How a Grieving Family Saved A Troubled City with A Martyr

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“How a Grieving Family Saved A Troubled City with A Martyr”

From left, Octavia Spencer, Ryan Coogler, Melonie Diaz and Michael B. Jordan at the July 8 premiere of
From left, Octavia Spencer, Ryan Coogler, Melonie Diaz and Michael B. Jordan at the July 8 premiere of “Fruitvale Station”

The year 2009 began with a tragedy at an Oakland BART station. Shortly after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant II, of Hayward, on the platform of the Fruitvale station after responding to reports of a fight on a train.

“Make no mistake about it Oscar Grant was Murdered, Executed by a BART cop!” That was the echoing sentiment boiling up from among the justifiably angry, restless community of Oakland and the surrounding communities that spread world wide as video of Oscar Grants execution was blared over and over on television screens all around the world. It had become the quintessential poster for the ultimate example of Police misconduct and abuse- a lawless execution as the Black victim lay face-down on the ground, hands behind his back, shot, then handcuffed as he dies- all caught on cameras for the world to see!

Also caught on camera for the world to see was the public reaction to the execution that led to violent protests, as the public “showed their outrage” with the costly destruction of property to areas around town.

The gunman police officer was allowed to go free, traveled outside the state of California until he was charged with murder and appended in Nevada after National public protest forced the District Attorney to file criminal charges. His attorney has argued he meant to fire his Taser gun when he shot and killed Grant.

The Oscar Grant movie: Fruitvale Station

As a result of the media coverage from the destructive protests, the Alameda County Superior Court found that it was unlikely that the gunman, former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, could get a fair trial in Oakland and the trial was transferred to Los Angeles.

The last time a police officer was convicted of a felony crime committed while on duty was the early 1990‘s when Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim knew his computer store was being burglarized by members of the Oakland Police Department but he could not complain to the police! al-Hakim turned to close friend Leo Dorado, then an Alameda County District Attorney prosecuting capital murder crimes, that lead to an investigation directed by Matt Golde conducted by the DA’s office of these rogue police activities. The case ended with the trial conviction of one officer, Newman Ng and the guilty plea of another, Kailey Wong. There was evidence of the involvement of over 15 police officers in these series of burglaries of businesses and the “fencing” of the stolen property. The problem was so rampant, even the Chief of Police George Hart had a stolen computer on his own desk at the station!!! Leo Dorado is now Judge Leo Dorado and Matt Golde, the son of former Judge Stanley Golde, brother of legal analyst Ivan Golde, is head DA of the Juvenile Division.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson said the agency is “trying to turn tragedy into triumph” by increasing transparency and enacting new policies. In August 2009, the BART board of directors voted unanimously to approve citizen oversight of the BART Police Department, and the agency is seeking a new permanent police chief.

For six months al-Hakim had been speaking with and advising Jack Bryson, father of two of Oscar Grant’s friends that were with him on the Fruitvale platform when he was murdered whom also were abused by BART police, regarding approaches to produce the proposed Oscar Grant anniversary event. Al-Hakim continued those conversations with the family spokesperson, Cephus “Bobby” Johnson.

In mid December as the date for the event neared, admitting that he knew nothing about producing any event, much less one of the magnitude of the January 1, 2010 Oscar Grant Anniversary Vigil, Cephus Johnson requested al-Hakim to produce the event for the family to assure that it would be handled properly and be a success! The event was less than 30 days away and Cephus only had an idea for a memorial as BART agreed to provide electrical power, to allow for a civil congregation and alter at the entrance of the station, and possibly at the scene of the shooting on the train platform in memory of Oscar’s death.

al-Hakim informed Cephus of the City and the Police Department’s requirements for assembly permits, security, sound and stage, possible entertainment and the fact that since the event was less than 30 days away, it was already too late to legally and properly secure them without some negotiating and special permission from the city and the police department.

al-Hakim discussed the idea of having an event that would capture the imagination of the nation and set a true landmark, a new paradigm in how to address social concerns in a large minority city with many, many, complex issues after having experienced such a tragic catastrophe.

al-Hakim proposed a “Celebration Of Oscar Grant’s Life” with a memorial prayer vigil and ceremony at the Fruitvale BART station to foster a comforting environment for those in attendance without the fear of any party provoking or intimidating the other at these events; to establish a working agreement with BART and Oakland Police department for the event to be held with a “low-to-no police presence” so there’s little or minimum possibility of confrontation between the expected attendees and law enforcement; and to have all the parties- the Oscar Grant family, BART, Oakland Police Department, and the Mayor/City to make a joint press release or have a joint press conference announcing the planned activities. This would make it possible for this events to occur and conclude in success and peace for everyone. This would be a phenomenal public relations coup that would rebuild the image of all the parties concerned while garnering a cache of goodwill you could not buy!

