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Resilience and hope at Oscar Grant vigil

Bobby Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant III, reads an emotional letter with his niece, Tatiana Grant, and his sister, Wanda Johnson, by his side / Photo Credit: Pria Mahadevan

This month is the tenth anniversary of the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed by a BART officer on January 1, 2009. Every New Year’s Day since, his family has held a vigil at Fruitvale Station in his honor.

It’s a sunny but chilly New Year’s Day, and a couple hundred people are gathered outside the Fruitvale BART station. The crowd is eclectic – an older woman parks her blue lawn chair right in front of the main stage, young parents cart their chatty toddlers in strollers, and a few people burn incense sticks while silently weaving through the crowd.

Every year since Oscar Grant was killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, Grant’s family has held a vigil in his memory. Although that might sound somber, the general feeling here is positive. Friends and family greet each other with wide smiles and big hugs. Ten years later, this is a space for gratitude, resilience, and hope.

“I’m so overjoyed and grateful that all of you took the time to come out today,” says Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson. She says her son’s death was a “catalyst” for change in America.

The officer who killed Grant, Johannes Mehserle, was sentenced to jail time, which is rare for police shootings. In the decade since Grant’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement popularized the use of cell phone cameras to record police violence.

Johnson says her family will keep fighting for equal opportunity and police accountability.

“We can change this nation, and I believe that’s going to happen,” she says. “My family will fight till we can’t fight anymore.”

Throughout the afternoon, a wide variety of speakers take the stage – pastors, dancers, poets, singers, and family members. One of them is Tatiana Grant, Oscar Grant’s 14-year-old daughter, who was just four when her father died. She doesn’t say much, but today’s the first time she’s ever spoken publicly.

“This really means a lot to me,” she says, thanking the crowd for coming to her father’s vigil.  

Also present from the family is Cephus X Johnson, Oscar Grant’s uncle, who’s known in the community as “Uncle Bobby.” He chokes up as he addresses the crowd, who shout back their support.

Even ten years later, the pain of Grant’s early death still stings. Yet his family has persisted, standing together in moments of both pain and pride. The community stands with them, cheering on speakers and performers.

For most of the afternoon, the crowd is vocal in their support. But there’s one point where they’re moved to silence -– when Uncle Bobby’s wife, Beatrice X Johnson, takes the stage.

Beatrice is wearing all bright yellow, down to her beanie and shimmery gold boots. When she steps up to the mic to sing one of Grant’s mother’s favorite gospel songs, her voice carries across Fruitvale station, and the air turns still.

This year, the family expects BART to finish a planned mural at Fruitvale station that honors Oscar Grant. They’re also pushing BART to rename the station the Grant-Fruitvale Station. BART recently rejected that proposal. But this family will keep fighting to make it happen.


Crosscurrents OaklandAudio Academy