Oscar Grant's Death Ushered in a New Era of Filmed Police Violence

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Happy New Year!

If you are reading this, I hope that 2021 is kind to you and yours. You have made it on the other side of an impossible year and deserve the maximum amount of goodness the next twelve months can offer.

2020 was an incredibly sobering year for everyone. No matter what side of the political aisle you sit on or how you culturally identify, the previous year, with the help of the coronavirus pandemic, forced you to sit down at least momentarily.

The genesis of a new year is primarily a time to focus on new beginnings, rebound from previous disappointments and discard fruitless habits. It is a period of celebration where the cause for festivity is simply being alive and able to reset the possibilities for the year ahead.

But sometimes, the start of a new year is a kick-off to a long season of grief, anger and despair. Twelve years ago, the family of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man, began their new year with the heartbreaking news that their beloved family member had been killed. Oscar, a native of Oakland, California, was murdered by a transit police officer while riding on the BART subway en route to a New Year’s celebration.

What Oscar’s family did not know at the time was that his killing would be one of the first examples of state-sanctioned violence to be caught on film in the 21st century, ushering in a wave of civilian-documented clips of police brutality that would change the scope of activism in the modern age.

The Killing of Oscar Grant; January 1, 2009

Oscar Grant boarded a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train just after midnight on January 1, 2009, en route to a New Year’s party when an altercation broke out between him and another passenger he recognized from a rival gang neighborhood. The fight was broken up and the train conductor stopped the transit at the Fruitvale Station platform and called for BART police.

Upon arriving on the scene, BART police detained Oscar and many other passengers they believed to be involved in the melee. What happened next changed the course of history with respect to police killings of citizens being recorded in real-time.

BART officer Anthony Pirone forced Oscar to the ground after kneeing him in the head. While lying face down on the station platform, Officer Johannes Mehserle discharged his weapon and shot Oscar in the back. Oscar was rushed to the Highland Hospital in Oakland, where he was later pronounced dead.

A handful of transit riders filmed the massacre that went viral during the then still developing stages of social media. Social media websites, like Facebook and Twitter, were originally purposed as “social networking,” so people would connect or reconnect with people of interest. These same sites are now the first news stop for millions of users around the world. The virality of moments like the Oscar Grant killing shifted the way social media users engaged with Facebook, Twitter and later Instagram and TikTok.

Oscar Grant’s killing was a graphic reminder of police violence against Black Americans

Two major incidents of police violence against Black men made national headlines within the decade leading up to Oscar Grant’s death. Sean Bell was killed by NYPD officers on his wedding day in 2006 after plainclothes officers fired 50 rounds at Bell and two other men. Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who came to the U.S. to study computer science, was shot 41 times and also killed by plainclothes NYPD officers in 1999. The officers assumed Diallo was a rape suspect and alleged he was pointing a gun at them.

Neither incident was caught on film.

Though the deaths of both Bell and Diallo garnered major media attention, the captured footage of Oscar Grant’s killing grounded the reality of police violence in a manner that resonated with Black Americans, similar to the 1991 brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department.

It is gut-wrenching to hear about someone having their life stolen under questionable circumstances by a public servant. It is an entirely different reaction to watch footage of someone’s life being taken from them in a moment that did not necessitate lethal force.

A generation of hashtags and murder caught on camera

As cell phone technology developed over the course of the late 2000s/early 2010s and social media platforms started having live video options, Americans were able to view state-sanctioned violence in real-time from their mobile devices.

The police killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Walter Scott, Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner were all recorded either via civilian camera phones or officer bodycams, allowing for documented proof of new-age genocide of Black citizens.

It could be argued that Oscar Grant’s case was the catalyst for civilian documentation of violent police encounters. The attention the video received validated the significance of recording these incidents if any semblance of justice was to be attained.

Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned video evidence of state-sanctioned violence led to the officers involved being charged with a crime with the exception of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd.

The revolution was digitized

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which initially took shape after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, has been mobilized by the jarring images of police killings captured and/or viewed on smartphones. Surveillance footage of Mike Brown being killed by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson prompted the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” movement. Activists and citizens of the community were able to see footage of Brown in a surrendered position with his hands raised before Wilson shot him.

In recent history, comedian Dave Chappelle taped an intensely serious special called 8:46 inspired by the footage of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for the eight minutes and forty-six seconds that killed him.

There’s often a mixed reaction when the subject of viewing events of state-sanctioned violence against Black people comes up. Some would argue that the consistent viewing of Black Americans being killed by the police is unnecessarily traumatic, and over time, leads to a desensitizing effect. Others believe that it is important to not look away from the ugliness of lethal force in order not to become disengaged with the fight for justice.

The killing of Oscar Grant introduced the discourse around filming the police to a generation that witnessed many who came before them be subjected to police brutality with minimal evidence of wrongdoing. It is arguable how much anyone should digest that amount of violent dehumanization, but not so much so the value of having the evidence readily available.

The legacy of Oscar Grant and continued pursuit of justice

In October 2020, the family of Oscar Grant called on Alameda County district attorney Nancy O’Malley to reopen the case against one of the officers involved, citing similarities to George Floyd’s death. Oscar’s family claimed that Officer Anthony Pirone created an initial “climate of violence” by pinning him down with a knee on his neck in the same manner Floyd was pinned down by Chauvin.

O’Malley’s office prosecuted Johannes Mehserle for murder and he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The family is now hoping for a conviction of Pirone in response to the charges Chauvin received for kneeling on Floyd.

In June 2019, the BART revealed a mural of Oscar Grant positioned at the Fruitvale Station. His story was also played out on the big screen by actor Michael B. Jordan in the 2013 movie “Fruitvale Station.”

Oscar’s death empowered a generation to advocate for themselves by shining a light directly on police violence. It is a tool that has not always yielded convictions of offending officers, but it has legitimized a decades-old grievance around violent policing in Black communities.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be