful remarks about the union.

    Great writing! Very thought provoking!

  4. Jonatton Yeah?

    Some BART station agents make over 100K$. They do. That’s just a fact regardless of if you think that salary is justified or not.


    If you consider the health benefits and the pensions, the cost of employment on the public dime skyrockets.

    What I take issue with is the false dilemma created by the BART union; that your either with them or against labor. I’m a union employee myself, in public health, and I take major issue with their tactics and what they consider themselves to be entitled to. The reality is that they are going to win the battle at the expense of the war all while erroding public support for all unions. Is management overpaid? Yeah, sure. That doesn’t mean you should be overpaid too. It’s more than a bit daft to see two groups of people fighting over money that isn’t theirs when that money could be spent on any number of things that would benefit the public – sprucing up the stations, 24 hours service on the weekends, clean cars….

  5. Amy Rinkon

    To the people quoting this 100K number – there are employees making that much, but they are the exception, not the average. Most are earning about 60K. And as far as pensions and health care are concerned, why shouldn’t workers have them? I say we should all be working to ensure more people have them, not trying to take down people who do so that no one has them!

    But this article is about so much more than how much a BART station agent makes. People are so angry, but I don’t understand why they aren’t angry at our culture which allows situations like Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant to exist. I’m sick and tired of people beating up on middle class workers rather than taking a swing at racism and corporate interests!!!

  6. Andrea L

    I am disheartened that people are choosing to react to how much a handful of BART employees make rather than focus on the real point of this article.

    First of all – the vast majority of BART employees make about $60K. I think it’s great that they have pensions and health care. I wish we would all be trying to lift everyone up so that we ALL have these things – not try to take down don’t those who do with misinformed bitterness.

    Second of all – this thoughtful article raises really interesting questions about race. And interesting that the unions have not capitalized on the negative feelings against BART in the Oscar Grant film. Seems like these two groups should be getting together to fight the racist, corporate interests of BART.

  7. granate

    Jonatton Yeah? – I think you raise salient points as a union employee yourself. You were responding to the other person’s posts so not going to take that on but thanks for reading and contributing to discussion.

  8. Jonatton Yeah?

    “And as far as pensions and health care are concerned, why shouldn’t workers have them? I say we should all be working to ensure more people have them, not trying to take down people who do so that no one has them!”

    “I think it’s great that they have pensions and health care. I wish we would all be trying to lift everyone up so that we ALL have these things – not try to take down don’t those who do with misinformed bitterness.”

    Agreed. To a point. BART employees pay >5% to their health care costs. The average American worker pays 30-40%. The reality is that both are absurd and neither has any footing within a sustainable reality. The latter are going to go broke while the former makes the system broke.

    And I take issue with the “misinformed bitterness” comment. I am neither misinformed nor bitter. I support labor and understand the importance of collective bargaining – but that’s only to a point. Don’t fall for the false dilemma fallacy the Union was pushing a few weeks back. It’s just untrue.

    “And interesting that the unions have not capitalized on the negative feelings against BART in the Oscar Grant film. Seems like these two groups should be getting together to fight the racist, corporate interests of BART.”

    I could not disagree more. The BART Union is in place to protect its workers against what they deem to be unfair labor practices, out of wack wage structures, and questionable management demands. The Union is not in place to tackle public questions of racism or what certain groups decry as “corporate interests.” That is completely over-stepping their bounds.

  9. John Kadish

    To Jonatton Yeah? – I would ask you and all those people out there who like to blame middle class workers with pensions for making the system “broke.” Why do we never look at management salaries and pensions? Why do we never look at how people at the top mismanage budgets? Why is it always the middle class workers’ fault. I say let’s look at management’s bloated compensation packages first!

  10. Jonatton Yeah?

    If that’s what you got from my comments I’m not going to bother with much of a reply as you’ve obviously put your blinders on with both hands over your ears.

    The average BART employees salary is just under 80K$. The average compensation is just under 51K$ – 64% of base pay. That’s 130K$. The average Bay Area salary is just over 60K$ with benefits averaging about 30%. I’ll let that speak for itself.

    And stop with this, “you’re either with the middle class or against it” line of reasoning. It’s inane and disingenuous. BART employees, while a part of the middle class, are not, and have never been asked to be, spokesman for the middle class. They are not elected representatives for us. The fight with management is their fight, not the middle class’ fight. The arrogance of this approach is certainly matched by the financial demands during the strike though; at least they’re consistent.

  11. Granate

    Thanks Amy and Andrea for reading this and commenting – I feel like we’re getting into the well-worn and polarized conversation about unions, management, etc. that has little to do with the original written piece – and I thank you both for getting that and pointing it out.

    That said, I think the union conversation IS necessary as we are all facing a renewed strike and the union needs to sway public opinion, as well as management, for this to be a win. If they don’t, then this growing animosity will just continue. And I agree with the general feeling (in the union thread here) that all of us deserve a living wage, affordable health care and other benefits. I’ve already stated (in the piece) my specific points regarding the union being out of touch with natural allies as theoretically what they are working for is what we all want the opportunity to have. Unfortunately, for many, a lack of civil rights, discrimination of all kinds, poverty and racism stands in the way, and they need to get that.

  12. Anna

    I really enjoyed this article. Found it well written and thought provoking! Remember the good old days when everyone’s opinion, whether a soapbox opportunity, or positive or negative feedback didn’t have to materialize instantly on the screen in front of you …including this one.


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