OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – On Saturday, a little over ten years since police fatally shot her son at an East Oakland Bay Area Rapid Transit station, Wanda Johnson stood next to a new blue and gold mural of him on its exterior wall and quoted from 1 Corinthians 10:24.
“‘Let no one seek his own but each one the other’s well being,'” she read to people gathered at Fruitvale Station to commemorate Oscar Grant and the civil rights legacy his stunning murder fostered.
“And the very night that Oscar was killed, he was seeking his friends’ wellbeing. He was reminding them to just listen to the officers and they would soon be going home,” she said. “Oscar was not the one who was able to return home, but his friends were.”
“He loved to give unconditionally to his friends and he loved to help others,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s story embodied Saturday’s event, where street signs were also unveiled renaming the road in front of the station Oscar Grant III Way. One after another, speakers extolled the dedication of the Oakland community, which after Grant’s death mobilized against anti-black violence and racism and which is credited with the advent of black-rights campaign Black Lives Matter.
“I’m reminded of that scripture because through Oscar’s love, so many organizations have formed,” Johnson said. “So even today, the unveiling speaks to me, it lets me know that Oscar did not die in vain. He died for a purpose.”
Early on New Year’s Day 2009, BART officer Anthony Pirone pulled Grant off a train at Fruitvale Station after reports of a fight and pinned the 22-year-old face down to the platform. While Grant was pinned down, a second BART officer, Johannes Mehserle, shot him in the back.
At his murder trial, Mehserle claimed he had meant to use his Taser to subdue Grant, but had accidentally grabbed his gun instead. A Los Angeles state-court jury accepted his story and charged him with involuntary manslaughter, touching off marches and riots in downtown Oakland. Mehserle spent a year in jail for the killing.
Pirone, meanwhile, was fired after lying to investigators he had been “fighting for my life” during the altercation with Grant, according to a 2009 report recently released under California’s new police transparency law. Video footage captured by bystanders and station cameras later revealed Grant had not struggled against Pirone, and the report concluded Pirone had used excessive force against him.
On Saturday, Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson credited Oakland’s support with the civil rights gains made by his family and the Oscar Grant Foundation, a social justice organization he started after the shooting.
“Because of that mantra, that cry of ‘I am Oscar Grant,’ we got for the first time in California state history an officer arrested, charged, convicted and sent to jail,” said Johnson, who is affectionately known as Uncle Bobby.
“What has happened today,” he said of the community-wide fight for Grant’s mural, “is the result of this community that embraced us, stood with us, cried with us, went back and forth to court with us, prayed for us and prayed with us. But most importantly, you realized your First Amendment right to say, ‘I am Oscar Grant,'” he said.
But despite those gains, Johnson said, 1,200 people in California have been murdered by police since Grant died.
“So that’s telling us our work is not done,” he said.
Prominent civil rights and Grant-family attorney John Burris also spoke Saturday. Burris, who won a $1.5 million settlement for Grant’s now 14-year-old daughter, Tatiana Grant, recounted the significance of the case – it forced BART to retool its police force and “most all” law enforcement agencies to review their Taser policies to determine whether their officers had been properly trained to use the weapon.
“It really showed what can be done when people come together and organize and tell public officials they’re not going to stand for it, they’re not going to take it, and that was one of the true values of Oscar Grant,” Burris said. “The life and legacy of Oscar Grant will live forever in the folklore not only of Oakland, but of the nation itself.”