Early on New Year's Day 2009, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop Johannes Mehserle shot a young black man named Oscar Grant in the back while he was lying face-down on the Fruitvale Station platform in Oakland, California.
Caught on video by onlookers, the slaying enraged the community. Protests followed days later, and Alameda County prosecutors eventually convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter after a jury trial in Los Angeles (second-degree murder charges did not stick).
The conviction, and Mehserle's sentence of just two years, was seen by Grant's family and a growing number of supporters in the community as a miscarriage of justice. Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, said then, "My son was murdered! He was murdered! He was murdered." Protests over the verdict occasionally became violent.
At the time, legal experts said that the jury "went as low as they could go without acquitting him"; it's speculated that because of Mehserle's spotless record, prosecutors had a difficult time convincing a jury that the officer murdered Grant. Last year, a civil jury denied the victim's father restitution in a separate suit, though five friends of Grant's who were with him the day he died won a settlement of their own last May.
Grant's killing arguably marked a turning point in the way the nation perceives police violence, especially in minority communities. It ranks among the most racially divisive cases in California since four cops in LA got away with beating Rodney King in 1992. And with the high-profile police killings in Ferguson, New York City, and, most recently, Baltimore, Grant's story serves as a powerful testament to how these deaths linger in communities around the country—and how cops tend to evade serious punishment.
Six years later, Grant's family, including his mother, continue their activism in the hopes of preventing more tragedy. Every year, Grant's family, friends, and others connected to the community come together to celebrate his birthday, and heal. Filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani documented the most recent gathering.
VICE: What is the Oscar Grant's birthday celebration/community gathering?
Mohammad Gorjestani: She does it every single year. There's a thoughtful theme, and people come together, it's kind of like a combination of healing and inspiring the community to do more, but above all it's about not allowing the community to forget what happened, and making sure that everyone moves forward with the notion that Oscar's life mattered.
Why make a film about it?
That was the opening marker of this era of police brutality. With everything else that's been going on since then, what happened in Ferguson and Mike Brown, what's going on in South Carolina and Baltimore—I'm very critical personally of how the media depicts things, and the line between news and entertainment has been blurred and that's really shitty. What that does is sensationalize things, and a lot of what we've seen is the media taking these fresh wounds to these communities and presenting them as almost theater, being very selective of what they show.
Someone being killed unjustly, naturally that's going to cause anger. People flow out into the streets because they don't know what else to do because they haven't been heard in previous attempts to serve justice. At the end of the day you have this theatrical reporting around that. Then there are the legal proceedings which haven't been just, and what you get is that the questions about what happened to the community, what happened with Oscar's community and the people around him, and how this tragedy impacted their lives.
What was Oscar Grant's mother like?
We know how beautiful the community is, and we wanted to show the long tale impact through Wanda, his mother. She is such an incredible, powerful person who's used this tragedy as a calling almost, as a catalyst to her being someone who has brought together a community. Wanda supports other mothers who have had their sons murdered in community violence or gun violence. And in addition to that the Oscar Grant Foundation was formed. I really wanted to make something show how beautiful she was, not just show people angry and upset and grieving, I wanted to humanize this community. They deserve that. She deserves that. They have gone through so much adversity.
So in the film none of the people appearing on camera are identified, why did you make that choice?
Nobody introduced themselves when they were speaking because they are all part of the community. It's very clear who Oscar's mother is and everyone else, it doesn't really matter who they are. It is about a larger community. Yes, it was about Oscar, but it could have been anyone. Just because it's his sister talking, doesn't mean she's not a metaphor for any sister talking. And we really wanted to allow these people to speak as human beings, and not necessarily as qualified people who have some kind of authority to speak. It's another way to hit home this motif that it's about the community not individuals.
If you'd like to help, please donate to the Oscar Grant Foundation here.
Also, check out the Blackout for Human Rights series, which this video is a part of.
Follow Mohammad Gorjestani on Twitter.
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter.