Brett Brownell

Brett Brownell

Multimedia Producer

Brett Brownell is the Multimedia Producer at Mother Jones and has visited all 50 states. He also helped launch MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes as a video and web producer, served as new media director for the employee rights organization Workplace Fairness, and founded the annual global photography event Worldwide Moment in 2007. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-T.V. and grew up in Arlington, Texas.

Get my RSS |

"Fruitvale Station" and the Weinstein Company's Push for Social Justice

| Sat Jul. 13, 2013 12:33 PM EDT

The tears had not yet dried, but immediately upon exiting Theater 15 at San Francisco's AMC Metreon for a screening of Fruitvale Station, each of us was handed a business card. On one side: an image of Michael B. Jordan (playing Oscar Grant) embraced by Ariana Neal (playing Grant's daughter Tatiana). On the other side: a message encouraging us to channel our newfound rage, confusion, and sadness to fix the injustice we just witnessed on screen.

Call it insensitive, or call it smart marketing, but the Weinstein Company is hard at work making Fruitvale Station more than just something to watch while munching on popcorn. They're engaged in a campaign to raise awareness about social injustice.

Fruitvale Station card
Photos by Brett Brownell

Just after midnight on January 1, 2009, Oakland resident Oscar Grant was riding home from San Francisco on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), when he became involved in an altercation. The train stopped at Fruitvale Station and transit officers responded to the scene. While attempting to restrain Grant, officer Johannes Mehserle shot him in the back. A few hours later, Grant, the 22-year-old father of a 4-year-old girl, died at Highland Hospital.

Numerous cellphone users captured the scene and uploaded their videos. Bay Area residents were incensed and protests erupted. Officer Mehserle later testified that instead of grabbing a Taser, he mistakenly grabbed his gun. Mehserle was charged with murder, but a jury only found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was released after 11 months in prison.

The story of Oscar Grant left a painful scar on the Bay Area, and a literal one on the floor tile where he was killed. During filming of Fruitvale Station, Jordan found a bullet hole where Grant was shot. "I remember putting my chest to the hole and being scared while I was shooting that scene," he told the Los Angeles Times. The hole was later filled by BART officials, but Jordan told the paper, "There's energy at that spot—people know it and what happened there. And oftentimes, people won't stand at that end of the platform."

Director Ryan Coogler helms this story of Grant's final day, and included in his retelling is a brutally visceral recreation of what happened that New Year's morning on the platform.

Coogler grew up near Oakland, and at the time of the shooting he was home on break from film school. He recently told the New York Times, "When we saw that happen to Oscar, and we saw it on video, it was like the wind getting knocked out of us. I was questioning who we were as a community." Soon after the shooting, Coogler decided to make the film.

It's beautifully and subtly acted by Jordon, Melonie Diaz (playing Grant's girlfriend and mother of his daughter), and Octavia Spencer (playing Grant's mother). Meanwhile, the other cast members come across so natural and real it's as if we're peeping through a key hole at an real-life family in the kitchen. This level of comfort makes Grant's death feel personal, leaving you rooting for his survival in the midst of a painful awareness that history had other plans.

But after years of anger and tension in the Bay Area, the Weinstein Company, which purchased Fruitvale Station for $2.5 million at Sundance earlier this year, is using it as an opportunity.

As stated in big bold letters at the top of the post-screening business cards, they're inviting everyone to "Commit to end social injustice in the name of Oscar Grant." (A fitting sentiment, although the enticement of winning a gift card is jarring in this context.) The film's website encourages visitors to share stories of overcoming prejudice, bullying, social injustice or mistreatment with their "I AM __" campaign. And of course they're taking to social networking, such as this recent Instagram photo. Wish them luck. They'll need it.

Fruitvale Station opened in limited release Friday, July 12, and wide release on July 19.

