By Nina Kalirai
Police brutality has been an issue long before social media allowed for video evidence to become viral, bringing awareness to people around the world, and starting activist movements such as Black Lives Matter.
In this two-part Interview, VIBE TALKS Correspondent Nina Kalirai, speaks to Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Officer Johannes Mehserle, in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day in 2009.
We discuss the death of Oscar Grant, racial profiling by police and media coverage of the shooting. We also look at why the story of Oscar Grant is still important today and the effect the movie Fruitvale Station, based on Oscar’s story, had on the world.
Nina: Tell me a little bit about Oscar.
Wanda: Oscar was a young man who was full of potential. We had the opportunity to spend my last birthday together before he was killed. Oscar was a father, an uncle, and a grandson who helped his grandfather very often due to the limitations his grandfather had, after having a stroke. Oscar was a young man who was striving to take care of his family. He worked hard. Unfortunately, his life was taken too soon, before he could totally evolve into the man that he was created to be.
Nina: New Years Day 2009. What happened with Oscar?
Wanda: Before we even get to New Years Day, I want to go back to December 31st. My birthday. That was the last day Oscar and I had the opportunity to spend together. During that visit, I had instructed Oscar to bring some crab so I could make gumbo. He brought the crabs and I finished cooking the gumbo. During that time of celebrating my birthday, with me, him, his fiancé, my grand daughter, and my mother and father I instructed Oscar to take BART to San Francisco. He said no, that he was going to drive. I said “No Oscar, in order for you to be safe you should take BART.” He said “Okay mom, I’ll take BART.”
And so upon coming back from San Francisco, the train operator said there was some kind of altercation on the train and the police came. Upon the police arriving, they had instructed several people to get up against the wall. Oscar was one of the people that they instructed to get up against the wall. While Oscar was up against the wall, one of the officers grabbed another young man by his hair, choked him and threw him down onto the concrete. Oscar said to the officer: “Man you can’t do that, that’s not fair! Can I speak to somebody in charge?” The officer ran over and hit Oscar, and Oscar just put his hands up in the air and slid down the wall. A couple minutes later, two other officers approached the platform where they had several young men up against the wall. This one officer, Officer Johannes Mehserle, came and he was pointing his Taser at all the individuals up against the wall. Oscar was one of the ones he was pointing his Taser at, and Oscar was able to snap a picture of officer Mehserle pointing his Taser at him. Matter of fact that is the last picture that Oscar ever took. The other officer came over to where Oscar and a few of the other guys were sitting, and began using racial epithets towards them. Oscar was like: “Man you can’t talk to us like that! We need to speak to somebody in charge!” The officer then grabbed Oscar and threw him on the ground. Oscar put his hands to the concrete to try to save him from hitting his face on the concrete. Two officers then turned Oscar over, and they had him on his stomach with his hands behind his back, and Officer Johannes Mehserle stood up and shot Oscar in the back. The bullet went through his lung and stayed inside of him, causing him to end up dying. On New Years Day, he was pronounced dead and my life and his family’s life will NEVER be the same again.
Nina: Did Oscar ever come to you with any other instances of being racially profiled against by police ever before?
Wanda: No he didn’t. No. I had always taught Oscar to respect police officers. When I was growing up, we were taught to respect police officers and were told that they were here to serve the community. That’s the same way I taught Oscar. I taught him how to have that respect for police officers. Even the night Oscar was shot and killed, you can hear him telling his friends: “Just do what they say. Be quiet. We’re going home after this.” You can hear him saying that repeatedly on the videos. Oscar was following the instructions. He had never talked about being racially profiled before, except this time and he ended up losing his life.
Nina: What was the media coverage of the Oscar Grant shooting like?
Wanda: The coverage was so heavy in the Bay Area. I don’t think it really extended to other states as much as some of the other coverages that I have seen. In the Bay Area, you could watch what happened to Oscar almost everyday on the news for about a month or two. Even on New Year’s Eve, they will show the video and begin to remind people about what happened with Oscar. The coverage has been very good. They have really been showing it to the public.
Nina: So here we are nine years later. Why is the story of Oscar Grant still as important as ever today?
Wanda: The story of what happened with my son Oscar is still very important and will be important forever, because I believe it started a catalyst of America waking up and looking at the injustices that so many have faced. Oscar being that catalyst, I believe, really helped people push forward, speak up and defend discriminations that black and brown men face today.
You can find Part 2 of this interview series here.