Rev. Wanda R. Johnson on the trauma of seeing the same thing happen again and again
While the country grapples with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we’re also taking time today to remember Oscar Grant — an unarmed Black 22-year-old man, lost to police violence in 2009. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Grant was shot in the back by transit police officer Johannes Mehserle on the platform at the Fruitvale Station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, as he was returning home from celebrating with friends.
Although his killing (which was caught on tape) sparked mass protests over police brutality, Mehserle got off with a light sentence. Over a decade after Oscar’s death — which inspired the film Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan — his mother, Wanda R. Johnson tells us that she is “exhausted.”
In a new interview, Johnson reflects on the lack of justice in Oscar’s case, the continued violence against Black people in the United States, and where we might go from here.
Wake-Up Call: It’s been over a decade since your son was killed by police in Oakland, and it must be incredibly traumatic to see this happen again and again. How did you feel when you learned about George Floyd’s death?
Rev. Wanda R. Johnson: Someone messaged me on Facebook and said: “Hey, did you see this video? You gotta look at this video.” So, I looked at the video, not really knowing what to expect. That’s how I first found out about his death.
Tears just rolled down from the eyes. I was up for two days after, just praying and crying out. All I could think about was: Where is the love and compassion in America? How can you just let someone kill right in front of everyone’s eyes, and not even show any compassion? I’m just baffled. It’s been a process for me. It’s been very difficult.
What do you imagine Oscar would think about the state of our country right now?
Oscar was a person who loved you, no matter what nationality or race. He loved you for what you had inside of you. If he were here, he would say, “Racism is something that’s taught. A person is not born to be racist.”
And so instead of spending time teaching our children and community to become racist, let’s turn around and teach children in our communities how to love others as if they love themselves. He would also say, “On our coins, we have the term, ‘In God we trust.’” God has a message of love. To continue that, even if you don’t agree with everything someone says or does, that should not keep you from loving those who you come in contact with.
What action do you believe is key to fixing the complex problem of police brutality and other race-related social issues?
We need to revamp the police force. We need to look at how we’re hiring, our training practices and accountability practices because if you look at the officer who killed George, he already had about 18 complaints against him.
How could he continue to be in the force with that many complaints against him, doing the same job? The practice of reprimanding employees has to be looked at. And for many states, police have their own bill of rights. We need to look at that and change the way that it’s set up so officers are held accountable when they’re wrong, and rewarded when they’re right.
I don’t want to just harbor on saying dismantle all police stations, but we need to really tear down the structure of policing and rebuild it.
From your experience, how does the justice system systematically fail the families of these victims, and by default, let this type of brutality continue?
The officer that shot Oscar never went to prison. He did his time in the Los Angeles County Jail. He only did 11 months. And he didn’t get any felony probation. Men and women have done lesser crimes and they have gotten felony probation.
He really wasn’t stripped of anything. He still can apply to carry a firearm. When we look at the disparities in our judicial system, it’s very haunting that you can kill someone and basically go on with your life.
When you realized he was only spending 11 months in jail, how did you feel as a mother?
It was horrible because the lack of justice started in the courtroom. Did we know that we would probably lose the case? Yes, because of the way the judge had already set up the case.
From the very beginning, he made it clear he had made a decision and was not changing his mind.
What changes need to be made in the justice system?
We need to really look at if it’s fair to have a district attorney try to persecute a cop or make the decision whether a cop is guilty or innocent, or if we need to send special investigators or prosecutors to come in and try the case.
Secondly, we need to look at how we’re treating the officers differently than the civilians, when it comes to committing crimes. We really have to go back and pare some of our whole judicial system down, and begin to rebuild it as a community of people.
What did you think of the protests happening in 2009? And what has it been like now, seeing protests pop up across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death?
I was so grateful that they saw the injustice and they weren’t going away until something was done.
Today, the face of the protest is changing. It’s a more diverse group of people out there that’s stating the wrong. They’re saying they will not stand for it anymore. And they are working to make sure that it is amplified so others will know that it’s not right what happened to George Floyd, and that contrary to what some might think, everybody should have that same opportunity to live in the land of the free.
You went on to create the Oscar Grant Foundation. Could you tell me about the work you do?
We are working to bridge the gap between community and law enforcement officers. We offer sensitivity training, where we go into police stations, and share what happened with Oscar. We share his story in hopes that officers try to use different types of force instead of shooting.
We do weekly panel sessions, where we ask different community experts to come in and talk about things going on. Last week we held a session, with various officials, and we discussed the George Floyd case and what we could do as a community to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. This week we have a group of psychologists and other doctors. We want to provide the community with tools to get healthy in the midst of this pandemic and what’s happened with George Floyd.
We also work with students. This year we’re giving away 10 scholarships; We have a basketball team, which goes all over California and outside of California; and we also do a school supplies drive.
You understand what George Floyd and others who’ve lost loved ones to police brutality feel, on a different level. What message do you have for them?
Take the time to heal and get the strength that you need, because once you get up and you look up, the fight begins — and this fight that we’re facing is not against flesh and blood. It’s against principals, powers and spiritual wickedness in high places. And in order to defeat the wickedness of racism, we have to continue to speak up and speak loud, and denounce the racism that we’re facing which causes injustice in our judicial system. And so as we speak up and we speak loud about it, others will see and begin to look and see the disparities that African American men and women face, and want to join the fight, to change the perception that one life matters more than another life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.