In 2009, police shot and killed an unarmed African American man at a California transit station. His mother, in a letter to the Brown family, writes about the need to shake the consciousness of America. His story was the basis of the film Fruitvale Station.
To the Brown Family:
I give you my heartfelt condolences for your immeasurable loss as you bury and bid farewell to your son.
No words can ever assuage the pain we feel as parents when our precious children are taken away from us in such a violent, senseless manner. For 18 years, your son Michael has helped define the meaning and quality of your life, providing moments of joy and laughter, which are truly priceless. Those never having the opportunity to meet Michael could never appreciate his value the way you do.
Your son, like mine, was unarmed at the time he was killed by a law enforcement officer. My son, Oscar Grant, was being restrained by an officer and lying face down on a platform at the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, Calif., when a second officer named Johannes Mehserle approached and shot him in the back. At trial, Mehserle claims to have mistakenly pulled a handgun instead of a Taser®, and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. I will always believe that Mehserle intended to shoot my son because of a negative stereotype of African American males.
I have not seen a single sunrise or bouquet of roses that warmed my heart as much as my son’s smile. I pray that, as the days go by, you are strengthened by the positive memories of your precious son. Although my words will never replace what has been taken away from you, I hope they convey how much I understand your pain, a pain I wish you never had to endure.
While I share your pain, I also share your frustration. As parents, we accept the great honor and responsibility of raising and protecting our children until they are old enough to make moral decisions and to entrust their safety to society. At that point, society takes on the great responsibility of guaranteeing our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Your son’s right to life was summarily and unceremoniously taken away without judge, jury or due process. Because of the immeasurable value of his life, I encourage you to push through your pain and frustration, and demand that society carry out its great constitutional responsibility and provide an accounting.
In your quest for truth, please do not let anyone distract you from the material issue. If society breaches its promise by allowing our unarmed youth to be slain at the unfettered discretion of law enforcement without recompense, the truths set forth in this country’s founding documents are no longer self-evident.
This is where we, as parents, have to be relentless in the vindication of our slain sons. Through our pain and frustration, we must shake the consciousness of America and make society answer why it empowers law enforcement to kill our unarmed children.
As parents and concerned citizens, we must demand that law enforcement be more transparent in its investigations, and that it be held to the same standard of proof that citizens are held to in claiming self-defense to a deadly shooting. We must also demand that law enforcement better utilize certain tools already at its disposal, such as the battery of psychological tests it deploys for new recruits to potentially screen out racial bias and negative stereotypes. Finally, we must continue to challenge society to see our youth as unique, beloved individuals, not merely as one among the crowd.
Here, I pledge my support to you in challenging society to live up to its obligation. The Oscar Grant Foundation will also work tirelessly with you until society embraces the enduring truth—that the lives of our children are no less valuable than the lives of the officers who are sworn to protect them.
Our prayers are continually with you.
Wanda Johnson is the mother of Oscar Grant III, and founder of the Oscar Grant Foundation.