As Oscar Grant took the train from his Oakland home on New Year’s Eve in 2008 to celebrate in San Francisco’s Embarcadero neighborhood, he almost certainly did not consider the events of that night becoming the crux of violent protests, public art campaigns or feature films. But when a police officer named Johannes Mehserle shot and killed an unarmed Grant as he returned home by train early on New Year’s Day, his life suddenly took on new weight in the ongoing battle for social justice. Protests erupted. Debates raged. Mural after mural went up around Oakland in Grant’s memory.
And now, Grant, a young black man who was just a month from his 23rd birthday when he died, is the subject of a film called Fruitvale Station, named for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) terminal he was shot in. As part of the effort to raise awareness for the film and its depiction of inequity, another three, large-scale memorial murals have been commissioned to be done by artists known for their politically charged and publicly visible works of art: Lydia Emily, Ron English and LNY. The difficulty facing these often-dissident painters is balancing an honorific tone without losing any weight in the commentary of the mural. This is all while speaking to an expanded audience—unlike the numerous paintings of Grant that adorn Oakland, these new pieces will appear in San Francisco, Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
“The mural needs to speak to a neighborhood that needs to hear it,” Emily, who is painting her contribution on the wall of the Ian Ross Gallery in San Francisco, told Complex. “Oakland doesn’t need another Oscar grant mural. They have plenty. The idea of him being immortalized like this needs to spread outside of Oakland.”