Family, friends, and supporters gathered at Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland on Jan. 1 to remember Oscar Grant and the movement sparked by his death 11 years ago.
Speakers, poets, and singers remembered Grant, chanted his name, and shared recent police accountability legislation and work that remains. BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Grant on January 1, 2009. Massive protests and rebellions sparked by cell phone footage of the shooting eventually led to the arrest, trial, and conviction of an on-duty copy–a first in California history. The Justice for Oscar Grant Movement preceded Black Lives Matter and had global impact.
“What we did, did not just impact Oakland, or the state of California, but the globe,” Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, said. The Movement connected in solidarity with other oppressed peoples across the globe, while locally community organizers connected across race, class, ideologies, and organizations. “It was not just a moment, it was a movement,” she said.
Earlier this year, the City of Oakland renamed the street south of the Fruitvale BART Station “Oscar Grant III Way.” In addition to the new street name, a mural commissioned by BART also wraps the exterior of the station below the platform where Mehserle shot Grant. The mural’s artist said it was both an honor and duty to paint a mural honoring “the sacredness of African Black life.” He hopes his art will inspire the movement to continue.
“It’s important that we come together to keep this from happening again, Senay “Refa 1” Alkebulan said, “but the conditions have not changed and BART has murdered since then.” BART Police officers have shot and killed at least three men, including Fred Collins, Charles Hill, and Sahleem Tindle. “We want to be free from police terrorism. This (mural) is just symbolic to keep our struggle moving forward,” Alkebulan said.
On the 11th anniversary of Grant’s death, the crowd size appeared smaller than previous years–especially compared to last year’s 10 year anniversary. Yet the numbers reflected the gentrification of Oakland, not a lack of concern for Grant’s legacy or the family, according to Minister Abdul Sabur Muhammad of Oakland’s Muhammad Mosque 26.
“The numbers are diminishing not because of a lack of concern for Oscar’s life, but our dwindling numbers in Oakland and San Francisco,” Muhammad said. Referencing the current struggle of the unhoused mothers in West Oakland, he called the struggle for justice an issue of human rights and said the only way to fight back is through unity. “The only power in the hands of the have-nots is unity,” he said.
Locally, racial profiling continues by the Oakland Police Department and the 2018 Equity Indicator Report shows public safety received the lowest ranking of all themes. Statewide, California cops are still deadly. Yet activists and lawyers are hopeful that several new state laws taking effect today will increase police accountability.
“Since Oscar’s murder, over 1,500 Californians were murdered by law enforcement,” Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle said. Affectionately called “Uncle Bobby” by family and friends, he thanked community members for standing with the family and called on the community to continue to come together to hold police accountable. He referenced recent legislation meant to increase police transparency and accountability, including AB 392. “Today is the day it comes into effect. We’ll see if law enforcement abides by the act,” Johnson said. “It will require us to come into the street.“
John Burris, the civil rights lawyer that represented the family in a civil case, said that the new laws wouldn’t have happened if not for community involvement. Family members and supporters have attended hearings and meetings at the city, county, and state level to increase police transparency. Grant’s case was significant due to the cell phone footage that captured his death and refuted police narrative.
“As a consequence we are in position to better see what happens,” Burris said. In recent years, new laws have given the public access to police records, body camera footage, and some disciplinary records–impossible during Grant’s life due to the Police Officers Bill of Rights. Most recently, state law changed the standard for the use of deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary.” This means police cannot use force just because they can, but because it is a necessity.
Although recent legislative victories will increase transparency, street protests may be most effective to change laws considering the perspectives of judges recently appointed to the bench by President Trump and the hesitancy of District Attorneys to charge police officers, Burris said.
“Until this day, law enforcement agencies in California kill more people than any other state, Brooks said. “With impunity.” She encouraged attendees to join an organization or at least support one financially. “We come here to honor his name. We honor his name by doing the work.” Brooks encouraged support for groups like California Families United 4 Justice and the effort to reform Oakland’s Police Oversight Commission.
In addition to acknowledging and supporting other families killed by law enforcement, the family’s Oscar Grant Foundation awarded scholarships to several college students. Other attendees included Grant’s mother and daughter, Wanda Johnson and Tatiana Grant, members of the Nation of Islam, BART Board President Latifah Simon and Oakland Councilmember Nikki Bas.