This would put the face of Oscar Grant on ALL the parties in a united platform of “We Are ALL Oscar Grant!” It would humanize the parties in the common bond of mankind and serve as an example for how these types of tragedies can be used to heal a strife-torn city. It would go a long way toward bringing the parties together publicly, promote reconciliation and potentially foster agreement.

Cephus thought it was an incredible idea but did not believe it was possible. al-Hakim asked him to discuss the possibility with the family and their attorney John Burris and let him know their response. Cephus returned with a resounding “Yes, if you can do!”.

al-Hakim first called long time friend, BART Director Carole Ward Allen who chairs the BART Police Department Review Committee and discussed the concept for her support.

He also called Linton Johnson, Public Information Officer for BART whom was unavailable and left him a voicemail message.

al-Hakim then called Jeffrey Thomason, Public Information Officer for the Oakland Police Department and explained to him the concept of the event and how it could be successful and problem free without the police presence. Thomason also thought it was an incredible idea but did not believe the family and their attorney John Burris would go along with it. Having already secured the family’s approval al-Hakim requested that Oakland Police Department stand behind their commitment and work with the family to secure needed permits and allow security with “no visible police presence”. He felt he could agree to do so wherein Thomason discussed the matter with the Chief and Captain, got approval and called al-Hakim back with a referral to the sergeant at the Eastmont Station that would be the liaison to secure all permits and verify the plan for a safe, trouble free event.

Shortly after, Linton Johnson returned al-Hakim’s voicemail and also thought it was an incredible idea but did not believe the family and their attorney John Burris would go along with it. Having already secured the family’s approval al-Hakim requested that BART stand behind their commitment and work with the family to secure needed permits, allow security with “no visible police presence”, provide sound and stage equipment, and allow the alter for the Oscar Grant Memorial. He agreed to do so if the family was in fact behind this proposal. al-Hakim assured him they were and informed him of the present state of the event with the help of BART Community Relations manager Roddrick Lee and to further allay his fears, al-Hakim gave him Cephus cell phone number and assured that Cephus would call him and Roderick.

Tatiana Grant

From there al-Hakim contacted Mayor Ron Dellums, City Administrator Dan Lindhiem and several of their staff members to inform them that the Oscar Grant family, BART, and Oakland Police Department had agreement on the event and would like to have the Mayor involved to join their efforts in this event representing the city. al-Hakim explained how this would be INCREDIBLY HUGE for the Oscar Grant family, BART, Alameda County Superior Court Administration, Oakland Police Department, and the City! This would be a ginormous step ahead in fostering civil relationships between what are publicly perceived as adversaries. This could be bigger than Rodney King’s ” Can We Just Get Along?”. They also agreed to go forward, so everything was in place.

Cephus spoke with both Roderick and Linton, where understanding and agreement was reached and the family began to plan for the “Celebration Of Oscar Grant’s Life” with a memorial prayer vigil and ceremony at the Fruitvale BART station, Friday, January 1, 2010 from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. The memorial would be hosted by the family of Oscar Grant with prayers and speeches from many of the Bay Area’s most prominent religious leaders in a civil congregation with alter at the entrance of the station and at the scene of the shooting on the train platform in memory of Oscar’s death.

At the conclusion of the memorial there, everyone would be invited to the Humanist Hall for a continuing evening of music, spoken word, poetry, food and drink until 11:00 pm.

