District Attorney says Oscar Grant police murder case to be reopened
Grant Family/AP

OAKLAND, Calif. – As struggles continue throughout the country to end the continuing stream of murders of unarmed people of color by law enforcement, a case many observers say foreshadowed today’s efforts has reemerged in a new and surprising way.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, following reports of a scuffle on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train, 22-year-old retail worker and doting father Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle on the platform of Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station. In one of the early such uses of cell phone cameras, bystanders videoed the interactions leading up to Grant’s death.

The shooting took place as Grant, an African American, lay face down on the BART station platform, surrounded by police. Videos by witnesses showed several young men sitting on the platform, not apparently resisting. Grant appeared to be cooperating before two officers pushed him face-down, followed by the shooting.

Mehserle claimed he meant to shock Grant with his Taser but accidentally reached for his gun instead. Tried in 2010 in Los Angeles after the defense requested a change of venue, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and ended up serving 11 months of a two-year prison term.

Though other officers were on the scene and video footage available at the time showed one, Anthony Pirone, also attacking Grant, no other officer was charged at the time.

Throughout the years, Oscar Grant’s mother, uncle, other family members and supporters have never yielded in their struggle for justice for Grant and for the many other victims of such police violence, including their demands that Pirone be charged as accessory to Grant’s murder.

Now, after requests by journalists prompted the release last year of a previously confidential internal BART report with stark details of the police actions, Grant’s family is demanding that Pirone be charged with felony murder in the case.

The document and similar accounts of other police actions became available after SB 1421, Peace Officers: Release of Records, by state Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, was signed into law two years ago, requiring law enforcement agencies to make public their internal reports about officers investigated for use of force.

The report highlights Pirone’s actions, including causing what its authors called “a chaotic and tense situation on the platform,” and repeatedly calling Grant a racial slur before striking Grant in the head and pressing his knee into Grant’s neck. Grant did not fight back.

As the Grant family gathered with supporters, civic and religious leaders at Fruitvale BART station Oct. 5 for a press conference demanding that Grant’s case be reopened, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced she is reopening an investigation.

“Unfortunately,” O’Malley said, “the Los Angeles jury only found Officer Mehserle guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter. We are reopening our investigation.” Saying she has assigned a team of attorneys to “look back into the circumstances that caused the death of Oscar Grant,” she concluded, “We will evaluate the evidence and the law including the applicable law at the time and the statute of limitations and make a determination.”

With the Fruitvale Station’s giant mural of Oscar Grant in the background, Sister Beatrice X Johnson, co-founder of the Love Not Blood Campaign and wife of Cephus “Uncle Bobby” X Johnson, Grant’s uncle, began by reading a statement from U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland and nearby communities in the House of Representatives.

“It has been almost 12 years since police violence ended Oscar Grant’s life, and we are still waiting for justice, for Oscar’s family and loved ones and for our entire community,” Lee wrote. “Justice delayed is justice denied. In light of new information revealed last year in the independent investigation report, a full investigation of all potential criminal conduct by police related to the murder of Oscar Grant is warranted. We’re tired of waiting. Any officer who committed a crime must be held to account.”

Grant’s mother, the Reverend Wanda Johnson, recalled that the family had been told during early court proceedings that Pirone would be charged later, because first he was to testify as a witness about what happened to Grant.

“We should not have to wait another 11 years,” she said. “We were told then that it would happen, and it should happen now! If our judicial system continues to lie and not honor their word, we will continue to be out here and remind the world how our judicial system is continuing to fail people of color.”

Cephus X Johnson then picked up the story, recalling that the district attorneys told the family and others present at the time, that Johannes Mehserle would be prosecuted first, and after Mehserle’s trial, Pirone would be charged as an accessory to Grant’s murder.

But instead, Johnson said, when the family spoke with Nancy O’Malley, who by then had taken over as Alameda County District Attorney, she told them the county had exhausted its funds on the trial of Mehserle and could not afford to file charges against Pirone.

Pointing out that in kneeing Grant, Pirone had employed the same technique used to kill George Floyd earlier this year, Johnson repeated the family’s demand that Grant’s case be reopened.

In addition, Johnson urged passage of Senate Bill 731, by state Senator Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, to decertify police officers who break the law or commit serious misconduct, which stalled in the just-completed legislative session under heavy push-back from law enforcement.

The Reverend Ben McBride, co-director of PICO California, told the crowd the current movement didn’t just start in May with George Floyd’s murder, but has been happening “for hundreds of years … This current movement was sparked by the murder of Oscar Grant, and until we get justice, we will stay in these streets … demanding that District Attorney Nancy O’Malley bring charges to all the officers complicit in the death and murder of Oscar Grant!”


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe para People's World desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.