Wanda Johnson and Sophina Mesa
It was 10 a.m. last week when I left Berkeley for Hayward to meet Oscar Grant’s family. Cephus Johnson, Oscar’s uncle, had invited me to his mother’s house where I could observe the Channel 2 TV crew that was making a show about the family.
As I hit the freeway, I reviewed my hypothesis. There was something about the trial that I could never figure out. On the night of Jan. 1, 2009, why had the Bart police acted so sadistic and brutally when the cause was only an argument between a bunch of inebriated celebrants?
That night, as the train arrived and left the Fruitvale station, 10 or more witnesses gave testimony to the court that they who could not believe their eyes. One of them, Alika Rogers, who was on the train near the window, saw him - “a military sergeant, like a crew cut, big, drill sergeant kind of guy” - get on the train, yelling, “Get off the train, Motherf-----!” She saw him “grab a gentleman with dreadlock by the neck and push him towards the concrete wall.”
Horrified passengers could not believe the way the police were yelling at the black men. What must have happened? What could have trigger than amount of rage?
Reading through the court documents, I was struck by the unanimity of witnesses’ report: Everybody was shocked at the language, at the blows that the policemen gave the black men, at the sadistic commands like in a movie about Nazi storm troopers.
What about the rumor that the black men were singing a Little Wayne (the popular hip-hop artist), song, “Mrs. Officer.” Did this cause Pirone to see red? How could these young men know that the Pirone (allegedly) was having a sexual relationship with Officer Marysol Domenici?
The trip from Berkeley to Hayward is supposed to take me 36 minutes, but it ended up taking an hour and a half due to my misreading the IPhone directions, highway construction and the fact that it is a long way out.
As I drove down Tennyson Street, I suddenly got it. It is suburban. The streets are wide; the houses are spread out and flattened against a grey-blue sky sprinkled with clouds.
I found a parking space easily. Passing across the yard, I found the side door opened and knocked. Nobody answered so I walked into the kitchen. Then, I saw camera lights in the den. The spotlight was on a middle-age black woman, Oscar’s mother Wanda, who was seated on a sofa, being interview.
Not in the spotlight, seated on an adjacent sofa were Cephus, and his younger brother, Daryl. I turned back into the kitchen and met face to face to the matriarch of the family, Mrs. Johnson.
“Hello,” she greeted me with a large warm smile. Standing next to her was Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina Mesa. When there was a break in the shooting, we were allowed to use our normal voices again. I looked around at the large kitchen and the even larger den.
“Oh, this is a well lived in house,” she chuckled. “I been here 40 some years,” adding that it was hard for her to believe it herself.
She said she came from Alabama during the 1970s with her husband, who is now an invalid. She pointed to his empty wheel chair. At first, she said, they tried to make it in New York City, but finally ended up in Hayward.
“I raised all of my children here and my grand children and now my great grandchildren.” She had raised so many grandchildren and great grandchildren that she had lost count and, now, turned to Sophina, for help. Sophina said she had five great grand children. Her own daughter, Tatiana, 6, Oscar’s daughter, belonged to that group.
Some of her grandchildren, she said, would rather be with her than live by themselves. “I got a grandson here now. He works for Fed Ex, who stays with us.”
I looked around the walls of the den. “It was half the size they took the wall out and move it all the way back,” Mrs. Johnson said, “and made it larger in here so our could drive a car in it.”
There were rows of 5x7 pictures of young men in army uniforms. (All of her brothers and sons were in the military. For a long time, one of her brothers was the highest-ranking officer in the American army, she said.)
Then came a row of young men and women in caps and gowns- this was followed by another row of young men holding baseball bats and then another row of young men holding foot balls. There were pictures of young Cephus Johnson as a wrestler and track star. There were pictures of Oscar with his baseball trophies. There was a separate row of pictures of Wanda as a minister, as a teacher and as a mother with her only son.
I was very impressed. “To be in this family, you had to have a cap and gown!” I said.
She laughed again.
