BART’s art hon­or­ing Os­car Grant faces de­lay

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Rachel Swan

A mu­ral project at BART’s Fruit­vale Sta­tion in Oak­land is tense by na­ture: The agency has agreed to com­mis­sion a piece of pub­lic art­work hon­or­ing a man one of its po­lice of­fi­cers killed.

But the trib­ute to Os­car Grant, gunned down on New Year’s Day in 2009, is par­tic­u­larly fraught. Grant’s fam­ily, BART of­fi­cials and the tran­sit agency’s po­lice depart­ment each have a say in how the mu­ral will ap­pear. As a re­sult, the project is de­layed be­yond its in­tended com­ple­tion on the 10-year an­niver­sary of the shoot­ing.

Com­pli­cat­ing the is­sue, Grant’s fam­ily is press­ing BART to re­name the sta­tion and a small side street for the slain 22-year-old. BART of­fi­cials say they have no plans to change the sta­tion name, though board Di­rec­tor Robert Raburn said he un­der­stands the sen­ti­ment.

“I don’t know that a mu­ral re­ally

solves it all,” said Raburn, whose dis­trict in­cludes Oak­land. “Fruit­vale Sta­tion will al­ways be known for this tragic in­ci­dent.”

The dis­cus­sion of how to best de­pict Grant has plod­ded on for months. An early ren­der­ing of the mu­ral by artist Se­nay Den­nis, also known as Refa One, de­picted Grant in a saint-like pose with his name float­ing in block letters nearby — a con­cept that fam­ily mem­bers and some of­fi­cials re­jected as over­wrought.

Since then, the de­sign has steadily evolved, and de­lib­er­a­tions range from the color pal­ette to the back­drop to the ques­tion of whether to in­clude Grant’s name at all.

Still, BART of­fi­cials say the art­work it­self is a done deal. They signed a $30,000 con­tract with Refa One in Au­gust to paint a west ex­te­rior wall by the bus stops, be­low the plat­form where Grant was shot in the back by for­mer Of­fi­cer Jo­hannes Mehserle while be­ing pinned down by a sec­ond of­fi­cer.

Mehserle was con­victed of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter by a jury that cred­ited his tes­ti­mony that he thought he was fir­ing his Taser, not his pis­tol.

The shoot­ing was cat­a­clysmic for BART. By­standers on a crowded train cap­tured the killing on cell phones and posted footage on YouTube — a form of cit­i­zen doc­u­men­tary that wit­nesses would use over and over again to turn vi­o­lence by po­lice of­fi­cers vi­ral.

“Os­car is not just a dead young black man — his death am­pli­fied an in­ter­na­tional move­ment,” said BART board Di­rec­tor La­teefah Si­mon.

She heads the Akonadi Foun­da­tion, a so­cial jus­tice non­profit that of­fers grants to smaller or­ga­ni­za­tions. This year it pro­vided $15,000 to the Os­car Grant Foun­da­tion, which is run by Grant’s mother and un­cle.

Si­mon said she ran for BART’s board largely to be a voice for young peo­ple of color like Grant. She has par­tic­i­pated in the mu­ral dis­cus­sions that be­gan in 2016, when Raburn and for­mer Di­rec­tor Tom Radulovich pitched the idea of a Fruit­vale Sta­tion trib­ute. It fol­lowed a se­ries of ma­jor po­lice re­forms at BART, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of an in­de­pen­dent au­di­tor.

“BART wanted to honor the 10-year an­niver­sary of Os­car’s death,” said Jen­nifer Eas­ton, the tran­sit agency’s art pro­gram man­ager. “So we’re step­ping up and do­ing that, and it’s an im­por­tant ges­ture. I’ll leave it up to the pub­lic to de­cide what that means.”

She and other staff mem­bers are work­ing closely with Grant’s mother, Wanda John­son, to shep­herd the project along. They have met with the fam­ily pe­ri­od­i­cally, re­view­ing dif­fer­ent it­er­a­tions of the de­sign.

“I do think they have been pretty co­op­er­a­tive,” John­son said of the tran­sit of­fi­cials, though she noted the dif­fi­culty of us­ing art to help re­solve a painful past.

John­son would like to see her son rep­re­sented as a man and a fa­ther — Grant’s daugh­ter was 4 at the time of the shoot­ing — not a holy fig­ure.

At the same time, BART po­lice of­fi­cers are wary of be­ing ma­ligned. Po­lice union Pres­i­dent Keith Gar­cia asked that the image be “re­spect­ful and ap­pro­pri­ate,” and John­son said of­fi­cials dis­cour­aged her from lit­er­ally re­count­ing what hap­pened.

“They don’t want me telling the artist to draw a pic­ture of my son face­down, and an of­fi­cer with a gun,” she said.

Refa One said he is de­fer­ring to the fam­ily. He ex­pects the art­work to be con­tro­ver­sial even though BART com­mis­sioned it.

Grant has be­come a freighted sym­bol in Oak­land, en­shrined in po­etry, rap songs and graf­fiti art. When Oc­cupy pro­test­ers set up camp in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in 2011, they re­named the area Os­car Grant Plaza. And in 2013, Oak­land-born film­maker Ryan Coogler por­trayed Grant’s death in the film “Fruit­vale Sta­tion.”

Grant’s un­cle, Ce­phus John­son, sees the mu­ral as a form of atone­ment for BART. But he and Grant’s mother are adamant about chang­ing the name of the sta­tion. John­son also wants Grant’s name ap­pended to a small road­way that buses use.

Nam­ing the road­way would be a city de­ci­sion, said BART spokesman Jim Al­li­son. And rechris­ten­ing the sta­tion could be a long and costly process. Grant’s fam­ily would have to sub­mit a writ­ten re­quest, hold pub­lic meet­ings about the pro­posal, sub­mit to mul­ti­ple lay­ers of re­view by BART man­age­ment and pay an es­ti­mated fee of $479,000.

Ce­phus John­son was un­fazed. “At some point we’ll do all that,” he said. “We just have to get this mu­ral up first.”

Leah Mil­lis / The Chron­i­cle 2016

Wanda John­son wants her son Os­car Grant de­picted as a man and fa­ther.

Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Artist Se­nay Den­nis, who will paint the Os­car Grant mu­ral, stands in front of his mu­ral in West Oak­land that hon­ors Huey New­ton and the Black Pan­ther Party.

Yalonda M. James / The Chron­i­cle

Bon­nie John­son, Os­car Grant’s grand­mother, fea­tures art­work of Grant among the gallery of fam­ily pho­tos that adorns a wall in her Hay­ward home. The por­trayal of her grand­son in his trib­ute mu­ral is con­tro­ver­sial.

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