A protester marches with a sign by Dignidad Rebelde on Jan. 7, 2009.   Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A protester marches with a sign by Dignidad Rebelde on Jan. 7, 2009.  ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After Oscar Grant, Oakland Artists Inspired a New Generation of Activists

After Oscar Grant, Oakland Artists Inspired a New Generation of Activists

Hours after Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant on the platform of Fruitvale Station on Jan. 1, 2009, Bay Area street artists sprang into action. An Alameda printmaker named Jon-Paul Bail churned out hundreds of "Disarm BART Police" posters to hand out at demonstrations. An artist going by Broke printed "Justice for Oscar Grant" posters with stylized graffiti font. Designer Frank Zio depicted a BART ticket with a bloody fingerprint.

Meanwhile, a cellphone video of the killing went viral on YouTube and social media, galvanizing hundreds of demonstrators who faced off against police in riot gear in downtown Oakland. As they marched, they hoisted signs with Bail, Zio and Broke's artwork, plus posters by Oakland artists such as GATS andevery Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza of Dignidad Rebelde.

"Everyone was using everyone else’s images freely," says Bail, who's made political posters since the '80s under the name Political Gridlock. "There was no, 'This is my image, this is your image.' No one cared, we just made the art and donated it. Give them posters, go to the rallies."

As helicopters loomed overhead, the images made their way from people’s hands onto city walls and shop windows—a constant reminder of Oakland's civil unrest—amplifying demonstrators' calls for accountability as news cameras captured their clashes with police.

Those confrontational tactics worked: with public pressure mounting, the Alameda County district attorney charged Mehserle with murder on Jan. 14, 2009, a statistical anomaly for an officer-involved shooting. With Mehserle in custody, a millennial uprising against police brutality began to form in Oakland a full five years before Black Lives Matter became a national rallying cry.

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Following in the footsteps of Tupac Shakur and the Black Panthers' Emory Douglas, Oakland artists such as rapper Mistah F.A.B., rapper-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley, and Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler lent their skills to the movement, and they brought followings of newly politicized young people with them. Ten years after Oscar Grant's death, some of these artists have made a major impact on American pop culture, while others are still doing on-the-ground work in Oakland. All of them catalyzed a new generation of activists who rallied the nation against racial injustice and shifted American consciousness over the past decade.

A Justice for Oscar Grant poster by street artist Broke.
A Justice for Oscar Grant poster by street artist Broke. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

"I would say for those of us who created Black Lives Matter, it really does start with Oscar Grant as our Rodney King moment—where the violence our communities experience every day was actually captured on video and circulated around the world," says Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.

"I think what Mistah F.A.B. and other artists were able to do is speak to folks who are not part of coalitions, who are not part of organizations ... and allow them to be a part of the change that needs to happen," Garza says. "Talking about the role that police violence plays in communities every day is a big part of how people are being reached and being told, 'You’re not alone,' one, and, two, 'You can do something about it.'"

Artists become community organizers

As street artists handed out posters in the weeks after Grant's death, the Bay Area's rap scene mobilized to create a soundtrack for the protests. Mistah F.A.B., a central figure of the 2000s hyphy movement, recorded and released "My Life (Oscar Grant)" the day of the shooting. On the track, he drew attention to an ongoing pattern of police brutality against the black community, which he says mainstream society mostly ignored until it was captured on camera. "See, I’m from a city, man / Where police brutality ain't nothin' new to us, man / It’s another Oscar Grant that happens every day," he rapped.

Oscar Grant hadn't yet become a national news story on Jan. 1, 2009, but Mistah F.A.B. knew he had fans he could reach all over the country through MySpace, Bandcamp and YouTube. That month, he wore an Oscar Grant T-shirt for a TV appearance on BET. "I think expressing what was going on in the city through art was very important because there were individuals who hadn’t heard about the atrocities outside of our area," he tells me in a recent interview.

Mistah F.A.B.
Mistah F.A.B. (Bert Johnson)

"For artists, rappers, singers, directors—it definitely lit a fire under the people and let them know, we have to address these things," Mistah F.A.B. says. 

Other Bay Area rappers, including J Stalin and Beeda Weeda, Zumbi of Zion I and Young Gully, recorded their own protest songs and homages to Grant. And music wasn’t the only way they took action: F.A.B. and Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, then known as a rapper in The Coup, were on the front lines at Oakland City Hall in the days after the shooting to organize outraged Oaklanders.

Protests continued throughout 2009 and 2010 as Mehserle’s trial unfolded. In July 2010, a jury convicted the former police officer of involuntary manslaughter. He served 11 months of his two-year sentence, prompting more protests upon his early release in June 2011.

That same year, a new movement percolated in New York City: Occupy Wall Street, a protest against corporate interests and wealth inequality. As Occupy protests took root across the country, the center of the action in Oakland was Frank Ogawa Plaza at City Hall, which activists dubbed Oscar Grant Plaza. Following the unofficial name change, calling out racism in the criminal justice system became a core tenet of Occupy Oakland even as the national movement emphasized economics.