Here's the trailer:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Confirmed: Fracking Triggers Quakes and Seismic Chaos

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 2:04 PM EDT

World map vector: Antun Hirsman/Shutterstock

Major earthquakes thousands of miles away can trigger reflex quakes in areas where fluids have been injected into the ground from fracking and other industrial operations, according to a study published in the journal Science on Thursday.

Previous studies, covered in a recent Mother Jones feature from Michael Behar, have shown that injecting fluids into the ground can increase the seismicity of a region. This latest study shows that earthquakes can tip off smaller quakes in far-away areas where fluid has been pumped underground.

Fracking waste fluids "kind of act as a pressurized cushion," said a lead author on the study.

The scientists looked at three big quakes: the Tohuku-oki earthquake in Japan in 2011 (magnitude 9), the Maule in Chile in 2011 (an 8.8 magnitude), and the Sumatra in Indonesia in 2012 (an 8.6). They found that, as much as 20 months later, those major quakes triggered smaller ones in places in the Midwestern US where fluids have been pumped underground for energy extraction.

"[The fluids] kind of act as a pressurized cushion," lead author Nicholas van der Elst of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University explained to Mother Jones. "They make it easier for the fault to slide."

The finding is not entirely surprising, said van der Elst. Scientists have known for a long time that areas with naturally high subsurface fluid pressures—places like Yellowstone, for example—can see an uptick in seismic activity after a major earthquake even very far away. But this is the first time they've found a link between remote quakes and seismic activity in places where human activity has increased the fluid pressure via underground injections.

"It happens in places where fluid pressures are naturally high, so we're not so surprised it happens in places where fluid pressures are artificially high," he said.

The study looked specifically at Prague, Oklahoma, which features prominently in Behar's piece. The study links the increased tremors in Prague, which has a number of injection wells nearby, to Chile's February 27, 2010, quake. The study also found that big quakes in Japan and Indonesia triggered quakes in areas of western Texas and southern Colorado with many injection wells. The study is "additional evidence that fluids really are driving the increase in earthquakes at these sites," said van der Elst.

how fracking causes earthquakes

Animated GIF: fracked Up?

Drillers inject high-pressure fluids into a hydraulic fracturing well, making slight fissures in the shale that release natural gas. The wastewater that flows back up with the gas is then transported to disposal wells, where it is injected deep into porous rock. Scientists now believe that the pressure and lubrication of that wastewater can cause faults to slip and unleash an earthquake.

Illustration: Leanne Kroll. Animation: Brett Brownell

Short Takes: "Gideon's Army"

| Tue Jul. 9, 2013 2:38 PM EDT

Gideon's Army

HBO DOCUMENTARY FILMS

Dawn Porter practiced law for 15-plus years, mostly for TV studios—before our justice system's iniquities inspired her to get behind the camera. Gideon's Army follows public defenders as they struggle with absurd caseloads and fret over clients' fates. One resorts to pocket change to buy gas. "This is all the money I have in the world right now," she explains. The occasion for the film is the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, which compels states to provide an attorney to criminal defendants who can't afford one. And that's something. But as Porter sums up today's situation, "You have the right to a lawyer. You don't necessarily have the right to a good one."

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

VIDEO: "I Now Pronounce You: Spouses for Life"

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 10:18 PM EDT

Friday afternoon at San Francisco's City Hall, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier become the first same-sex couple in California to legally marry following a major Supreme Court decision on Wednesday that effectively overturned California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The couple were litigants in the court's Hollingsworth v. Perry case, which addressed the California ban, making today's ceremony especially memorable for the crowd of local supporters and national media in attendance. Watch below as California Attorney General Kamala Harris officiates their wedding and pronounces them "Spouses for life":

Tue Apr. 15, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Apr. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Wed Aug. 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Thu Aug. 22, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Tue Jul. 9, 2013 2:38 PM EDT
Fri Jun. 28, 2013 10:18 PM EDT
Mon Apr. 29, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Mar. 15, 2013 8:19 PM EDT
Thu Mar. 14, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Feb. 4, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Tue Nov. 20, 2012 7:03 AM EST