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It Started With Oscar Grant: A Police Shooting in Oakland, and the Making of a Movement

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A protester carries a sign with a picture of slain 22-year-old Oscar Grant during a demonstration at Oakland City Hall on Jan. 14, 2009 in Oakland. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On New Years Day, 2009, a 22-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white transit police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. Oscar Grant was unarmed, lying face down on the train platform when he was shot in the back.

He was far from the first unarmed black man to be shot and killed by law enforcement – but his killing was potentially the first officer-involved shooting to be captured on video by bystanders' cell phones, a technology that has come to change so many things, including the movement for civil rights.

Grant’s killing, just a couple of weeks before the inauguration of the nation's first black president, would begin a decade that shone new light on police violence.

Eleven years after Oscar Grant’s death – and as protests continue to grip California and the nation in the wake of the recent police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville – KQED's Sandhya Dirks explores how Grant’s death galvanized a new generation of activists, and helped spark a sustained call for change.

It’s a story about two Oscar Grants. The one who died in the early hours of 2009, and the symbolic Oscar, born out of that tragedy, who would become a face of a movement.

Even though we may not associate the name Oscar Grant with the movement for black lives, his killing helped inform the activism and build the networks that would bring about a new era in the fight for racial justice.

“When people tell the story of Black Lives Matter, they either start it in 2014 with Mike Brown, or they start it in 2013 with Trayvon Martin," said Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.

"But for us, right, for those of us who created Black Lives Matter, it really does kind of start with Oscar Grant."

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An earlier version of this documentary aired on Jan. 11, 2019.

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