Oakland Father Reflects On 'Fruitvale Station'

Jul 25, 2013
Originally published on July 25, 2013 1:08 pm

Jack Bryson’s two sons were on the train platform on New Year’s Day in 2009 when Oscar Grant III was shot by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calif.

A lot of people are getting educated about what happened, but to these young men it’s like a nightmare all over again.
–Jack Bryson

That act, captured on videos by BART riders, sparked outrage around the country and spurred first-time director Ryan Coogler to make the feature film “Fruitvale Station.”

It also motivated Bryson to become a spokesman on behalf of the “New Year’s Movement for Oscar Grant,” as well as a community activist.

It’s hard for Bryson’s sons, who were childhood friends of Oscar Grant, to watch the movie.

“A lot of people are getting educated about what happened, but to these young men it’s like a nightmare all over again,” Bryson told Here & Now. “My younger son he goes to watch its like he gets to see Oscar again, that’s how close it is to him. It’s like he gets to spend the day with Oscar.”

Bryson has seen the movie four times.

“I go to keep an eye on my sons and then some of the young men that were on the platform with them too. You can’t forget about Michael Greer, Carlos Reyes, Johntue Caldwell, Chris, Sofina, Jameel and Mario — all the people that were with Oscar Grant that night. I go, just as a father. Making sure they’re cool emotionally, because each time they break down.”

He has mixed feelings on whether justice was served after Oscar Grant was killed.

“Most police officers that kill black or brown young men, after they’re found not guilty or found that the reason they killed them was reasonable, then they go back into the community and the family has to see that police officer every day,” he said. “In this case, Johannes Mehserle did not get his job back, and he did do some jail time. On the other hand, if you have a video and it shows that it’s flat out murder, then he deserved murder.”

Of Bryson’s many fond memories of Oscar Grant, one stands out. After Grant had his own child, he told Bryson he finally understood something.

“He said ‘Man I see what you were doing. You want to protect your child.’ And that touched me, that touched me. You said he wasn’t a saint, but he was to me, he was, and he was a good dude. It’s hard to look — I mean I see Oscar’s mother, we’re cool, she’s very nice to me. But how can you look at a mother when your sons and the other young men were there and her son was the one that didn’t make it, and our sons made it home? You live with that guilt too.”


  • Jack Bryson, community activist in Oakland, Calif. whose two sons were with Oscar Grant III when he was shot.
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Well, a story now about a young black man tragically shot and killed. It's not Trayvon Martin, it's Oscar Grant III. It's a story difficult to hear and very familiar to listeners in the San Francisco area, but if you haven't heard it, early New Year's Day 2009, Oscar and friends were on a BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit train, going home to Oakland, when he got into a fight with a white acquaintance.

Someone called 911. When the train pulled into the Fruitvale Station, waiting transit police pulled the black young men off the train, sat them against a wall. The young men and the watching crowd voice protest, take cell phone videos. Two transit police officers tackle Oscar to cuff him when one suddenly pulls out his gun and shoots Oscar Grant III to death.


YOUNG: The cell phone videos launched riots, prompted first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler to make the new feature film "Fruitvale Station," and propelled our next guest to become an activist. Jack Bryson's sons were with their friend Oscar Grant on the BART platform when he was shot. Afterwards they asked their dad: What are you going to do about this?

Well, he became the spokesman for the New Year's Movement for Oscar Grant. He joins us from KQED in San Francisco. And I want to start, Jack, with an apology because I'm imagining that was difficult to hear.

JACK BRYSON: Oh, yeah, but it has to be told.

YOUNG: Yeah, well, as hard as the video is, what was it like to see the film, which reenacts that scene?

BRYSON: It's mixed emotions. You know, me and my son were talking, Jackie, it was hard for him to watch the movie, and when he watched it, I went outside, and he had left the movies because he said all it did was open it back up for him. And he had like an anxiety attack while the movie was starting. So he walked outside.

His T-shirt was wet. He was kind of shaken. And what he was saying is like, you know, a lot of people are enjoying the movie, which is cool, a lot of people are getting educated about what happened, but to these young men and to the families, it's like a nightmare all over again.

My younger son, he goes to watch it, it's like he gets to, like, see Oscar again, that's how close it is to him. It's like he gets to spend the day with Oscar, watching him in the movie. But it's also hard for him to watch. But it's like Oscar came back for a day.

YOUNG: Well, and your sons can't speak because they have an ongoing lawsuit against BART, it's still in court. Yeah.


YOUNG: Have you and they seen it more than once?

