If Oscar Grant III were alive today, he’d be 36 years old. In addition to being a dad, a grandson, a brother and a friend, he’d be a grandpa to one-year-old Eshaan Julius and quite possibly a successful barber.
Grant’s life was cut short when former-BART police officer Johannes Mehserlee pulled a gun instead of a taser in the early hours of New Year’s day in 2009. Even though it’s been 13 years since she lost her son, Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, works hard to make sure Oscar Grant’s story lives on forever in Oakland. Last month the Oakland City Council signed a resolution making Grant’s birthday—Feb. 27—Oscar Grant Day on the City’s official calendar. Johnson says it’ll be an annual celebration of life, love, gratitude and the peace that Oaklanders strive for.
“When Oscar was first killed, many community members stepped out and fought for justice to be served,” Johnson says. “Some prayed, some protested, some were arrested [while protesting], some came to L.A. to support my family while we were in court. It’s important for my family and the Oscar Grant Foundation to let the community know that we will not forget their support in getting the small measure of justice that we received.”
A day before Grant’s Birthday—on Feb. 26—Johnson, along with the Oscar Grant Foundation, transformed Frank Ogawa Plaza into an intergenerational family-friendly day of music, heartfelt words, art, food and even a bouncy house for kids with the vision of keeping Grant’s legacy alive. They did this just weeks after the city council made Oscar Grant Day official. “If this is what we can pull off with just two weeks of prep time,” Johnson says while gesturing toward a scattered crowd of around a hundred people, “imagine what we’ll do next year.”
As Johnson thanked the small-but-mighty crowd, her hallelujahs amplified across the Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. Johnson says she’s come a long way in her healing journey.
“The first four or five years, I was really quiet. I was moving but not really moving,” Johnson says as she breathes deeply. Now, Johnson says she no longer recognizes that earlier version of herself. “Thank God [for how far I’ve come]. When Oscar was killed, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I prayed, and God showed me to continue to uphold Oscar’s name and keep his legacy alive and fight for justice for all mankind. That’s what I’m doing, and that’s what I’m gonna keep doing for life.”
As Johnson works tirelessly to support families and moms of people like Daunte Wright, who was killed by former-Minnesota Police Officer Kim Potter in 2021, just over 10 miles away from where George Floyd died under the knee of former-officer Derek Chauvin, she’s learned to simultaneously celebrate what she calls small—often insufficient—measures of justice and to keep fighting.
“I know that we need to keep fighting for justice in our judicial system, because we can’t continue to let these types of incidents—let me say the word: killings—go on,” Johnson says.
Like Oscar Grant, Daunte Wright died when a responding officer pulled a gun instead of a taser. In each case, the officers were sentenced to two years. Johannes Mehserlee, the officer who fatally shot Grant, served about 11 months of his sentence and, with good behavior, Kim Potter is expected to serve 16 months of hers. “It’s a lot of deja vu for me,” Johnson says. “Black people have served more time than either of those officers for petty, non-violent crimes like possession of drugs. We have to keep fighting.”
In the months and first few years after Grant’s death, when Johnson remembers feeling somewhat paralyzed with grief, it was her mother, Bonnie Johnson—portrayed in Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station as Grandma Bonnie—who kept her going. Bonnie sits in a lawn chair alongside Mariana Pangelina, the grandmother of Oscar’s fiance, breathing in the glory of Oscar Grant Day, while celebrating her daughter’s strength.
“I was the heavyweight,” Bonnie says. “I told Wanda that God doesn’t do anything by mistake. I knew there was more change coming. In the 13 years since this happened, there’s a mural of Oscar, a street named after him and, sooner or later, they’ll have this plaza named after him. It’s exciting when God makes things that are really sad and bad into good things.”
Bonnie, who turned 84 years old at the beginning of February, counts her blessings every day and credits her faith—and her abilities to forgive and accept—for her longevity.
“Being born in Alabama, I’ve seen a lot of change in my lifetime,” Bonnie says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, white, blue, green or whatever you are, God loves everyone.”
For those too young to remember or those who just don’t know the story of Oscar Grant, the Johnsons say it’s a good time to watch or rewatch Fruitvale Station. For Bonnie, the part of the movie when Oscar calls her so he can help a customer figure out how to fry fish is synonymous with the version of Oscar Grant that she knew well.