With only days until the January 1, 2010 event, al-Hakim still had to meet with Oakland Police Department to discuss and present an acceptable plan to arrange the “no police presence, civil stand-by” type of a security enforcement for the short 3-4 hour time period for the Oscar Grant Events so those in attendance would not have any party provoking or intimidating the other at these events. He also had to assure them of a working agreement with BART for the event held at the Fruitvale Station with this same type of security so there’s little to no possibility of confrontation between the expected attendees and law enforcement. So al-Hakim brought on Gabrielle Wilson, a legal affairs reporter at KPFA; producer and co-host of “The Gospel Experience”, “Music of the World” and “Ear Thyme”; and Master of Ceremonies at many events around the Bay Area including the San Jose Jazz Festival to MC and assist in securing the entertainment and speakers.

al-Hakim met with the the sergeant at the Eastmont Station twice to secure all permits and verify the plan for a safe, trouble free event. At the first meeting, it was revealed to al-Hakim that Oakland Police had secured flyers, there was a Facebook page, and emails from a community activists organization allegedly associated with the event planning called the General Assembly (for Justice for Oscar Grant) detailing activities to incite violence at the vigil imploring attendees to “show your outrage!”. al-Hakim was shocked to learn of this activity as he knew of the group from working with the family but had not seen any flyers, email nor a FaceBook page inciting violence. al-Hakim assured the officers that the intent of the family was to have a peaceful vigil and was opposed to any other activity and would do all they could to insure that happened! The officers agreed to the plan that with the Nation of Islam providing on location security and BART and the Police on stand-by, we could work out an acceptable plan for the Fruitvale venue. But they insisted that the person, persons, or group that rented the Humanist Hall for the evening event would have to come forward with the contract, produce a security plan that they would reduce to 4-8 licensed security guards, event insurance, and would be liable for any and all damages that occurred as a result of any destruction stemming from the event. Like the police, the Humanist Hall requires that the person(s) in which whose name the rental is in must provide a plan for security for both inside and outside the venue, and how they plan to control exits from the venue in the event of something happening, and crowd control outside the venue. The police was concerned because they have had many problems with the Hall operating without permits and taking proper measures to secure safe events in the past. al-Hakim requested that the officers inform the family directly of these conditions and called Cephus from the meeting for them to do so. Cephus was unavailable so al-Hakim made an appointment for a second meeting for him and Jack Bryson, the named renter of the Hall so that all concerns could be resolved to the officers satisfaction since it was clear they wanted to work with the family to insure a safe, trouble free event.

al-Hakim discussed the meetings with the family and at another meeting again informed the “General Assembly” of the requirements of BART, Oakland Police Department and the City in order to have the events. al-Hakim expressed his concern for the family having their prayer vigil as planned without the decency of a few with opposing interest to make it their event, the police having more information about the happenings of the group then he had, and for obvious reason, decided that he no longer wanted to be associated with it. was clear that those with opposing interest from the Grant family’s wishes were intent on forcing conflict and advised Bryson not to meet with the police thus insuring a show down at the event. Since one of the agitators who would have an interest in filming any disturbance for their profit had donated a small amount of money for the rental, it was offered make to them to remove them from the decision making process. When they would not relent, that family canceled the Humanist Hall event and removed it from their schedule. Now, without any association to the family event, it exposed the those with divergent interest to have their own event without the shield of the family to hide behind. This was too much for them to overcome, along with the fact they did not want to address the reality that they would be combating the security provided by the Nation of Islam!

Begrudgingly but relieved, they relented and the family with a few people met with Oakland Police and the Mayors office and agreed to the exact same terms as negotiated a week earlier by al-Hakim.

On December 30, 2009 the “Oscar Grant family and BART issue joint statement on the New Year’s tragedy

“ Grant family calls for peace, love and forgiveness”

As the year anniversary of the tragic officer-involved shooting at Fruitvale Station of BART passenger Oscar Grant draws near, the Grant family and the BART Board of Directors are joining together to thank the public for their continued support for the reforms taking place in the BART Police Department.

Additionally, Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, wants to emphasize that people should honor her son’s memory on January 1 through “a day of celebration not demonstration.”  She added, “It is our hope that this day be a peaceful day to remember Oscar and the others who have been lost to violence.”

“We want the public to know we are a family of peace, love and forgiveness,” Oscar’s uncle Cephus Johnson said.

“In the year since my nephew was killed, I truly believe positive changes have occurred in the BART Police Department and many more will come. We want to thank the public for their continued involvement in making the BART Police the best it can be as we enter 2010.”

“On behalf of the BART Board of Directors, we want to again express our deepest and sincerest regret and our heartfelt condolences over the loss of Oscar Grant,” BART Director Carole Ward Allen said.  Ward Allen chairs the BART Police Department Review Committee, which is guiding the implementation of the changes within the police department. “We look forward to making more positive changes in 2010, including the hiring of a new police chief and working with the State Legislature to quickly amend the law so BART can implement independent citizen oversight of the BART Police Department.”