Many key people from the Oscar Grant protests showed up. Boots Riley led direct actions as police encroached on the Occupy encampment; Mistah F.A.B. delivered speeches on the City Hall steps alongside Nation of Islam leaders and members of Oscar Grant’s family.

Jon-Paul Bail and fellow street artist Kalleb Arefaine arrived to screenprint thousands of posters on site, handing them directly to demonstrators. Graffiti artists, including Eesuu and Optimist, joined the cause, covering the city with "Justice for Oscar Grant" posters and tags. Oscar Grant murals and wheatpasted posters showed up all over town as protesters camped out in front of City Hall.

"When the news and everyone was complaining about the graffiti," recalls Arefaine, "it broadcasted the message even more."

Grant's family enlists artists' help

During the height of Occupy Oakland, Oscar Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson, known to many as Uncle Bobby, saw Bail screenprinting at a protest and approached him to collaborate on a new design for a vigil he'd planned for the third anniversary of Grant’s death on Jan. 1, 2012. This time, Bail enlisted another artist, Aambr Newsome a.k.a. 2AM, who was a Berkeley City College student at the time. Newsome and Bail drew a stylized portrait of a smiling Oscar Grant, illuminated by sunshine with protest signs in the background.

Newsome recalls how Oscar Grant’s murder awakened her to the reality of police violence against black communities in America. She felt a sense of duty to lend her illustration skills to the cause. "For me, it was really important providing assistance to those families who feel like they don’t have a voice, that nobody is listening, and to really give them something to march with," she says. "I think that makes them louder. It makes them a bit more proud so they feel like they have supporters backing them."

Kalleb Arefaine and Jon-Paul Bail printed thousands of anti-police brutality posters over the past decade. Bail (right) holds a poster he created with Aambr Newsom in 2012.
Kalleb Arefaine and Jon-Paul Bail printed thousands of anti-police brutality posters over the past decade. Bail (right) holds a poster he created with Aambr Newsom in 2012. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Johnson, who assumed the role of family spokesperson after founding the Oscar Grant Foundation in 2010, collaborated with numerous artists in the wake of Grant’s death. Johnson's voice appears on rapper Young Gully’s album The Grant Station Project on the heartfelt final track, "Letter to Grant," where Gully raps from the perspective of Grant in heaven. (KQED’s Pendarvis Harshaw was an executive producer on the album.)

Young Gully recalls how Johnson was skeptical of his intentions until he heard "Letter to Grant" being recorded in the studio. "When Uncle Bobby heard that, he cried. That one song is what allowed me to put that album out," Gully says. "After that, he saw what my angle was. We built this big relationship, and basically he loved me for that."


For Johnson, working with artists was crucial for drawing attention to injustice, and especially getting young people on board with the fight against police brutality. "Artistry from muralists, hip-hop artists—and artists period, whether they be spoken-word artists, portraitists—they all shared their gifts when it came time to talk about Oscar Grant and speak about the social ills of the system concerning police violence, state-sponsored violence," he says. "It was young people speaking to young people, and us elders heard their call and responded."

The movement hits the big screen

The "Justice for Oscar Grant" poster Newsome and Bail created with Johnson’s blessing ended up in Black Panther director Ryan Coogler’s debut feature film, Fruitvale Station, about the final 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life.

Coogler, an Oakland native who was only a year older than Grant at the time of the killing, painted a portrait of Grant as an imperfect but loving young father attempting to get his life on track after a stint behind bars. The humanizing portrayal was crucial to the developing national conversation about racial injustice, which only grew more tense after the high-profile shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

By the time Fruitvale Station hit theaters in 2013, Oscar Grant had become a martyr, a symbol and a hashtag after four years of protests in his name. But Fruitvale Station brought the focus back on Grant as a regular, working-class young man finding his way. At a time when news media regularly vilified victims of police brutality—for example, the fixation on photos of Trayvon Martin showing his middle finger—this was essential.

"[Oscar] has to deal with his baby mama; he has to deal with money; he has to figure out what to do with this dog; his job has some stress," says Carvell Wallace, an Oakland-based critic who has covered Coogler’s work for The New York Times. "The way [Coogler] takes us through this allows us to relate to those things so we see him as a person. I think it’s important to see someone as a person before they become a hashtag, and that’s what the movements are always fighting for. And that’s an uphill battle."

With a wide release in theaters across the country, Fruitvale Station was essential for building empathy among non-black Americans who didn’t have personal experience with police brutality and racial injustice, and who might have felt threatened by the protests they saw on the news without understanding the underlying cause. "I think what Coogler did with that film was show Oscar Grant not as a 'them' but as a 'you,'" says Wallace.

