Wanda Johnson (center), the mother of Oscar J. Grant III, walks with supporters as they leave the Los Angeles Superior Court after the involuntary manslaughter verdict against former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle, in Los Angeles on July 8, 2010. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Wanda Johnson (center), the mother of Oscar J. Grant III, walks with supporters as they leave the Los Angeles Superior Court after the involuntary manslaughter verdict against former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle, in Los Angeles on July 8, 2010. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Oscar Grant and the Scarcity of Hope

Oscar Grant and the Scarcity of Hope

I didn't vote for Barack Obama in 2008. He ran on the concept of hope and the promise of change, and honestly, as a 21 year-old African American man, I didn't believe anything in this country would really change. Whenever I saw red and blue lights in my rearview mirror, it didn't matter who was sitting in the Oval Office. I still feared for my life.

It was supposed to be a "promising" new year in 2009: President Bush was leaving office and President Obama, the nation’s first African American president, was about to be sworn in. And then just a few weeks prior to Obama's inauguration, Oscar Grant was killed.

The video of Grant's death showed Johannes Mehserle, a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer, launching a bullet through the back of a defenseless young African American man who lay face down on the train platform at Fruitvale Station in East Oakland. The video spread instantly across the relatively new social media terrain, and was broadcast on local and national news outlets. What a way to start the year.

It quickly canceled any notion of a “post-racial America,” as some folks were calling the era. Ha! To think, I almost had the audacity of hope.

A mourner holds holds a program during funeral services for twenty two year-old Oscar Grant III at Palma Ceia Baptist Church Jan. 7, 2009 in Hayward.
A mourner holds holds a program during funeral services for twenty two year-old Oscar Grant III at Palma Ceia Baptist Church Jan. 7, 2009 in Hayward. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In 2009, I was in my junior year as a communications student at Howard University; I was just dabbling in journalism. And then I started covering stories related to Oscar Grant’s killing.

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There’s a whole wave of folks who were impacted by Oscar Grant’s death, so much that it altered their life’s trajectory. I’m one of them. For me, journalism got real.

For the first few months, I followed the news from my dorm room. I saw friends and fellow community members take to the streets demanding the arrest of Johannes Mehserle, and in the summer of 2010, I wrote about the Johannes Mehserle trial for NPR. I remember the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor Conrad Murray, and the announcement that LeBron James would “take his talents to south beach,” and how they both made Oscar Grant a secondary story.

That same summer, I interviewed Oakland's mayor Ron Dellums about the possibility of renaming Fruitvale Station in Oscar Grant’s honor. (Unrelated to my inquiry, Grant’s family put the question to a formal proposal this year.)

In 2010, I was downtown at Frank Ogawa Plaza when news broke of Mehserle’s verdict: involuntary manslaughter. Although he ultimately only spent eleven months behind bars, it was the first time in California’s history that an officer of the law would do time in jail related to the killing of a civilian.

A small win for change.

Protestors paint a mural of slain 22-year-old Oscar Grant III Jan. 14, 2009 in Oakland.
Protestors paint a mural of slain 22-year-old Oscar Grant on Jan. 14, 2009 in Oakland. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

That summer I worked with Young Gully and Jamon Dru to produce The Grant Station Project, a hip-hop album blending lyrics and audio interviews, all to document the feelings of community members at the time.

In 2013, I wrote about Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant for the Huffington Post. That was around the time President Obama, then in his second term, finally said something about police violence. I was happy to see that. I had voted for Obama the second time around—I was starting to accept that the change I was seeking wouldn’t come overnight. I figured the presence of an African American man in the position of president at least symbolized progress.

In 2014, I wrote about Mike Brown, Ferguson and police brutality for California Sunday magazine. I wrote about the privilege of protesting and lack of a federal database to document instances of police brutality for Fusion. I even worked on The Force, a documentary about the Oakland Police Department, with Pete Nicks.

I tell you all this not to tout my resume, but to explain that over the past 10 years, I’ve become burnt out on the topic of police killing people of color in America, particularly African American men. Burnt out not just because of my professional involvement, but because I’ve personally had to consume so many stories.

The tales of Aiyana Jones. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Sandra Bland. Mario Woods. Alex Nieto. So many others. Even in this year, when police in Sacramento shot and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed father of two. And before that, on Jan. 3, when a BART officer shot and killed Sahleem Tindle in West Oakland.

Ten years after Oscar Grant, I'm still writing about people like Nia Wilson, who was killed by a white man at a BART station. He may not be an officer of the law, but given what's transpired at the courts in what could potentially be a mistrial, it sure seems as though the law is on his side.

All of it is cause to lose hope.

Protestors carry signs with a picture of slain 22-year-old Oscar Grant III during a demonstration at Oakland City Hall Jan. 14, 2009 in Oakland.
Protestors carry signs with a picture of slain 22-year-old Oscar Grant III during a demonstration at Oakland City Hall Jan. 14, 2009 in Oakland. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Over the past decade, we’ve seen some alterations, but no deep-rooted, systemic change. There have been numerous adjustments to the entire criminal justice system, including local police officers wearing body cameras, and statewide changes to incarceration, and the most recent federal criminal reform bill. We’ve even seen a few jury trials of police brutality where officers have been found guilty of murder, as in the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago.

Much respect to the people who've worked for these legislative changes. To the organizers, political figures, artists, and parents who’ve taken time away from their families to do something about this injustice: your efforts do not go unseen. I’ve seen you work for years, often behind a camera, focusing on aperture and lighting, while you focused on fighting the system.

This past Sunday, many of the front-line fighters for justice in the name of Oscar Grant stood in the Eastside Arts Alliance community space, celebrating the birthday of Wanda Johnson, Oscar’s mother. If there is any hope for change, it was in that room that evening.

Wanda Johnson (center), mother of Oscar Grant, at a December 2018 event at Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland.
Wanda Johnson (center), mother of Oscar Grant, at a December 2018 event at Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Am I a pessimist? No. I’m an African American man from Oakland who could’ve easily been Oscar Grant. And I know the underlying theme to this narrative. There’s a reason so many journalists have jobs reporting these kind of injustices.

Every day, there’s something in the news about people treated wrongly in prisons, school security guards crossing the line, or people dying in American custody while trying to flee poverty and/or war in their homeland.

No, it’s not all directly about police brutality, but it all adds up to dismiss any once-held notion of hope or change. As Donald Glover bleakly said earlier this year, this is America.

So this Jan. 1, as many bank on the potential for a new year's changes—the prospect of financial growth, or weight loss—I’m resigned to the fact that little, if anything, will change in society for young black men. I'll still vote, but I'll also continue to fear for my life when I get pulled over.

I am looking forward to one thing this year, the third week in February, around the time of Oscar Grant’s birthday. That’s when former President Barack Obama is scheduled to be in Oakland to speak at a My Brother's Keeper initiative—an event for African American boys and men.

I wonder if he’ll even mention Oscar Grant.

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