Remembering Oscar Grant, two years later

Uncle "Bobby" holds up Tatiana, Oscar's daughter

A vigil for Oscar Grant was held on New Year’s Day at Fruitvale BART, two years after he was shot and killed by former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle.

“Two years ago today, Oscar Grant was murdered up there,” said Jack Bryson, pointing to the BART platform above where cell phone video captured the shooting of his son's friend. “Life just ain’t the same.”

A crowd of 100, including Grant’s family and friends, gathered in a barricaded sidewalk area outside the station, holding candles in the cold afternoon. The crowd was smaller than a vigil held last year that included elected officials, poetry and music with a stage blocking off a street.

“We may not have power in numbers,” said Bruce Hall, bishop for the family of Derrick Jones­­, “but there is power in the people here.” Jones was shot and killed by Oakland police in November.

Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, thanked people for attending and shared her hope that no one else would have to suffer what she’s experienced, at the hands of law enforcement.

“I hope that the police will begin to take responsibility and not try to cover things up,” said Johnson. “I pray they will take responsibility for the murder of my son.” Grant’s fiancĂ©e, Sophina Mesa and daughter, Tatiana, were also in attendance–along young men who were on the platform with Grant and other family members–but did not speak.

Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison in November after a Los Angeles jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter this past summer. The trial was moved from Alameda County after Mehserle’s defense, Michael Rains, argued that the threat of mass protests, media saturation, bias’ of African Americans, and statements by elected officials made it unlikely for his client to get a fair trial.

Minister Keith Muhammad said Judge Robert Perry ridiculed those who wrote letters asking for the maximum sentence of Mehserle. He added that Mehserle blamed Grant and his friends for the shooting during his impact statement during sentencing.

“I feel so defeated by what Judge Perry did for Johannes Mehserle,” Bryson said. “But two years later and people are still here. We’re not letting this fade away.”

“It lifts my spirit.”

Grant’s uncle, Cephus “Bobby” Johnson, thanked those in attendance and asked for continued support. “It’s because of you, the community, we’re still standing. It allows us to continue. You are our strength,” Johnson said.

“Every tragedy represents and opportunity to move the agenda for justice forward,” said John Burris, attorney for the families of Grant and Jones. Burris said 30 years ago, when 15-year-old Melvin Black was killed by Oakland Police, the shooting led to reforms such as the Civilian Police Review Board. Similarly, Grant’s death has led to improved policies at BART, such as its Civilian Review Board that is currently seeking applicants. “That would not have happened if not for Oscar Grant.”

Burris said the family was disappointed with the decision of District Attorney Nancy O’Malley not to appeal Perry’s decision to throw out the gun enhancement during sentencing, but understood it would have been an “uphill battle” to prove.

An arbitrator recently ruled that BART officer Marysol Domenici, despite lying on the stand during pretrial, must be reinstated with full back pay. Her partner, Tony Pirone, was also fired by then-interim BART police chief Dashel Butler last spring.

The struggle for justice for Grant and other victims of police oppression is not over, Burris said. “I’ve been involved in 10 cases since Oscar Grant. The only difference was that his was caught on camera.” He added that the spotlight was on Oakland.

BART Police observing Oscar Grant vigil

Over a dozen BART and Oakland Police vehicles were staged just west the station, while a smaller contingent of officers, including new BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey waited near the station entrance. Considering the recent documentation of federal surveillance of the Oscar Grant Movement, many were not surprised to learn they were under surveillance.

Grant's shooting death led to mass demonstrations in January 2009 once cell phone video of the shooting was published on You Tube. Subsequent protests took place throughout early 2009, spring and summer of 2010, and this past November. Protestors questionably arrested for unlawful assembly during the November 5 sentencing of Mehserle have yet to be charged, according to the Oakland 100, a solidarity group for those arrested during protests.

After Derrick Jones supporters took over City Council meeting last month, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts asked the FBI to investigate the shooting. The U.S. Department of Justice is also reviewing Grant case as well.

“Sadly to say, they may need some help,” Johnson said. Johnson has regularly thanked the public for demonstrations that many say initially led to Mehserle’s arrest in January 2009. “We need to let them know we want answers.”

Muhammad said that despite Mehserle killing Grant physically, Johnson’s son still lives on in the struggle for justice, as people continue to declare, “I am Oscar Grant.”

“The journey is not done,” Muhammad said.

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