Friends, family, and supporters gathered at Fruitvale Station on Saturday afternoon in memory of Oscar Grant, III, 13 years after a transit cop shot and killed him in the early hours of New Year’s Day in Oakland in 2009.
Oscar Grant’s legacy still lives
Since 2010, the family has hosted an annual vigil at the Fruitvale BART Station to honor the memory of Oscar Grant.
This year, speakers announced that Rev. (Mama) Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, will soon work full-time at the Oscar Grant Foundation. The foundation addresses issues of police brutality and mental health, and also sponsors a number of community programs in honor of her son, like the Oscar Grant Ballers AAU Basketball Team and a scholarship program.
Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant’s uncle known as “Uncle Bobby,” expressed gratitude to Oakland for helping keep his nephew’s legacy alive by protesting his death and embracing their family.
“We are very much indebted to the community, especially Oakland,” Johnson told Oakland Voices. “Thirteen years later, community still supports us and shouts, ‘I am Oscar Grant!'” Pointed to the mural of Grant embellishing the station’s exterior wall, he added that he hopes station will be renamed “Grant Station.”
Gigi Crowder, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Contra Costa County, spoke on the importance of healing from the collective trauma for all who witnessed the murder of Grant.
“The family recognized the whole community was traumatized by the murder of Oscar (Grant),” Crowder said. Since the beginning of the Justice for Oscar Grant Movement, the family and activists have called for healing and spoke out against anti-Black violence.
The annual vigil is an afternoon of prayer, poetry, and protest, and also included remarks by Grant’s family and the families of others killed by police: including Rick Perez, father of Pedie Perez, killed by Richmond Police in 2014; Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, killed by Sacramento police in 2018; and Addie Kitchen, grandmother of Steven Taylor, killed by police at the San Leandro Walmart in 2020.
The Murder of Oscar Grant
Oscar Grant, III, was a 22-year-old father from Hayward. He attended a New Year’s Eve celebration along with his fiance and friends. Police responded to a report of a fight on the train. After punching Grant in the face, Officer Tony Pirone ordered his arrest. While Pirone kneeled on his neck, Mehserle stood up and fired a single shot into Grant’s back. Grant later died at Highland Hospital. After refusing to cooperate with investigators, Mehserle resigned from the force. He was later charged with second-degree murder.
Mehserle’s defense was able to get the trial venue moved from Alameda County, although organizers in Los Angeles joined the family and folks from the Bay Area in attending the trial there. Mehserle claimed he mistook his gun for a taser but was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. A judge sentenced him to two years in prison. Mehserle served time in county jail until his June 2011 release. Mehserle has since changed his name and has left law enforcement.
Justice for Oscar Grant
The New Year’s Day murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 sparked a widespread protest movement. The subsequent protests, called “riots” or “rebellions” depending on your politics, led to the arrests of hundreds, including the “Oakland 100.”
Multiple groups emerged over the subsequent years, including the Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), No Justice No BART, New Year’s Movement for Justice for Oscar Grant, Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, the Oscar Grant Committee Against Police Brutality and State Repression, and the Onyx Organizing Committee (now the Anti Police-Terror Project [APTP]). At its launch, Occupy Oakland’s encampment at Frank Ogawa Plazas was named “Oscar Grant Plaza.” Grant’s murder and subsequent protests predates Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
In recent years, calls to “Abolish the Police or “Defund the Police” that seemed fringe during the Oscar Grant protests have entered more mainstream political discourse.
Since Oscar Grant
Although there have been numerous police killings in California since, families and advocates seeking justice have been able to push for significant legislation in subsequent years. Assembly Bill 748 requires the release of video and audio recordings of “critical incidents,” like the so-called “officer-involved shootings.” Senate Bill 1421 makes certain records open to public records requests, such as police use of deadly force.
Records released since SB 1421, the Right to Know legislation, have shown BART Police mishandled the investigation and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office could have charged Tony Pirone in Grant’s murder. Beside Grant’s death, requestors have also sought information about Mehserle, Pirone, and Marysol Domenici, an officer who was fired to lying investigators.
In January 2021, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced her office would not be charging Pirone, who currently works in communications for the California Army National Guard. Attorney General Rob Bonta announced last August his office will conduct an independent review of Pirone’s involvement. At the vigil, Grant’s father expressed optimism that Pirone will be charged.
The death of Oscar Grant led to a range of resignations amid calls for firings: BART Police Chief Gary Gee and later General Manager Dorothy Dugger resigned. Then-District Attorney Thomas Orloff retired. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors appointed O’Malley, who ran unopposed twice before being challenged by Pamela Price in 2018. It was the first election for the position in decades. Following recall efforts and a protest caravan to her home in Alameda last January, O’Malley announced she will not seek reelection.
Speaking at the vigil, Elaine Brown, former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, called O’Malley’s resignation a victory and warned attendees of her successor. O’Malley has not endorsed anyone in the race yet.
Remembering Oscar Grant
Other attendees included Oscar Grant’s grandmother, Bonnie Johnson, father, Oscar Grant, Jr., and his 17-year-old daughter, Tatiana Grant, and grandchild. Jack Bryson, whose two sons, Grant’s friends, were on the platform, also attended.
In addition to the immediate and extended family, activists and community family also showed up for the family. George Galvis, executive director of Communities United for Restorative Justice for Youth (CURJY) attended. His organization recently founded the Oscar Grant Youth Empowerment Zone, a community hub at the ground floor of the affordable housing complex, Casa Suenos, currently under construction.
Jabari Shaw, then a member of Laney College’s Black Student Union (BSU) attended the Mehserle trial in LA. Refa Senay, the artist who designed and painted the Oscar Grant mural at the station, also attended. Beatrice X of Families United 4 Justice attended too.
Members of the foundation sold Oscar Grant t-shirts at the event. Frank Running Horse of the Oscar Grant Committee once again also brought “We are Oscar Grant” picket signs.
This year’s vigil was smaller than previous years. About 90 people attended. Absent from this year’s event were members of the Nation of Islam.
The 12th annual vigil concluded with the release of eight white doves. Attendees sang “Happy Birthday” to Mama Wanda, whose birthday is December 31.