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Oscar Grant and daughter
Courtesy of Wanda Johnson

12 years on, Oscar Grant’s mother is keeping his memory alive via voicemail

1-800 Happy Birthday is a project that lets people listen to messages and memories left for Wanda Johnson’s son, shot by police aged 22, as well as George Floyd, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile

“Oftentimes when a loved one is killed by law enforcement officers, that individual is demonised,” says reverend Wanda R. Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant III, whose last day on earth was memorialised in Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station starring Michael B. Jordan.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Grant, a 22-year-old Black man, was restrained by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police. He was forced to lie face down on the train station platform, then shot in the back by officer Johannes Mehserle. Although millions watched one of the very first police shootings captured by mobile phone, no one outside the police department had heard some 60 hours of police investigations, which were kept secret until now. 

Earlier this year, KQED radio station filed a lawsuit against BART, forcing them to comply with California’s The Right to Know Act, which gives the public access to select records of police misconduct and excessive force. On July 8, NPR and KQED released the newest episode of the On Our Watch podcast, which makes information on those tapes available for the first time. 

Last October, Johnson organised a press conference asking for Grant’s case to be reopened in order to bring charges against a second officer, Anthony “Tony” Pirone, based on the new evidence that had come to light. According to a 2009 Meyers Nave report commissioned by BART, “Pirone was, in large part, responsible for setting the events in motion that created a chaotic and tense situation on the platform, setting the stage, even if inadvertent, for the shooting of Oscar Grant.”

District Attorney Nancy O’Malley agreed, but ultimately decided not to bring charges against Pirone, who had been fired in 2009 for his involvement in the case and is now serving in the California Army National Guard.

Mehserle, who resigned from the police force six days after Grant’s death rather than giving a statement, was paroled in 2011 after serving 11 months of a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Described as “a people person” by his attorney, Michael Rains, who told the Oakland Tribune: “(Mehserle) would just as soon fade into oblivion, find a job, support himself and his family, and do so without fanfare.”

And, it seems, he has. But more than 12 years later, Wanda Johnson soldiers on, understanding that the fight for justice might never end. In August 2010, she established the Oscar Grant Foundation to uphold her son’s legacy and provide resources for at-risk youth. From the outset of her journey, she understood the importance of creating space for those forced to deal with the grief and trauma of having their loved ones killed by police.

“One of the things that I found out is that if you don't have a support system, you can be left to go through the process by yourself,” says Johnson, who notes that family members might not be able to provide the level of care needed to heal. Realising it was imperative to help those who are confronted by the same horrors of state-sanctioned violence, Johnson says, “One of the first things I thought to do was provide a space for families to come and talk about their loved ones, to laugh about them, and share something funny.”

Noting the media’s propensity to vilify victims of police violence to “justify” their deaths, she observes, “You don’t hear of the positive things, like a young man played baseball or had a passion for cutting hair, that they loved their children and spent a lot of time in the park playing with them. At the Oscar Grant Foundation, we give mothers and fathers space where they can cry, laugh, and joke about their child. When we talk about what happened, that’s where our real healing begins.”

Johnson speaks with the calm, measured voice of a woman who is now able to use her experience and wisdom to transformative effect. To make it through trauma is an act of grace; to use the wisdom gleaned to help others along their journeys is nobility itself. Recognising that we, the public, are also traumatised by the stories, videos, and audio clips of police killings, by the biased reportage that denigrates the dead, and an unrepentant judicial system that allows killers to walk free, Johnson understands the restorative powers of building connection and community. 

About five years ago, she met the award-winning Iranian-American filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani, co-founder of EVEN/ODD Films (a minority and immigrant owned creative studio and production company based in San Francisco and LA) when he came to film the foundation’s annual Oscar Grant birthday legacy event. 

“Oscar Grant’s death had a big effect on me because I could imagine myself being on that BART train with friends who look like him,” Gorjestani says. “I remember how the news covered it and I knew this isn’t the whole thing. They showed the outrage and the anger at the protests, talked about the politics of it, and then moved on to the next thing. One day while walking, I started thinking about the family and wondered what his mom was doing on his birthday.”

Gorjestani decided to find out. “I saw the amount of resilience, positivity, and new potential that the community manifested out of that. It was pure will and sheer determination.” Six years after Grant’s death, EVEN/ODD made its first film celebrating his birthday, then decided to continue making films honouring the birthdays of Mario Woods and Philando Castile.

Gorjestani came to understand that film, for all its abilities, was limited and began exploring alternative forms of storytelling. “A few years ago, I was thinking that it’s crazy how now, you just get a text message on your birthday or a comment on Instagram,” he says. “I remember back in the day, people would hit you up and leave a voicemail, maybe put some music on in the background. It was a whole thing that kind of disappeared.”

“We want people to realise that these are people just trying to live… You can’t help but ask yourself: why did this person have to die?” – Mohammad Gorjestani, filmmaker

So Gorjestani brought it back with 1-800 Happy Birthday, an online project where the public can listen to messages for George Floyd, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and Oscar Grant, among others – or leave a message of their own. “I wanted to celebrate people in a way that is born out of the community,” Gorjestani says. “We want people to realise that these are people just trying to live. When you hear these voicemails and the love, the memories, the plans – you realise how much was taken from us. You can’t help but ask yourself: why did this person have to die?’

The answer lies with the killer, and not the victim – despite the fact that those who pull the trigger rarely received the same level of scrutiny of the dead. Yet that same hyperfocus on the deceased almost never offers a fair and balanced portrait of their lives and legacies. The 1-800 Happy Birthday project offers an intimate glimpse into both the person and their impact, through the stories of those who knew them in life or only met them through death. 

“There were people offering well wishes for his birthday in heaven and just letting him know how much they missed him. It was very uplifting for me to hear all these different people still thinking about my son Oscar 12 years later” – reverend Wanda Johnson

“It was such a joy for me to listen to all the different recordings,” Johnson says. “There were people praying, crying, singing, and making jokes. There were people offering well wishes for his birthday in heaven and just letting him know how much they missed him. It was very uplifting for me to hear all these different people still thinking about my son Oscar, 12 years later.”

Ultimately, you can never really know how you affect other people’s lives, how a small act of kindness can become a symbol of hope, faith, and love. Johnson recounts an encounter she had with an elderly white man on the ten-year vigil of Grant’s death. “He was crying and I said, ‘Don’t cry. This is a time to remember Oscar and to think about all the good,” she recalls. “He told me he couldn’t help it. He met Oscar at the Oakland market where he worked. He had just finished paying for his groceries and had a basket full of bags. He was going out to the car, and Oscar said, ‘Let me do that for you.’ The elderly man said, ‘That’s okay,’ but Oscar insisted and said, ‘That’s my job.’”

Reverend Johnson’s voice wavers for the first time, remembering her son as he was: a polite, respectful, courteous, and thoughtful young man. Then her voice lifts with pride as she says, “This gentleman could not believe how helpful Oscar was and it made an impression on him. That makes me cheer up and smile every time I think about the story.”