April Reign, a diversity advocate who coined the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in response to a lack of black artists at the Academy Awards, says that Fruitvale Station served another purpose: it emphasized the importance of documenting injustice with smartphones, which was instrumental to the Black Lives Matter movement as it took off nationally in 2013.

"The movie Fruitvale Station was incredibly underrated and really brought to the forefront some of the issues that people had been fighting for years," says Reign. "Not just talking about the issues of state-sanctioned violence, but also the question of filming the police, and how taking a stand in that way has the potential to make a difference when cops are involved in violence against American citizens, especially black men."

Black Lives Matter on the world stage

The Bay Area artists politicized during the Oscar Grant protests found a new calling with the Black Lives Matter movement, a rallying cry against systemic racism after the high-profile killings of Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner.

Oakland artist Oree Original created dozens of downloadable portraits of victims of police brutality that Black Lives Matter activists carried at marches nationwide. And Chinaka Hodge, a star of the Bay Area's literary scene, debuted her critically acclaimed play Chasing Mehserle, which toured the country after its local premiere in 2014.

Artist Oree Originol
Artist Oree Originol with posters from his 'Justice for Our Lives' project. (Manjula Varghese)

Black Lives Matter protests continued into 2016, following the deaths of Sandra Bland in Texas, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. The movement entered the pop culture zeitgeist: Beyoncé brought Grant’s mother, Reverend Wanda Johnson, and the mothers of Brown, Martin and Garner to the 2016 VMAs. Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling protest against police brutality received support from Grant's family, continues to be the biggest topic of conversation in the NFL.

Chart-topping artists like Migos and Young Thug mentioned victims of police violence in their songs; Kendrick Lamar made history at the 2016 Grammy Awards with a performance that called out racism in the criminal justice system. Drawing from a long history of African-American protest art, the wave of artists demanding justice for Grant ushered in an era of creatives and entertainers speaking out against police brutality, and using social media to amplify the conversation.

"Artistry spring-boarded the Oscar Grant movement," says Johnson, Grant's uncle. "So today, when we see young men getting killed, there are forms of artistry that come into play... It’s carried on ever since."

Ryan Coogler and Boots Riley kicked off a huge year for black cinema with the successes of their 2018 films Black Panther and Sorry to Bother You, and other critically acclaimed films from that year addressed police brutality directly. Director George Tillman Jr. based his movie about the aftermath of a police shooting, The Hate U Giveon a young-adult novel by Angie Thomas, who began writing it after watching cellphone footage of Oscar Grant's death. Similarly, Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and spoken-word artist Rafael Casal, both from Oakland, wrote the screenplay for Blindspotting—about a man reeling from PTSD after witnessing a police shooting—in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant shooting.

"We were trying to match the nature of the national conversation about these kinds of killings," Diggs told KQED in a July 2018 interview about the film. "When Oscar Grant was murdered, there were riots and protests; Oscar’s face was on all the shirts; there was 24-hour news cycle about it. Flash forward to now, every time one of these [killings] happens, it’s just another body on the pile."

Culture shifts, legislation stagnates

Although the many examples of art to emerge from the fight against police brutality have shifted American consciousness and changed the culture, policy has been slow to catch up. California passed a law creating greater transparency in police misconduct cases in 2018, but no sweeping state or federal reforms have taken place, especially regarding disciplining officers who abuse their authority. Recent studies estimate that police kill nearly 1,000 people a year in the United States, but only 80 officers were arrested on murder or manslaughter chargers for on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2017. Of those, only 35 percent were convicted.

Oaklanders voted to replace an inefficient Citizens’ Police Review Board in 2016 with the Oakland Police Commission, which has more power to investigate and discipline officers accused of misconduct. But the board’s first year was marred by turmoil and leadership changes, with one commissioner calling it a "squandered opportunity" in her resignation letter in November 2018.

With Donald Trump in office, police brutality is no longer a central focus for many non-black Americans as the administration enacts policies that undermine many other populations' civil liberties. The lack of tangible progress feels deflating to some, but the fight against systemic racism started long before Oscar Grant—and will continue long after.

"The system hasn’t changed, and policing hasn’t become more transparent than it was before. It’s just more visible," says Black Lives Matter’s Garza. "Black people are still being murdered."

For many of the artists who mobilized against police brutality ten years ago, the pain of Grant's death and the fraught state of race relations in America are still front-of-mind. Refa One, a street artist involved in the movement since at least 2009, is currently painting a new mural honoring Grant at Fruitvale BART station. Mistah F.A.B. recently filmed a music video at Fruitvale station for his new song "War Vibes," where he raps face down on the platform—the position Grant found himself in during his last moments.

"It’s unfortunate that these kids are being killed and stripped of their lives and their innocence,” Mistah F.A.B. says. "It’s not even safe outside. A trip to the store could end in you being beat up or shot by the police."

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