“He was my No. 1 grandson,” Bonnie says. “He mowed the lawn even though he was allergic to grass. He loved to go fishing with his grandfather, and he was good at it. He was only shown how to bait a hook once.”
Although Bonnie has already outlived her grandson by more than six decades, she breathes easier knowing that he continues to live on, not only in her heart, but in the City of Oakland.
“It’s so precious [to have Oscar Grant Day],” she says. “It’s not that we were looking for a lot of recognition, but the people agreed in their own actions to show the rightfulness of Oakland.”
Bonnie takes great pride in the fact that she’s stayed out of the hospital since she birthed her daughter, Wanda Johnson. “The secret is simple. Practice DEER: Drink water, Eat, Exercise and Rest,” Bonnie says. “If you do that and you can accept what’s happened [in life] and practice forgiveness, you might extend your own life.”
Forty-one-year-old Chantay Moore is Oscar Grant’s one-and-only older sister. For Moore, Oscar Grant Day is bittersweet.
“Each year we make progress, and then something happens and we’re set back another five years,” Moore says. “I’m hoping sooner or later we’ll make the progress that’s needed [without the setbacks]. We’re not there yet.”
Crystal Araujo was a lifetime friend of Grant. Like Grant, Araujo was born and raised in Hayward. That’s why it took her a while to realize that it was, in fact, her childhood friend who died on New Years Day 2009.
“I always wonder what Oscar would think and what he would say about what happened,” Araujo says. “At first I didn’t know it was Oscar that died. I kept hearing Oakland teens were involved. And later I found out that everyone on the platform that night were people I went to school with.”
It wasn’t until six months later, when the trial of Johannes Mehserlee—the officer who fatally shot Grant—moved to L.A., that Araujo learned of her friend’s untimely death.
“I was going to school in L.A., and I joined the protest there,” Araujo says.
Like most people, Araujo has mixed emotions.
“Oscar Grant Day is long in coming, and I’m glad we finally have it—but we still have politicians that don’t get it,” she says. “The problem [of police-involved deaths] continues to be a problem.”
Arajo’s 16-year-old daughter, Sophia, was at Oscar Grant Day, helping Grant’s cousin, Skylar Williams, hand out key chains emblazoned with Grant’s face. “[I learned from my mom that] Oscar was really kind and one of the funniest people ever,” Sophia says. Just as she’s come to know Oscar through stories her mom has passed on to her, Sophia hopes others can do the same. “He’s impacted so many people’s lives, and his story should be told.”
Chef Micheal Woods says he wanted to make sure that both the souls and the bellies of fellow Oaklanders who gathered to celebrate and pay their respects to Oscar Grant were filled. Woods and his team served hot dogs, chicken and green salads to any and all hungry visitors, for free. “It’s important to uplift everybody around us,” Woods says. “Times have been hard lately. Everyone’s been struggling with similar issues. It’s just really fun to bring everyone out and let all of that go to enjoy some good vibes.”
As an Oaklander, Woods says that he feels a sense of solidarity with Oscar Grant, and that he’s witnessing slow strides toward change with the Oakland Police Department. “I like to see the police intertwining with the community a little bit more,” Woods says. “It lets us know that they don’t see us as animals, and [they know] we’re actually humans. This tells me that there can be some sort of change in the future. We need each other. That’s the unfortunate truth, so we might as well get comfortable.”
Umoja Akbar watched his five-year-old daughter, who’s still too young to understand the gravity of the event, bounce happily to the live music. Akbar says he’s feeling less than optimistic about the progress of policing in the nation as a whole. He mentions the case in which a Black teenager intervened to help a white child being bullied, only to end up in handcuffs. “It’s blatant that there’s something going on with the police and the system,” he says. As the dad of eight kids, Akbar says he spends a lot of time worrying. When asked what gives him hope, Akbar looks down before offering a two-word response: “I’m speechless.”
The video of what amounted to be Oscar Grant’s last moments of life is what moved Akbar to action. While Akbar and others say they’d prefer Oscar Grant to be alive so he could celebrate his own birthday on his terms, there seems to be a consensus that partaking in Oakland’s Oscar Grant Day to help keep Grant’s legacy alive for generations to come is the next best thing. “We’re here to celebrate Oscar Grant’s life,” Akbar says. “That’s what I came out here to do—to support the family, the cause and the day.”