“Yes, that’s right. Everybody had to go to school. Oh, yeah, they have to go to school around here.” She pointed out that her daughter, Wanda, who was being interviewed, still tutored Oscar’s sister’s boy.
I asked Sophina how she became a part of the family, how did she know Oscar.
She smiled gracefully. “In school.” When Oscar was 16 and she was 18, they met. Mrs. Johnson explained that the high school was not very far away, and that Oscar stayed with her then. She described how Oscar when he came here in her house, he would just plop down.
I asked Sophina if she was on the train with Oscar that night or was she waiting downstairs to pick him up. “I was on the train,” she said.
Mrs. Johnson knew the story well. “Oscar sent her downstairs and stay there and wait for him.” “He sent her away from the problem,” Mrs. Johnson added.
“What was going on upstairs?”
Sophina gave me a look. “They [they police] were grabbing people …”
“What started it? Did they ever know?”
Mrs. Johnson said, “It was suppose to be a fight on the BART train.”
According to court documents, the train coming into Fruitvale station was packed when a fight or an argument broke out. A white man involved in the dispute or his wife pulled the emergency cord that contacted the operator, who called the police.
As the train came into the station, BART policeman Tony Pirone grabbed four men from the train and forced them to sit against a wall. He asked his partner Marysol Domenic to guard them. Other policemen, Officer Johannes Mehserle and his partner, joined them. Pirone ordered Mehserle to arrest Oscar and his friend. When Mehserle attempted to arrest Oscar Grant, he ended up killing him.
“It [the fight on the train] was like this,” Mrs. Johnson said, making a tight fist. “It couldn’t much of a fight because they wouldn’t have no room.”
“Sometimes I think they call arguments fights,” Mrs. Johnson said, referring to a widely uniformed attitude whites have to blacks in a crowd. “The policeman was already arresting a black kid.”
Mrs. Johnson said that Sophina gets sad every time she visits her home now. She remembers how Oscar would come here and plop down. She hates coming here and seeing the pictures.
There was another break and Cephus came into the room with TV reporter Claudine Wong and introduced me. Wong told me that they wanted to show the impact of the incident had on the family. She warned the family that Rita Williams was going to do a special on Mehserle that was going to air around the same time that her show on the family will air, which was Wednesday at 10.
Before the TV crew got back to work, I joined a conversation between and Cephus and Sis Beatrice X , who is a friend of the Johnson’s family. Sis Beatrice X serves as a coordinator; she has a beautiful voice and sang a song at the Oct. 23, rally for Oscar Grant. I asked her and Cephus how did this whole thing start.
She and Cephus narrated for me what happened. “The train, packed like sardines,” Sis Beatrice X said. Among the people who were squashed together that night on the train was a white couple.
“This white lady identified in the court records as a pulled the emergency cord that goes directly to the train operator. She tells the train operator that the Mexicans and blacks are fighting. He asked, ‘Anybody hurt?’ ‘No.’ Can you identify them?’ ‘No.’ Did they have Dreads?’ ‘Baldheaded?’ Couldn’t tell. All he could remember was that a lot of fists were flying. The only persons he could identity were himself and Oscar.”
There was no gang, Cephus concluded. Nobody was hurt, nobody was robbed.
“What about the song that they were suppose to be singing?” It had been rumored that Pirone was romantically linked to his partner Domenici. And that it was the boys singing the song that ticked him off.
The double character of Mehserle and Pirone
After some relaxing with small talk, the Channel 2 TV crew went back to work. Cephus was place on the sofa behind the glaring of the stoplight and Wong asked him his first question.
“Is there any chance he was sorry, but didn’t know how to express it?”
“If he hit his wife, he would say he was sorry,” Cephus answered. “So he knows how to say he’s sorry. What he displayed on that platform was a lack of conscience."
“Some people might say here was a guy who was surprised?”
“The part that the public didn’t see was. If you put it in the context you will see a different person.”
Cephus’ s drew an image of Mehserle that reveals a double character. The image that Mehserle gave of himself was a big, innocent, “gentle giant.” But the image that Cephus paints of him is that of a malicious man, who easily looses his temper when he is encountering African-American youth.
