In the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009, a young man named Oscar Grant boarded a BART train bound for Oakland. He was 22, traveling with a few friends and his girlfriend. They had spent the night watching the fireworks in San Francisco.
What comes next is documented in the terrible cellphone videos that circulated in the days immediately after: The BART police arrived and dragged Grant’s crew off the train (there had been a report of black men fighting); Grant sat quietly before being pushed face down and restrained by a knee on his neck; Grant was essentially executed in front of the early morning revelers, hit by single shot fired from the gun of officer Johannes Mehserle, who said he was acting in self defense. Grant had been reaching for a weapon, Mehserle said (Grant had none), and he had been reaching for his Taser.
Since the last week’s release of Fruitvale Station, a movie documenting Grant’s last day and recreating his horrifying death, the press has been drawing the inevitable comparisons to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin. (Filmmakers are counting on such comparisons as part of their marketing campaign.) Though Grant—22 years old, a father, with several drug-related arrests—paints a different picture than the scrawny, 17-year-old football player, the two cases hit at a similar cultural scandal: Both were killed by white men who assumed criminality when faced with a young, black male.
But there’s another big difference between the two cases: If you weren’t living in the Bay Area in 2009, you probably haven’t heard of Grant. Though local publications covered the case and subsequent trial in painstaking detail, Grant’s story never broke into national headlines. The New York Times printed 291 articles and hundreds of blog posts on Trayvon Martin, plastering the front pages during accused shooter George Zimmerman’s trial. The Gray Lady published only a handful of articles on Grant’s death, which ran mostly in the Bay Area pages and focused on the violent Oakland riots that followed the shooting. The New Yorker has written 49 posts that comprise some of the most salient coverage of Martin’s case, including a particularly poignant hoodie tribute, whereas the only mention of Grant is a short review of Fruitvale Station.
If Trayvon Martin’s death made continuous headlines because of the exceptional brutality of his slaying—and the way his story thrust open our culture of racial profiling—consider, for a moment, the roster of other dead young black men whose similar stories have recently garnered attention only by association. “Is Jordan Russell Davis the new Trayvon?” asked the The Atlantic Wire in November, after the 17-year-old was shot eight times inside his parked car after an altercation over loud music. Though the shooter, a 45-year-old white man, bore no injuries, he has chosen, like Zimmerman, to plead not guilty to the slaying, telling officials that something about Davis made him “feel threatened.” Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old Georgia man, was killed while partying with his brother at the home of an 18-year-old friend whose uncle awoke, assumed the young men were raping his niece, and fired a few “warning” rounds. Patterson bled out in the yard while his brother ran for help.
Then there’s 13-year-old Darius Simmons who, like Martin, was slain, while walking in his Milwaukee neighborhood, by an older white man who accused the child of breaking into his home and stealing his guns. Simmons was, of course, without said guns, but law enforcement accepted his guilt so readily they questioned his mother for an hour and a half while her son died in a nearby hospital.
“These stories happen all the time,” Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told The New York Times after Patterson’s death. “It’s heartbreaking and tragic, but there’s not much news coverage unless the circumstances are truly, truly unusual.” Perhaps the most telling revelation of Trayvon Martin’s death is that violence hinging on the assumption of a young black man’s criminality is rarely unusual enough to warrant the eyes and ears of the fourth estate.
In many ways the discrepancy between Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin reflects, at least in part, the immeasurable effort a group of family members and well-connected advocates exerted to wrench Martin’s story out of Florida and into national headlines. On February 28, two days after his death, his father placed a call to Benjamin Crump, a prominent civil-rights attorney in Florida, who had learned media-savvy trying the case of another black teen, beaten to death at a youth detention center in 2006. Crump lost that case, but he learned from his failure, and his strategy for Trayvon Martin involved making sure the case was tried in the press first.