For the family of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police in 2009, the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin was a rare moment of accountability – and a potential turning point in their fight against police brutality.
“This is a huge moment in the last 12 years of our struggle,” Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, told the Guardian on Tuesday, an hour after a Minneapolis jury convicted the former officer of second- and third-degree murder, and manslaughter. “To be able to actually witness a conviction on all three charges was extremely emotional. We’ve been let down so many times.”
Reverend Wanda Johnson, Oscar’s mother, said she felt relieved: “I’m hopeful that this will be a moment that things will begin to change.”
The guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd offered the kind of court win that is denied to nearly all families of victims lost to police killings. To some in the US, where police fatally shoot nearly 1,000 people each year and are almost never charged with a crime, the conviction offered a sense of comfort and hope.
For the Grant family, there were mixed emotions.
Oscar Grant was 22 years old and unarmed when he was killed on a train platform on New Year’s Day, 2009 in Oakland, California. It was the first high-profile killing by police that was caught on a cellphone video that went viral. The shooting sparked mass protests in California that spread across the country and paved the way for the Ferguson uprisings and Black Lives Matter movement. The killing was later made famous by Ryan Coogler’s 2014 film Fruitvale Station, named after the site of the death.
“There’s an all-time high of dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system. And I think that has helped people realize that it’s time to stop allowing these police officers to just go home,” said Cephus, an activist also known as Uncle Bobby X. “This was a major victory. And this comes after many years of us fighting for accountability and transparency. So there is real hope that maybe we’re going in the right direction … I think a window of opportunity has opened up for us.”
Wanda said the verdict gave her hope that people no longer accept police lies about violence that the public can see for themselves on camera: “It can no longer be said, like it was said in my son’s case, that what you see is not happening. People will not be fooled any more … I hate that George Floyd, Oscar and others had to be an example, or a sacrifice. But I am grateful that our society is waking up. I believe people will no longer be silent, that they will stand up for what is right.”
For the family and their supporters, however, there were reasons to be cautious about celebrating this week’s ruling: they were intimately familiar with the limits of a criminal conviction.
Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot Grant in the back, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in 2010 after claiming in court that he meant to draw his Taser, not his gun. A judge later backed the defense’s claims that the killing was an accident, dismissed an enhancement that would’ve sent the officer to state prison and ultimately sentenced him to spend less than a year in county jail.
“We were left brokenhearted,” Cephus said, recalling the court process.
“I’m happy the [Chauvin] jury got it right. But I also know that the way the justice system works, you cannot let down your guard,” added Adante Pointer, one of the civil rights lawyers who represented Grant’s family. “The journey to justice when you’re a victim of police misconduct is long, painful and torturous. And we learned with the Oscar Grant case that there are two different systems in place: one for regular people, and one for police officers.”
It took a decade and the passage of a new state law for records to become unsealed in the Grant case, with disclosures in 2019 revealing that police had called him racist slurs and punched him without justification before killing him – and that investigators at the time did not believe Mehserle’s defense that it was an accidental firing.
The 2020 uprisings after Floyd’s death prompted local Oakland prosecutors to reopen the Grant case and consider possible charges for a second officer, but the district attorney announced in January of this year that there was not enough evidence for new prosecution.
Wanda said she is still pushing for prosecution: “I am definitely not just going to let it go without a fight. This will be not just for Oscar, but to give other families hope … The officer in my son’s case ended up doing 11 months in jail. And I always say, ‘What was Oscar’s life worth?’” And we’re seeing now what African American lives are worth. So we’ll be watchful of the [Chauvin] sentencing.”
Cephus said that while the Floyd family was hopefully able to get a good night’s sleep for the first time in a year, “The family also knows that this is not over.”
There were other reasons to be skeptical of the long-term impact of the conviction, Cephus said: “I’m cautious, because police might just be throwing [Chauvin] under the bus. It doesn’t mean that police shootings are going to stop. The racism will continue.” He was also fearful of the police reaction to the verdict, having witnessed officers escalate violence in the wake of protests or victories for accountability: “Harm could come to us because of the backlash.”
The events of last month have offered repeated reminders to Grant’s family that little has changed since his killing. An officer had pinned Grant down by putting his knee on him in the same manner as Chauvin’s murder of Floyd was described at trial.
“The same knee that was on George Floyd’s neck was on my son Oscar’s neck, and Oscar kept telling him he couldn’t breathe,” Wanda said.
And the officer who killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop this month, just 10 miles from the Chauvin trial, has also claimed that she mistook her gun for a Taser, officials say, echoing Mehserle’s claims a decade prior. The revelation that Wright had called his mother as he was being stopped further reminded Cephus of how Grant called his fiancee just before his killing.
“The similarities to what Oscar experienced on that night, the accumulation of all of this in one episode, it just really brought back Oscar so vividly,” Cephus said. “Oscar’s murder did not build the foundation to prevent all of these episodes from happening again.”
During the events of the last few weeks, Wanda said she was thinking of the history of American police forces, which were founded to catch runaway slaves: “Our culture of policing evolved from that. So we have to look at the system our policing was built on, and we really have to go back and work to tear down that system – and rebuild it again.”
She added, “I hope this is a turning point for our society.”