music in the park san jose

.Measures of Justice: Remembering Oscar Grant III

The 15th annual Oscar Grant vigil will be held at Fruitvale BART Station on Jan. 1, 2024

music in the park san jose

A decade and a half ago, the future looked very bright for Wanda Johnson’s family. At that time, Wanda celebrated her birthday and New Year’s Eve in a home that bustled with love and laughter, alongside her son Oscar Grant III, her daughter, her mother, her father, her grandchildren and other loved ones.

Oscar had endured a few hard times and run-ins with the police, but from where he stood that night, alongside his beloved family with his soon-to-be-five-year-old daughter and her mother at his side, and aspirations of becoming a barber, 2010 looked promising to the then-22-year-old man. That’s perhaps why, when Oscar started to head out from Oakland to San Francisco to watch the fireworks, he heeded his mom’s unsolicited advice.

“I want you to be safe,” Wanda told Oscar. “Don’t drive. Take the BART.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Oscar assured her as he kissed her goodnight and wished her happy birthday once more and an early Happy New Year. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

When the fireworks announced the transition from 2009 to 2010, Wanda’s brother, Cephus Johnson (a.k.a. Uncle Bobby), sent Oscar a text but never received a reply. Wanda didn’t get a “Happy New Year’s” message or call, nor did her daughter, Oscar’s sister, or anyone else in the family.

BART, a mode of public transportation intended to keep the masses safe and connected, and its police officers, intended to protect the public, failed at both things at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station that night when Johannes Mehserlee fatally shot the unarmed Oscar.

I didn’t hear about the incident until Jan. 2, after I made my way back from Los Angeles to the East Bay, nursing heartbreak from the end of a relationship. As I drove across the Bay Bridge feeling sorry for myself and listening to KPFA’s now-retired morning news anchor Aileen Alfandary announce how Oscar was killed, leaving behind a five-year-old daughter, I couldn’t help spitting out my coffee and blurting expletives.

I was jolted from my personal pity party. Oscar, who was a half-decade younger than me, would never again have a chance to endure a heartbreak or pursue his dream of barbering, watch his daughter grow, care for his grandparents as they aged or joke around with his sister, Chantay. 

I’d made a resolution days earlier to put 100 lessons I’d compiled into a book to try to create some changes in my life and find some way to make a difference. While I couldn’t do anything to bring life back to the man whose life had ended too soon, I could apply for the KPFA news fellowship and do more to champion stories like Oscar Grant’s.

KPFA accepted me into its news apprenticeship program, and I soon became a regular at Oscar Grant Plaza, where, with my audio recorder in hand, I was able to amplify voices that weren’t always included. A decade ago, at the five-year anniversary of Oscar Grant’s death, I sat with Wanda Johnson and her parents in their Hayward home as they took turns sharing stories and memories of how their beloved lived and died, and how he should be remembered.

Oscar’s grandmother, Bonnie Johnson, joked about his appetite and his “if there’s a will, there’s a way” spirit.

“He was always really good at raiding the refrigerator for snacks,” Bonnie said. “But he sure did love his grandparents. He baited a fish hook on his first try when he went fishing with his grandpa. Even though he had the worst allergies, he would put a cloth over his face and mow the grass. He’d help anyone.”

Wanda was so overwhelmed with grief that she was silent at first. By then, Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station, detailing the last day of Grant’s life, had debuted. Wanda played the role of her granddaughter’s preschool teacher in the film, a role which, in her words, helped her find her voice again.

“My mother kept telling me that God doesn’t make accidents,” said Wanda, who is also a reverend. “That was hard to hear. I always imagined doing ministry with my son.”

A decade and a half later, I cannot count the number of interviews I’ve done with Wanda about parallel, similar and different types of police violence as she works towards additional measures of justice in her son’s case and fights for justice for the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Daunte Wright and so many others.

“This is my purpose. I will do this work forever, until I die,” Wanda said. “We cannot get justice, because we cannot bring our loved ones back—but we can get measures of justice.”

Last February, ahead of Oakland’s annual Oscar Grant Day, Wanda invited me to be present with mothers from across the country who had lost their children to police violence. I humbly sat with the women in their various stages of grieving as they laughed with a comedian, cried while talking about grief, exercised with a fitness instructor and got dazzled up for the annual Oscar Grant Gala.

“I was stuck for a long time thinking about how unfair it was that Oscar and I were supposed to be doing ministry together and we lost that chance,” Wanda said. “But guess what! He is doing ministry with me. Because of him, I know all of you. Because of him, I am fighting for change and we will make a difference.”

That weekend I interviewed a mom who’d flown in from across the country. She said something that stuck with me and that embodies the spirit that I think the Rev. Wanda Johnson inspires people to adopt.

“Do what you can, when you can, while you can,” the grieving mother told me.

The 15th annual vigil remembering the legacy of Oscar Grant III will be held at Fruitvale BART Station on Jan. 1, 2024, noon to 4pm. For more info visit oscargrantfoundation.org.

1 COMMENT

  1. The full story of Oscar Grant’s tragic last life’s episode has yet to be aired. The full true events that night ultimately must be told.
    I personally investigated the events and saw less Justice dealt than deserved. I had recommended that at least 3, and even four, of the BARTD Officers be charged more seriously with the crimes they committed. Sadly only one was and the others weren’t. It is and was an injustice!
    It remains a ‘scar’ that cannot just fade! Tell it all or it is still hidden from the public.
    Peace and blessings to Oscar, his family, and all.

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