The Racist Murder of Oscar Grant and the Struggle for Justice

For many, New Year’s Day is a time of celebration, for reflection on the past year, and hope for what a new year might bring. For the family and loved ones of Oscar Grant III, any talk of celebrations cannot be but shaped by pain and heartbreak since the fateful early morning of January 1st 2009 when his life was taken away by the police of BART (the major transit system for the SF Bay Area). He was 22 years old and a father of a four-year-old daughter. 

On New Year’s Eve, Oscar Grant and his friends went out to San Francisco to celebrate. On the way back home to the East Bay there was a fight on the train that caused it to stop at Fruitvale Station. He and his friends were taken off the train and onto the platform, and detained and interrogated by BART Police. After being physically assaulted and called a racial slur by BART cop Tony Pirone, Oscar Grant was held face down on the platform with Pirone’s knee on his neck. It is in this context that Johannes Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot Oscar Grant in the back. He died several hours later at the hospital. 

Despite an effort to confiscate peoples’ cell phones, video footage recorded by passengers quickly spread. People recognized what they saw on camera – it was murder! This sparked widespread outrage throughout the community and led to explosive protests.

Officer Johannes Mehserle left the state and wasn’t arrested until nearly two weeks after the killing. During the trial, the prosecution argued that Mehserle, a trained BART police officer, had really intended to use his taser rather than his gun. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter – akin to a driver hitting a pedestrian because they were distracted by texting. Mehserle was sentenced to a mere two years in jail, and ultimately ended up serving only 11 months due to “good behavior.” 

What a total slap in the face to the family! If it were the other way around, if Grant, a young African American man, had shot Mehserle, a white cop, “by accident,” would things have turned out the same? Of course not!

Recently the Grant family has begun the process of re-opening the case, to charge officer Tony Pirone with murder. The truth is that this system never delivers any real justice without an extraordinary battle. 

The killing of Oscar Grant a decade ago is a sober reminder of the brutality imposed on so many of us, especially those that are Black and Brown. For this new year, let’s resolve to fight for a society where no more Oscar Grants have their lives stolen from them, and everyone has a real future in to look forward to.