My thoughts on the film Fruitvale Station and the Oscar Grant shooting

So back when it was still in the theaters, I saw the movie Fruitvale Station. For those that still aren’t aware of the movie and what it’s about, it’s an attempt to document the final living days of Oscar Grant, who died after being shot by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police in the early morning hours of 2009 January 1.

Without spoiling the plot too much, the movie makes no bones about Oscar’s checkered past and criminal history. But at the same time, Oscar is portrayed as someone who was just about to get his life back together when it was tragically ended. During a period in which my mom and I would go to the theater every weekend (sometimes twice in the same weekend), I had picked this one almost out of mere curiosity, going by the Wikipedia article linked above accessed from my mom’s Android phone (if you want to get technical, I believe this version of the article was either the exact version I was looking at or very close to it). I didn’t write down nor do I remember what our other choices were, but I don’t regret this choice one bit.

I know there are some who will happily dismiss this movie, and even walk out or eject the DVD the moment they see the first scene with Oscar in prison. And they will have no idea what they missed. Suffice it to say that in my particular case, I saw quite a bit of myself in the portrayal of Oscar on the screen. And a lot of people should; for a majority of people, it’s not getting arrested for drug dealing that brings the dark spot in their lives, but something else like losing a job or losing a bunch of friends all at once.

Part of the purpose of our corrections system is to rehabilitate. If we as a society do not allow those sentenced to prison to prepare for their eventual release and become productive members of society, we may as well just put revolving doors on the front of the prisons because the prisoners will wind up going back to crime yet again. The film shows Oscar’s efforts to become a law-abiding and productive member of society during the final days of his life. We will never know if he could have been successful.

What I find particularly unjust is that the officer who shot Oscar, Johannes Mehserle, would serve less than a year after being sentenced to a mere two years. Even though he has a conviction on his record which will keep him from securing employment in law enforcement, two years is way too lenient, before factoring in the sentence reductions that allowed his release in less than a year. The maximum for involuntary manslaughter in this case was four years (one article said six years), but that charge gives Mr. Mehserle the benefit of the doubt and says this was an accident.

Based on what I have seen so far, I don’t think this was an accident. It would take a lot to convince me that this was voluntary manslaughter, and not second-degree murder. I recognize that the jury saw it differently, but at the same time I must say in as many words I think the jury got it wrong.

Thankfully, the civil courts are seeing things differently and awarding the survivors sums in excess of $1 million (Oscar’s daughter got $1.5 million and his mother $1.3 million; the case brought by his father is still pending).

A huge step backwards for technology and free speech?

I’m going to start this post with some affirmations of what I believe, and more importantly what I believe to be sane beliefs regarding technology.

First, computers (which include not only desktop and laptop PCs, but most electronic technology which contains either a microprocessor or its equivalent) are powerful because they do exactly what they are told to do, and don’t do things they aren’t told to do, by their owners. The questions of whether or not it is a good idea, lawful, ethical, etc. are not made by the computer (device) but its operator.

Second, free speech, including documentation of government actions, is fundamental to government accountability for its actions. The ability for a government agency to arbitrarily prevent such documentation is prima facie evidence of a police state.

If these sound reasonable to you, then a recent story by RT News should be extremely troubling. In a nutshell, Apple now has a patent which, if implemented and used, would allow the police or other officials to arbitrarily disable your phone, including the camera.

This is at odds with legal rights under the First Amendment of the US Constitution and similar rights under Article 12, 17, and 19 in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Imagine a world where incidents like those that happened to Rodney King are commonplace–and no video or even still pictures of egregious police brutality ever surface because as soon as the cops want to beat someone up, they shut off all cameras and phones in the area.

It’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it?

And don’t just say “I obey the law, therefore I have nothing to worry about.” With this kind of power, you can be completely innocent, yet the cops can say anything they want. And there’s no video to prove them wrong. Guilty until proven innocent–and there’s little hope of being proven innocent. Already, the badge serves as a “get out of jail free” card for most garden variety perjury charges. This would turn the badge into carte blanche to silence anyone and everyone for any reason.

Those who work at Apple that made this patent a reality should be ashamed of themselves. This is a good reason to document abusive behavior by law enforcement like there’s no tomorrow. Because when it comes to accountability, there may not be a tomorrow.

Remain an atheist, go to jail?

I know the proverbial ink has been dry on this one for some time, but I don’t see the issue becoming any less relevant anytime soon. reported a troubling story regarding a parolee and a 12-step program which requires the acknowledgement of a supreme being.

Barry Hazle was released from prison into the 12-step program after pleading no contest to a methamphetamine possession charge. Everyone involved with the case knew Barry was an atheist, they knew these 12-step programs are centered around the acceptance of a supreme being, and thus his later “congenial” refusal to acknowledge a higher power was not a surprise. The surprise only came when Barry sued for false imprisonment after revocation of his parole–suing not only his parole officer, but several state (California) corrections officials, and Westcare Corporation (which I will assume was actually administering the residential treatment program).

Here’s where it gets hairy. The judge found the defendants liable in the first trial, but the first jury awarded him zero damages, which in itself is frightening. It essentially says that the time and freedom of the accused are worthless. (And possibly that Norm Crosby was onto something when he said “When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.” I believe in the power of juries and I take jury duty seriously, but I admit that every once in a while juries do things that make this quote into a piece of profound wisdom.) Not surprisingly, Barry appealed this verdict and got a new trial after the appeals court ruled he was entitled to damages.

It’s troubling to me that the state would attempt to indirectly force someone to adopt religion. There are websites about how to go through 12-step programs from an atheist perspective ( was one of the more prominent ones when I searched, but by no means the only one), though I doubt Barry had access to anything on the Internet in his situation.

This can also be shown as yet another failure of drug prohibition laws, which I have spoken against time and time again on this blog. More troubling than the law itself in this case, however, is its abuse to attempt to force religion onto a known atheist in a very vulnerable circumstance.