Eleven years ago, a white transit officer shot and killed Wanda Johnson’s unarmed black son, Oscar Grant, while he was pinned to the concrete of an Oakland train station. Since then, friends and allies in the fight against police brutality have sent her video after video of black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. And every time, the images send Johnson back into a cycle of grief she says she still hasn’t fully processed.
Nonetheless, the video of George Floyd gasping for air while being pinned in a knee chokehold by a Minneapolis police officer stood out. She saw immediate parallels between the two deaths: cellphone videos showing an unarmed man held facedown, an officer’s knee lodged into his neck, bystanders voicing outrage over the excessive force, and other cops failing to intervene.
“As soon as I saw it, it took me back to Oscar. I couldn’t sleep for two days,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see that we are still nowhere.”
Grant’s killing on New Year’s Day 2009, like Floyd’s, followed a series of troubling police decisions. Grant was tackled to the ground while being arrested for allegedly obstructing officers, though video footage showed he had put up little resistance. The officer who fired a bullet into his back did so even though the second officer had him pinned. Later, at trial, the shooter said he had meant to use his Taser, not his pistol.
The police shooting, depicted in the film Fruitvale Station, was one of the first to be captured on cellphone video. It also served as a flashpoint in the debate over how officers use force against black people — and how they should be held accountable.
In the days after Grant’s death, protesters swept across Oakland demanding that the officer be charged. Some were peaceful; others burned cars and shattered windows. The local district attorney soon filed one count of murder, though after the jury believed the Taser defense, the officer served half of a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.
Perhaps better than most, Johnson understands this cycle — a shooting or use of force captured on cellphone video that leads to weeks of protests. Her experience is one among many, a window into the personal tragedy of police violence and the families left behind to mourn.
Johnson continues to reach out to the families of those who were killed by police. But in the 11 years since Grant’s death, she's lost count.
She tells them she is willing to do whatever she can to help. She hugs them. She prays for them. And she gives them a piece of advice: to focus on processing the death of their loved one before advocating for justice to be doled out.
“I’m still processing — now that George Floyd has died, I’ve had so many phone calls from so many people reaching out to me, checking how I am doing during this time period. They know it opens up so many wounds,” she said. “We have to go through this over and over.”
In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Grant was on his way home to Oakland on the subway after celebrating New Year’s Eve with his friends in San Francisco. After allegedly being involved in a fight on the train, Grant was pulled off by a police officer. Johannes Mehserle, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer tasked with arresting Grant, forced the 22-year-old chest down on the platform. Another officer put him in a knee chokehold.
Mehserle then stood up and shot Grant in the back.
“You shot me,” Grant told the officer, according to witness testimony. Mehserle claimed he did not mean to shoot him.
The fatal shooting was captured on cellphone videos taken by several witnesses. Moments before, a passenger is heard yelling “Let him go!”
Grant, who worked multiple jobs, left behind a 4-year-old daughter.
“It’s very hard to relive the death of your child each and every time,” Johnson said, describing the experience of seeing a video that’s constantly on television news and social media. “It opens up the very heart that has been broken, that’s been hurt so badly and unnecessarily.”
Hundreds took to the streets to protest following Grant’s death. Businesses were damaged, and the Oakland Police Department, which has long been under federal oversight, fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse crowds.
The mayor at the time also appealed for calm in the streets, as did Johnson, even though she was still mourning.
“You’re hurt, you’re mad, and you’re frustrated, and now you got to go out and try to calm the crowd, but you really, in a sense, don’t want to calm the crowd because you’re mad about what happened,” she said.
Johnson added that while she didn’t condone the looting or violence — then or now — she understands it.
“People are angry. They are frustrated. They are mad,” she said. “They’ve been talking for years and trying to get the judicial system to change and to get officers held accountable. Our society has a deaf ear when it comes to African American men and women.”
By 2011, BART officials agreed to a $1.3 million settlement with Johnson to resolve her civil rights lawsuit. (The agreement did not include any admission of fault by BART.)
Years later, in 2019, a mural of Grant was unveiled by transportation officials at the station where he was shot. A nearby street was also named after him.
The death of her son also catapulted Johnson into a life of activism and advocacy. She started the Oscar Grant Foundation, which is aimed at training police officers on cultural sensitivity, among other things. She has also met with politicians and pushed for sweeping reforms.
The cycle of deaths, however, continues, and the systemic change she yearns for feels impossible.
“It seems like it is so hard for this country to want to do that,” she said. “You have a president who says ‘looting starts, shooting starts,’ and I’m just, like, baffled. How do we continue to revert backward?”
In the end, Johnson said that for the families whose loved ones have been killed by police, the mourning never stops.
“Their families are never going to be the same again. There’s always going to be a chair empty at Christmas, Thanksgiving. There are no more celebrations,” she said. “We spent my last birthday together then he was murdered. I never get that celebration back. These families never get that back. They have to pick up and go forward without them. All you have is a memory.”