In a storefront art gallery near downtown Oakland, the family and friends of Oscar Grant, along with death penalty activists and concerned Oakland residents, gathered Friday night to celebrate the slain man’s life. Only hours after a judge ruled to move the trial of Johannes Mehserle out of Alameda County, reporters stood outside the courthouse, waiting for protests that never happened. The people who loved Grant the most, although angry and disappointed at the judge’s decision, were quietly meeting several blocks away, surrounded by art and words.
The mood in this crowded art gallery was at times somber and at times passionate as the crowd remembered a fallen friend. The event had been planned for two months, Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson said, as part of a month hosted by the Rock Paper Scissors Collective devoted to showcasing the art of three prisoners—two are on death row, one has a life sentence—to express the humanity that each man possesses.
Months ago, it seemed the perfect venue at which to devote a night to Grant, 22, who was shot New Year’s Day at the Fruitvale BART Station by former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. But after Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson granted a change of venue for Mehserle’s trial late Friday afternoon, the attendees also spoke of disgust at the decision and a hope for justice. “The issue of police brutality in Oakland, especially of black men, needs to be spoken to,” Johnson, known to Grant as “Uncle Bobby,” told the crowd, which swelled to as many as fifty people as the night continued.
People constantly wandered to and from the street, and it was hard to tell whether they were attracted to the poetry jam they could see from the sidewalk, or to the cause the Campaign to End the Death Penalty was promoting, or if they had come simply to honor Grant. But the night had never been intended as a protest: originally slated as an evening to merely remember Grant and update supporters on the Mehserle trial, the tone stayed respectful even as audience members disagreed with the judge’s ruling.
There were spoken word presentations, including one by Deangelo Lemmons, a member of Silence the Violence, a campaign run by the Ella Baker Center that encourages peaceful solutions to potentially violent situations. Audience members in colorful t-shirts, jeans and sneakers encouraged the performers by clapping their hands and murmuring in agreement; a handful sat in metal folding chairs but many more gathered around them in the gallery, standing thoughtfully with arms folded across their chests or hands clasped in front of them.
Their applause gave way to silence as a video, entitled “Oscar Grant the Third,” was shown. The film examines the claims of police brutality surrounding Grant’s murder in January; it then moves onto the March 21st slayings of four Oakland police officers by Lovelle Mixon, 26, who was killed by SWAT members after leading police on a shootout that lasted several hours. “This is not the Gaza Strip,” a man in the video said. “This is the MacArthur Strip. This is Oakland.”
Several of Oscar Grant’s friends and family, including his uncle, addressed the crowd after the ten-minute video had concluded. Johnson, who wore a black t-shirt with a colorful silkscreened image of his nephew, told the silent crowd of how he felt the need to be in touch with his nephew early on the morning of New Year’s Day. “I texted him at 12:49 a.m., just to tell him that I loved him, that God loved him,” Johnson said. “An hour later he was dead.”
“When someone is put on your heart, make contact,” he continued. “What I discovered is that it may be their last day.”
Jack Bryson, an Oakland resident, joined Johnson to address the crowd. His sons Nigel and Jackie were on the BART platform the night Mehserle shot Grant. “People are worried about his [Mehserle’s] safety?” Bryson asked disgustedly. “What about the young men who survived the murder? What about my two sons? What about their safety?”
Tony Coleman, a West Oakland resident whose son played basketball and baseball with Grant, said that attending Friday night’s event helped him cope with the news of the change of venue. “I was kind of angry at first, but coming here grounded me a little,” Coleman said. “We now have the opportunity to connect with other communities about this. They want to see justice as well.”
In a quiet moment, Johnson told the crowd how his family has leaned on their faith in God during an incredibly difficult year. “We see this case through our spiritual eyes,” he said. “We know justice will be served. It just may not be served in an earthly sense.” In the crowd, a woman softly said, “Amen.”
Videos by Kate McClean
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.