BRYSON: My youngest son, Nigel, he's seen it like three times, four times. I've watched it four times, yeah.

YOUNG: But why would you see this four times? The film is far more about the life of Oscar Grant III than his death. But you know it's coming. I...

BRYSON: Right. I go to keep an eye on my son and then some of the young men that were on the platform with them too. You can't forget about Michael Greer, Carlos Reyes, Johntue Caldwell, Chris, Sofina and Jameel and Mario, all the people that were with Oscar Grant that night. I go just as a father, making sure they're cool emotionally, you know, because each time they all break down.

YOUNG: For those who haven't followed the story, there's no question in the shooting of Oscar Grant III that the shooter was at fault. The BART officer said he pulled his gun instead of his taser. Johannes Mehserle was tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He served less than a year. But he was convicted. Is that justice for Oscar for you?

BRYSON: No and yes. Most police officers that kill young black or brown young men, after they're found not guilty or found that the reason they killed them was reasonable, then they go back into the community, and the family has to see this police officer every day. In this case, Johannes Mehserle didn't get his job back, and he did do some jail time. But then again, on the other hand, if you have a video and it shows that it's flat-out murder, then he deserved murder.

He pulled his taser out because my son Jackie was asking him what are were being detained for. And he pulled his taser out the first time and told my son to shut up. Then he put his taser back. So when he put his taser back, he seen Oscar filming him, he took his taser back out again, and he told Oscar to put the phone away. So that's twice that he pulled his taser out.

YOUNG: So bottom line, you don't buy his defense it was an accident that he took the gun instead of the taser.

BRYSON: No, because he took his taser out twice.

YOUNG: Well, I'm wondering if something else gives you some solace. "CBS Sunday Morning" talked to Kenton Rainey. This is the chief of the BART police. He took over after the shooting, so he's new. He not only allowed this young filmmaker to make "Fruitvale Station" in the actual station, he took members of his command staff to watch the film. Let's listen to why he did this.

KENTON RAINEY: It's important for us to understand what we're doing and so that another incident like this never happens again.

YOUNG: Does - is that some solace for you that there might be change?

BRYSON: Yeah, at first I was mad at, you know, every police officer, but then I would be places, I didn't know these young men that would walk up to me, and they would say, man, you're doing a good job out there. And I was like, wow, who are you? And there's a lot of these people I was saying who are you to that were telling me to keep doing what I'm doing - were police officers. They said that they felt bad, and that shouldn't have happened to Oscar Grant.

YOUNG: That's Jack Bryson, a former janitor, Oakland Housing Authority employee, now a fulltime activist after his son's friend, Oscar Grant, was killed by transit police in Oakland, California. We'll take a break and then ask him more about his thoughts on policing black communities.


Meanwhile, another story we're following. North Carolina once had some of the most aggressive eugenics laws in the country. Now it is the first state to compensate the thousands of men, women and children it once forcibly sterilized. That story later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. This is HERE AND NOW.




UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) I'm scared.

MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) scared of what?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) I hear guns outside.

JORDAN: (As Oscar) You know what, baby? That was just firecrackers.

YOUNG: A scene from the new feature film "Fruitvale Station," depicting Oscar Grant III and his toddler daughter. Hours later he would be shot dead by a San Francisco BART or Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman. We're looking at that film through the eyes of Jack Bryson, the father of two friends of the real-life Oscar Grant. They were on the train platform with him.

In the criminal trial, the white policeman said he pulled his gun instead of his taser on the black youth. He served less than a year for involuntary manslaughter. And he has supporters who say the police were called to that station by a 911 call. They thought they were protecting people. People also point to black-on-black violence, and one of Oscar's friends, Johntue Caldwell, who's in the film, he's depicted at a fish counter and was also on that platform when Oscar was killed in 2009, was also shot and killed by an unknown assailant two years later.

And now there are civil suits. Oscar Grant's daughter, Tatiana, now seven, already received a $1.5 million settlement from BART. Jack Bryson's sons and others have filed a civil rights lawsuit. So Jack, help us with this because BART police are now asking an appeals court for immunity from that suit. But you point to the original judge, who oversaw the criminal case. How so?

BRYSON: BART police officers feel that they should have immunity, and the federal judge is saying they had no right to beat and then kill and verbally abuse these young men and that these young men, whatever they did, at that point they had the right to stand up and protect themselves. They were being violated against. They were the ones that was - violence was committed on them.

YOUNG: You know, President Obama spoke so passionately about this last week, this sense of, you know, trying to explain to white America what fathers like yourself might fear. What would you say?