“He beat up a Hispanic girl when he was in high school,” Cephus recalled, as he glared into the studio light. “He had an altercation with an African-American man in his first year on the force. He had an altercation with another African man in his second year on the force. And in his third year, he did the same thing. Forty-five days before he shot Oscar, he had beat up an African-American male, who is suing him right now.
“On the night of the murder, he was in West Oakland, minutes before he was called to the Fruitvale BART station, he was chasing an Africa American male, who jumped off a rail and incapacitated himself, who suppose to have had a gun (sic). So he had four incidents with African American males with guns. Then he gets the call, that Mexicans and blacks are fighting on the BART, possibly with a gun involved. With these prior experiences, it shows the state of mind he was in. He came up, he got a chaotic situation that his mentor had created.”
“Would it have been different if it Oscar had not been killed?”
“If he had not killed Oscar ... their world has been nothing.”
At the wrap up, Wong wanted to sere the gravesite where Oscar was buried. She was told how Oscar’s friends go to the site and mourn their loss. We drove to the gravesite and the crew took shots of Cephus kneeling over his nephew’s grave.
I drove back to Berkeley. The next night, I watched the TV 2 newscast and saw the show. It began with Cephus kneeling over the gravesite and then cut to their interview with Wanda on the sofa. It reencountered her loss for a good portion of the entire segment. When it came to Cephus' interview there was nothing in it about the racial encounters that Mehserle had with at least three African-American males, nothing about his chasing a black boy down with his gun minutes before he arrived on the scene at the Fruitvale station - and nothing of course about the sexual relationship between Tony Pirone and Domenici, and how a song could have stirred his sexual envy.
I called Cephus on the phone asked him who he felt about the show. He was disappointed that they edited his portrait of Mehserle out of the show entirely. Judge Parry didn’t want to let this information into the record. The policeman’s background as somebody who loses his temper was suppressed.
“But I bring it up everywhere I give a talk,” Cephus said. I had been at Chabot College with him and he gave a precise sequence of Mehserle's conduct in the past. “I’m upset that they used our show to advertise Rita Williams’ hour long interview with Mehserle, too.”
At the end of the Oscar Grant segment, KTVU attached an enactment that the next segment of the Williams interview will be shown. While 3 1\2 minutes long, the Mehserle interview was presented in several parts; the Oscar Grant segment was presented one day, the Mehserle interview was presented over several days.
“The press helped to minimize the sentence that Mehserle will get,” Cephus concluded.
Over the next two days, Channel 2 audience heard that Mehserle had simply made a mistake. Nothing about his state of mind before the incident that would indicate he lost his temper that night, and that reportedly Pirone yelled “bitch n-----,” encouraging Mehserle to kill encouraged him. This is similar to the slave courts during American slavery.
Ariela Gross’s book "Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Court House" shows parallels with the Oscar Grant case. According to the racist slave doctrine, Gross reports, African American enslaved people who ran away from the slave plantation were supposed to e suffering from a disease called drapetomania, or the "disease that causes Negroes to run away.”
The defense tried to get Mehserle off by declaring that Oscar Grant suffered from a “character trait” for running away from the police, and that this disease was superficially target to his not allowing his hands to be cuffed.
That the Mehserle’s defense team would use such a racist language and logic shows how they would work with the media to construct a view of Mehserle that does not reveal the double character of the defense Mehserle. Cephus believes that even if the verdict goes againt Oscar, there is plenty work to be done.
“The battle begins then,” he told Wong. He said the would go after Pirone. “Here is a man who used racial epithets. Who was dating a woman on his job?”
He said that it was sad that Pirone is now stationed in Afganistan.
“The way he conducted himself ... we allowed him to go to the military. He is accessory to the murder.”
Finally, Johnson said he wanted to thank the community for coming together for his nephew.
“My last thought had it not been the county coming together - had it not been for the community voice bounding together” to help fight police brutality, nothing would have been done."