Policing Spaces of Transit: Oscar Grant

On New Year's morning 2009, Oscar Grant was fatally shot on the Fruitvale BART Station platform by a BART Police Officer. But what was his crime?

What rights do we give up when we step into a public space? A subway platform? In another story on this site, my colleague Stacey wrote about the death of Oscar Grant in her tour, Oakland Under Arrest: Policing the Police. Oscar Grant’s life was taken on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station when a BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle fatally shot him. It was the early morning of 2009 and large crowds were coming from San Francisco back to the East Bay after ringing in the New Year. Oscar and about 8 of his friends were involved in a fight on BART and were detained on the platform at Fruitvale. Conflicting accounts from witnesses and police make it difficult to give the proper series of events but it is true that an already detained Oscar was against the wall of the station when he was shot by Officer Mehserle after resisting arrest.
In the public setting of the BART station, the BART surveillance cameras and witnesses filming the incident have ultimately added to piece together an accurate timeline of events. It is the ‘cellphone journalism’ of the incident that helped the court and the families understand the actual events of the night. Luckily, the video recording of public officers engaging in their duties is protected by the Constitution and proved in several civil cases around the country. The type of ‘reciprocal surveillance’ witnesses engaged in that night was key to understanding what really happened in the moments of intensity during the arrest and shooting.
Oscar’s friends with him that night, other witnesses and many from the general public who watched the videos of the shooting online believe this situation would have not ended in tragedy if Oscar was not a black man. Oakland has a long and continual history of racial profiling and police brutality. Researchers at Harvard ran statistical tests and found that “the OPD has disproportionately targeted Blacks as a portion of the population over the last twenty years. According to our analysis of data taken from the OPD, 83 percent of victims of police shootings between 1993 and 2013 were Black.” Activists see the brutality inflicted on Oscar and his friends as demonstrative of a larger pattern of police brutality against unarmed black and brown folks throughout the U.S.
The response of BART leadership started a few days after the incident since the publicity backlash was unprecedented. The BART directors made an effort to ameliorate the negative press and planned to take a critical look at BART Police activity with creating a Police Department Review Committee. The Committee vowed to reevaluate their officer and possibly change their practices but no innovative changes came from the committee results. Even after hosting a town hall meeting, it still was not enough to silence critical opinion of the police conduct. Public reaction spanned a range of emotions, anger, hurt, and outrage. A mixture of all were felt by those in the city who were following coverage of the incident.
The Oakland community is still organizing around police brutality in Oakland, even six years after incident. Just in 2015, hundreds came out on Jan 1st for the 6th anniversary of his death at Fruitvale BART. The case of Oscar Grants death is a reminder that not all people are safe when they walk into a public space like a train platform. The city and the people must continue to work toward forms of public safety that successfully protect and serve all of the public.

Images

People gathering at the BART station on January 1st, 2015 to hold space for Oscar Grant

People gathering at the BART station on January 1st, 2015 to hold space for Oscar Grant

Creator: Ray Chavez View File Details Page

Fruitvale Platform

Fruitvale Platform

Source: Wikipedia View File Details Page

Various video angles of the incident from witnesses and BART surveillance

Various video angles of the incident from witnesses and BART surveillance

Creator: popularresistance.org View File Details Page

Street Address:

Fruitvale Station
3401 East 12th Street / Oakland, CA 94601 [map]

Cite this Page:

Emma Ishii, “Policing Spaces of Transit: Oscar Grant,” Street Stories: Oakland, accessed December 12, 2017, http://streetstoriesoakland.com/items/show/199.

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