Thank you Oscar Grant Foundation for Filling Me With Faith on the First Day of 2017
On January 1, 2017, the seventh and final day of Kwanzaa 2016, I joined the family and friends of Oscar Grant for their annual vigil in his honor at Fruitvale BART Station, where BART police robbed them of their loved one eight years ago.
On a brilliantly sunny New Year’s Day afternoon, hundreds of people gathered to listen to Oscar’s mother, Wanda Johnson, his Uncle Bobby, and brilliant artists and organizers. Many people who have lost loved ones to police brutality shared their stories.
Rick Perez, father of Pedie Perez, murdered by Richmond Police two years ago, encouraged the crowd to push for police accountability. The officer who killed his son has not been brought to justice and now collects $70,000 a year in PTSD disability leave.
One might think that a memorial vigil for a twenty-two year old father shot through the back by police as he lay handcuffed face down on a BART platform would be depressing, especially occurring weeks before the inauguration of a bigot endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, the National Rifle Association, National Fraternal Order of Police, and the Border Patrol union as President of the United States.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
The Oscar Grant Vigil was full of faith.
A deep and powerful faith.
Oakland City Council President Lynette McElhaney shared about the depth of her faith, noting that “a setback is just the starting point for a comeback.”
She described how our forebears like Ida B. Wells fought back from tremendous setbacks to achieve great victories despite enormous opposition.
They achieved these victories, including making lynching illegal, because they never lost faith in the righteousness of their struggle and because they kept at it, persisting.
The 2017 Oscar Grant Vigil made me resolute of the righteousness and victory of our struggle and gave me a vision of how I want 2017 to be.
The coldness and solidity of the concrete beneath our feet evoked the bottom we have hit with the Trump election. Somehow the hardness of it made it easier to stand perfectly erect.
The warm rays of the distant sun reminded me that when we shine brightly, our light radiates for thousands of miles, all across the country to Washington DC and beyond.
The loving words and embraces exchanged between friends centered me in the strength and unity of our community, and how much we support each other in our collective struggle for liberation.
The beautiful rhythms and lyrics of the musicians and poets filled my heart with energy and faith.
We are powerful.
Singer Candice Antique sang “Power is more than a gun.”
Sol Development sang “We need a cure for cops like we need a cure for cancer.” “Because you can’t relate to what Black people feel doesn’t make it less real.” “We are more than your fear.”
We are compassionate with ourselves and with each other.
Hiphop artist Kev Choice shared that “My new year’s resolution is to do less. Sit in silence with myself, be in nature, be in community with each other.”
We are united across every dimension of identity.
Rapper Gina Madrid sang she is “tired of injustice. No need of guns to shut the system down, the people soon will turn this world around.”
And, like Ida, we are achieving victories despite tremendous odds.
The Oscar Grant movement got the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police officer who killed Oscar, Johannes Mehserle, convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
That may sound modest, but in California, a state with some of the strongest legal protections of police officers and most powerful police and prison officer unions in the United States, it is virtually unheard of for a police officer to be convicted criminally.
Although there is no official national record kept due to pressure from police, a fact considered “embarrassing and ridiculous” by FBI Director James Comey, in 2015, the British newspaper The Guardian accumulated records of 1146 people killed by US law enforcement.
The Washington Post reports that only 54 of the officers involved were charged criminally, and very few were convicted.
Just last month, a mistrial was declared in the case of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man who was chased down and shot by police in South Carolina.
Despite the tremendous power of police, here in San Francisco, police accountability activists are also achieving great wins.
We got a new “Use of Force” policy enacted after Mario Woods execution that bans shooting at cars and carotid restraint, despite recalcitrant opposition by the Police Officers Association.
We forced the former Chief of Police, Greg Suhr, to resign, and William Scott, an external candidate not endorsed by the Police Officers Association, selected as his replacement.
To be sure, there is still so much to do.
Here in San Francisco, our District Attorney George Gascon has eleven open cases of fatal SFPD officer involved shootings in which he has not determined whether to charge officers. No SFPD officer has ever been charged with murder.
This chart from the June 2016 Grand Jury Report on Officer Involved Shootings demonstrates it takes on average 22 months for DA Gascon to make charging determinations. The fatal shootings are in red.
Justice delayed is justice denied.
Despite the challenges, yesterday’s Oscar Grant Vigil gave us a vision to strive for, peace and well being for all people, free of all forms of violence, with beautiful art and community to sustain and grow us.
Our faith in the righteousness of our struggle is stronger than any obstacle.
I conclude with one of my favorite quotes:
What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within us out into the world, miracles happen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) American Essayist & Poet
Thank you, Oscar Grant Foundation, for a beautiful and moving Oscar Grant Vigil. It was the absolute best way to start 2017.
Karen Fleshman is a Racial Equity Trainer and Government Accountability Advocate. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She offers talks and workshops at companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies and blogs on Huffington Post and Medium. She is a member of the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition, a co-founder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and often testifies to the San Francisco Police Commission and Board of Supervisors. www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren