‘Oscar Grant Called Me Grandma’

On the fifth anniversary of Oscar Grant's murder at the hands of a Bay Area transit cop, his grandmother Bonnie Johnson opens up about her grandson, and how she honors his memory.

By Bonnie Johnson Jan 01, 2014

Oscar Grant’s grandmother, Bonnie Johnson, offered the following testimony to Colorlines in late December. Jan. 1, 2014, marks the fifth anniversry of Grant’s death.

Oscar called me grandma. And we didn’t have any nickname, I called him Oscar. He was a good grandson. He did a lot of things for me. We’re coming up on five years and it’s a bad time of year. This is a bad time of year because we’re close to the anniversary, and his mother Wanda’s birthday is on the 31st and it happened that very same night. They were here at the house just before they went to San Francisco. It’s a bad time for his mom, Wanda. It just comes back real quick, like no time at all has passed.

You can’t change what has happened. You have to accept it–you might as well. At my age–I’m 75–you don’t make yourself ill, I’ll say it like that. You might as well because when people worrying, that affects their blood pressure when you’re worrying about things you can’t do anything about.

That [BART police officer Johannes] Mehserle has a child of his own now too, and he said it was an accident. Only God above knows what it was. You understand what I mean? He knows. We don’t know. I wasn’t there. All I know was that at 2:30 that morning I turned on the TV and watched the news with my husband. We knew he had been shot, shot in the back. But we didn’t think it was going to be fatal. I was saying to myself, "Oh Oscar, why did you do it?" I was thinking he was doing something to get shot. You know how your mind do? But he was telling the guys, "Let’s take it easy. We going home tonight." This type of thing. But he was the one who didn’t go home that night.

Oscar was very smart. You didn’t have to tell him but one time how to do something and he was just that wise. He was real athletic and into football and basketball. He’d go fishing with his grandfather. Oscar’s grandfather taught him how to bait the hook, and how to fish, and believe it or not, Oscar caught the biggest fish almost all the time. He was close to his grandpa, and after Mr. Johnson had his stroke, Oscar would come in and mow the lawn and do this and that for me. He knew Papa was sick, and wasn’t able to do that. Oscar was allergic to grass but he still would put his mask on and mow the lawn. He was a child that was willing to help his grandparents. He’d come in and say, "Grandma got anything for me to do?" and I say, "Well I can’t think of nothin’."

He wasn’t an angel all his life but it never got back to me, because he did good things for me. He wasn’t the kind who came cursing. He didn’t do that around me. Oscar was raised up in the church so he knew the good part of life, and I’m thankful for that.

When I think about Oscar I look at the things he have done for me. He put the baseboards around the cabinet along the kitchen walls. I think about him because he’d be nailing away and doing whatever and he would take the time. He was never too busy. If he had something he really needed to do he’d say, "I’ll come back," and he’d always come back.

Oscar spent a lot of time in our house. He did have friends over and sometimes he’d go into the refrigerator and drink up all the juice. But that was how welcome he felt coming here. He knew he was welcome to everything here. It’s a busy house. I have 16 grandkids and 10 great-grandkids and it don’t do any good to get the carpet cleaned. Right here, you can tell someone was drinking something and wasted it here on the floor. But they don’t feel like they can’t touch anything when they come in here. We don’t say, "You can’t do this. You can’t touch that." I mean all this stuff is going to deteriorate anyway–break or whatever–and you replace it. But only the life is what you can’t replace. That was in my heart all the time.

For the last few years on New Year’s Day I have done nothing much. I stay here and take care of Mr. Johnson. The kids go on and visit the grave, different things like that. I say a prayer for them. And they go up to the grave on his birthday, and they had food up there the last time. They gather ’round.

A lot of times if my mind really gets to thinking, that’s when I go. They don’t know but I go up and visit Oscar’s gravesite. I drive up the hill and visit the grave. I just kind of think about his life. Usually when I go by myself I wonder. He would be 28, 29 right now and I wonder what he’d have been. Your mind wants to think, what he could have done. I know he would be working with his daughter Taty if he were here. I know that. I think about his life, if he could have just lived a little bit longer. But it wasn’t meant to be.

I got one or two of my family don’t like the movie ["Fruitvale Station"]. It’s a little bit too devastating. It’s a pretty teary movie, especially if you know the person. It was sad on people who didn’t know him. Michael Jordan did a beautiful job–the way he played the part was pretty close to the way Oscar was–especially driving the car. That lady who wanted to know how to cook the fish? That was real. Oscar called me and said, "This lady wants to cook some fish and she wants to know how you fix it." That was true.

I just pray for the people. If I passed by Mehserle I probably wouldn’t even know who he is. It was an accident, he said. Only God knows and He’s the one to judge him. I can’t judge him in this life because what’s gonna be, gonna be. I want other people to remember that this happened for a reason–to show others that you don’t have to be doing things wrong to get killed.

But you can in life do the right things, and if something happens to you, and other people know that you did what you was supposed to do, then there is consequences from whatever law and your own personal God. He knows all about it.

As told to Julianne Hing