BRYSON: It's cool that he spoke about Trayvon Martin. That's a step. But it would be even better if he would stand up and speak about what happened to Oscar Grant, what happened to Sean Bell, what happened to Ramarley Graham, what happened to Alan Blueford, because I believe since last year, in one year, the numbers were 393 mostly black and brown, mostly black young men were killed by police officers in one year, 393.

There was no immediate coverage of that, and it's not even spoken about. And I believe white America gets what happened to Trayvon, but I think they'll even get it more if we start addressing the police brutality.

YOUNG: Well, and you know what defenders of the police would say, and we - again, we rush to say the chief of the BART police says this is a mistake and something has to change, and you're speaking with policemen who agree with you that something has to change, there's that. But what do you say to people who say that these policemen might see themselves as responding to a call about violence?

Everyone always cites the amount of black-on-black violence.

BRYSON: I mean I get it. I understand that. I understand we do have black-on-black violence, and we do have to address that in our communities. But what also I get and I understand is that a lot of these police officers that work in Oakland don't live in Oakland. And most of these, not most, but some of these police officers are taught to hate these communities.

And when they're taught to hate, and now you're giving them a gun and a badge and asking them to be police officers in the communities that they've been taught to hate, it's not going to work. I've spoken to some black police officers, and they said if they were on that platform, that wouldn't have never happened.

YOUNG: Well, what about people who say Oscar wasn't a saint? He's shown in the film as a maturing father, but before that he served time for drug charges. There's a powerful scene when his mother Wanda gives him some tough love, you know, walks away from him in prison. But he had a history.

BRYSON: Everyone says he wasn't a saint, OK. I'm 51years old. I didn't get my life together until I was in my late 30s. You know, I wasn't a saint either. In the last 20 years I was able to change my life around. I did the same thing Oscar Grant did, but it has made me a better man because I've learned from it, and I'm a better father because of my experiences.

And Oscar was on his way to become a better father, a better member of his community, better son and a better friend. And that scene you're talking about is a hard scene for me because the day he was released, I'd seen Oscar that same day he was released. He was standing there with my sons and all them and, you know, gave him a hug and shook his hand.

And so when I watch that scene in the movie, that's kind of hard because I remember seeing him the day he came home.

YOUNG: And is your point that he did make it?

BRYSON: Uh-huh. Yeah, and Oscar loved his mother dearly. Like my son was saying, when they'd be in a car, Wanda would call on a cell phone. He would tell everyone in the car, man , be quiet, this my mom. He would turn down the music. He would have everyone be quiet in the car, and he was like - showed her nothing but respect.

YOUNG: And what did he tell you after he had his own child about you and being a dad?

BRYSON: He understood because I used to like - I don't want my - I didn't want my sons making the same mistakes that I made. I didn't want to lose my sons. And I didn't want to lose any of those young men. And I never want to see any mother or father lose their child. And that's what I was trying to do. I was running around trying to protect my sons.

That's how I met him. You know, like when he had a child, he, you know, he told me he understood. He said, man, you know, I see what you were doing. You know, you want to protect your child. You know what I mean? And that touched me, you know, that touched me.

You said he wasn't a saint, but he was - to me he was, and he was a good dude. It's hard to look - I mean I see Oscar's mother, we're cool, she's very nice to me. But how can you look at a mother when your sons and the other young men were there, and her son was the one that didn't make it, and our sons made it home? You know, you live with that kind of guilt too.

You know, and one thing I don't like is when people come up to me and say, oh, I'm sorry about what happened, man, but I'm glad it wasn't your son or something crazy like that. People say some - I mean I know their intentions aren't to say anything bad, but you know, losing any young man or any daughter or anyone is not good, and I do live with that guilt, you know, that I can go see my sons, I can go pick them up, I can go to a barbecue with them. Wanda doesn't have that opportunity anymore.

And it's hard. You get teary-eyed. You know, it's been a great four years organizing, but then again it's been four years of a nightmare that(ph) everything that comes with this too. I wouldn't wish this on any family in the world.

YOUNG: Well, Jack...

BRYSON: You know, this is - when talk about it, you can't help but break down. You try not to break down, but you know. The movie tells it all. But Wanda, Tatiana, Sofina and these young men that were there with him, you know, their lives will never, never, ever be the same. None of our lives, and our community (unintelligible).

YOUNG: Well, thank you for talking with us about it.

BRYSON: Thank you.

YOUNG: Jack Bryson, his two sons were with Oscar Grant when he was shot and killed by a transit policeman in 2009. The film "Fruitvale Station" will be released wide this Friday. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.