Ten years ago today, 22-year old, Oscar Grant III was fatally shot just hours into the new year by Oakland’s BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle. Even after having years to grieve, Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson is still not entirely at peace with his death.
She may never be.
Last Sunday, a day before her 54th birthday, Johnson smiled. It’s remarkable because in previous years, she wouldn’t dare celebrate. The occasion was simply too close to the day she lost her son. Now, Wanda Johnson is channeling her pain and guilt by using her faith and voice to keep her son’s memory alive.
The Oscar Grant Foundation is one way in which Johnson is doing just that. She’s helping other parents who have lost a child at the hands of the police. That’s a far cry from a decade ago when tears would stream unconsciously down her face as Grant became a martyr inspiring the beginnings of the Black Lives Movement long before Trayvon Martin, before Michael Brown, and before Freddie Gray.
“Our lives are like a book; we go through different chapters. And, through those chapters, there’s sadness, pain and sometimes laughter,” Johnson told attendees Sunday during an event to uplift grieving families at an arts center less than a mile away from where her son was killed in Oakland, California.
“I’m only here because of my son, Oscar, right now. If Oscar had not been killed, I probably would not have met many of you, I would not have had the opportunity to tell his story, hear his name said all over the world,” Johnson continued. “So, I’m very grateful for all of your support.”
What happened at Fruitvale Station
Ten years ago, Johnson’s grief was overwhelming. Oscar Grant was her only son and he was killed on a platform at the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (BART) Fruitvale Station after officers responded to reports of a fight on a crowded train returning from San Francisco. Two officers, including Johannes Mehserle, forced the unarmed Grant to lie face down on the platform.
Suddenly, Mehserle then drew his pistol, instead of his Taser. He shot the handcuffed Grant in the back, moments before Grant had told his friends to keep calm. The killing and Mehserle’s surprised reaction were captured on numerous cell phone cameras.
Countless videos of the incident quickly went viral, and some were used as evidence in Mehserle’s highly-anticipated murder trial that drew international attention. When one of the videos was first shown in court, Johnson screamed and was then escorted out of the courtroom.
Some believe the shooting originally sparked the Black Lives Matter movement as the founders of the cause hail from Oakland.
In July 2010, Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, instead of murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. He was sentenced to two years in Los Angeles County Jail and was released on parole after only serving 11 months.
As marches, protests, and deafening chants of “Justice for Oscar Grant,” flooded Oakland streets, Grant’s family filed a $25 million lawsuit against BART. The agency eventually settled in 2011 with Grant’s daughter and his mother for a combined $2.8 million.
While many thought the settlement was a small measure of victory, Johnson remained riddled with grief, guilt, and anger. Many didn’t know that it was his mother who had encouraged Grant and his friends to take public transit instead of driving to go watch fireworks in San Francisco. She has carried the pain and burden of that decision ever since.
One of the more touching scenes performed by Michael B. Jordan and Oscar winning actress, Octavia Spencer in Ryan Coogler’s debut 2014 film, Fruitvale Station is the moment when Grant leaves home after telling his mother, he will see her the next day.
Despite the positive portrayal of her son on the big screen (Jordan and Coogler became major stars and went on to collaborate on other hit films like Creed, and Black Panther) and the widespread support she received, Johnson suffered for years because of the decision she made and the circumstances around her son’s killing.
“She had to learn how to try to forgive herself,” said Johnson’s brother, Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, who was instrumental in establishing the foundation in Grant’s name in 2010. “Wanda felt the weight of asking Oscar to take BART because she felt had she not asked him, he might be alive today.”
Like so many others, Grant’s family became community activists by default and eventually wanted to help others going through what they did. “Uncle Bobby” and his wife, Beatrice, also added a community relations focus to the foundation as a way to improve the relationship with local police.
However, no one could have predicted the importance the foundation would have in the lives of so many more Black families to come. Soon, Grant’s family became a support system for Trayvon Martin’s family in Sanford, Florida and then Michael Brown’s family in Ferguson, Missouri, both left spiraling after their sons were the victims of police-involved fatal shootings (and subsequent protests and cries for justice).
Stepping up in the name of Oscar
By 2014, Wanda Johnson knew it was time to do more. She had taken over the Oscar Grant Foundation and would later stand side-by-side with other grieving mothers whose sons died from police violence protest outside the Department of Justice.
An ordained minister for more than a decade, Johnson credits her family, including her mother, Bonnie Johnson, for making it through the grief and finding her path to helping others.
“She pushed me forward when I didn’t want to come out of a hole I was in,” Johnson said Sunday. “I’m grateful she told me to keep on fighting.”
Her brother, Cephus Johnson, agrees. “I think God has given (Wanda) a different vision to accept that Oscar’s death was not in vain She now knows what she wants to do,” he said.
Instead of focusing solely on Grant being gone, Johnson, who also works as a UPS supervisor, spends most of her spare time working on the foundation. Besides helping grieving families, her main objective is preserving Grant’s image in the world.
Johnson is currently at odds with BART to get the Fruitvale Station renamed in her son’s memory. While BART officials have commissioned a mural honoring Grant that the family is overseeing, the agency has declined to consider renaming the station after him.
READ MORE: 5 lessons learned from the Oscar Grant case
By now means does that mean that Johnson is giving up. The family plans to take the matter to the public on New Year’s Day with a vigil on the 10th anniversary of Grant’s death at the very site where he died. Johnson will be front and center, reminding people about how her son deserves to be remembered and asking for a permanent tribute to him.
“We have to keep on pushing. We have to keep on coming together,” she told attendees Sunday at the gathering for grieving families. “The struggle is real and if we work together, we can make a change, not only here in Oakland, but in our entire society.”
“We are going to fight until victory is won,” she said. “You might be tired and frustrated with tears rolling down your face, but you are not in this struggle alone. Change is going to come!”
Terry Collins is a freelance journalist, commentator and provocateur, who has written for CNET, the Associated Press, and the Bloomberg Businessweek.