“This has been one of the most gut-wrenching episodes in BART’s history,” BART Board President James Fang said. “But through community involvement, non-biased professional assistance from the outside of BART and of course the extremely strong effort by our Board, particularly the efforts of Carole Ward Allen, we have learned from this tragic incident. Our prayers and deepest sympathies go to the Grant family on this inauspicious one-year anniversary of Oscar Grant’s death.”

“We want to thank the Grant family and the public for their support, which has been critical to making the reforms underway in the Police Department and we look forward to their continued support in the new year,” Director Ward Allen said.

On January 1, 2010 BARET issued the following press release:

BART Police Have Arrest-free New Year’s Eve

BART had an arrest-free New Year’s Eve despite dealing with crowded trains and the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of passenger Oscar Grant III in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009.

BART carried about 87,800 passengers between 8 p.m. Thursday and 3 a.m. Friday, and carried about 302,800 passengers throughout the day, according to agency officials.

Many of the passengers were traveling to the annual fireworks show at San Francisco’s Embarcadero, where BART used a “skip-stop” schedule for the first time to alleviate overcrowding at its nearby station.

 photo oscargrant_flyer_web-2.jpgStarting at 8 p.m., trains on different lines skipped either the Embarcadero or Montgomery stations toallow the crowd to split evenly between the two stations, resulting in faster boarding times and less crowded platforms.

BART also assigned about 150 police officers, nearly 50 percent more than previous years, to patrol the system during the holiday. San Francisco and Oakland police officers and deputies from the San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa County sheriff’s departments also assisted near the stations during the evening.

There were a few isolated incidents on the system, but no arrests were made.

The relatively incident-free night stood in stark contrast to last year’s holiday, when former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Grant, a 22-year-old Hayward man, at the Fruitvale station in Oakland. Mehserle, 27, and other officers had responded to reports of a fight on a train.

Mehserle has been charged with murder and is expected to stand trial sometime next year. His case has been moved to Los Angeles because a judge ruled it would be difficult for Mehserle to get a fair trial in Alameda County due to the extensive publicity the incident has received. Mehserle’s lawyer, Michael Rains, has admitted that Mehserle shot and killed Grant, but claims Mehserle meant to use his Taser to stun Grant and used his gun by mistake.

Grant’s family was among the people scheduled to attend a rally at the Fruitvale station at 2 p.m. today to mark the anniversary of Grant’s death.

BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger said in a statement that she was happy that this holiday turned out well for the agency.

“We couldn’t be more pleased at how this New Year’s Eve turned out,” Dugger said.

She thanked “our customers for continuing to put their faith in us to get them around the Bay Area quickly and safely.”

BART police Commander Daniel Hartwig said in a statement that, despite the few minor incidents, “New Year’s Eve 2009 was one of the smoothest I have ever seen in my nearly three decades at BART.”

“Fruitvale Station”

In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Oscar Grant III, unarmed and lying face down on a subway platform in Oakland, Calif., was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer. The incident, captured on video by onlookers, incited protest, unrest and arguments similar to those that would swirl around the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida a few years later. The deaths of these and other African-American young men (Mr. Grant was 22) touch some of the rawest nerves in the body politic and raise thorny and apparently intractable issues of law and order, violence and race.

Fruitvale Station, Michael B. Jordan and Ariana Neal play father and daughter in this debut feature by Ryan Coogler, which opens on Friday in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mr. Jordan plays Oscar Grant, who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer.

Those matters are hardly absent from “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s powerful and sensitive debut feature, which imaginatively reconstructs the last 24 or so hours of Oscar Grant’s life, flashing back from a horrifying snippet of actual cellphone video of the hectic moments before the shooting. But Mr. Coogler, a 27-year-old Bay Area native who went to film school at the University of Southern California, examines his subject with a steady, objective eye and tells his story in the key of wise heartbreak rather than blind rage. It is not that the movie is apolitical or disengaged from the painful, public implications of Mr. Grant’s fate. But everything it has to say about class, masculinity and the tricky relations among different kinds of people in a proudly diverse and liberal metropolis is embedded in details of character and place.