OAKLAND -- On Dec. 31, 2008, Jack Bryson warned his two sons and their friends not to spend New Year's Eve in San Francisco.
"I was worried about the police," Bryson said. "Call it a father's intuition."
When calls to his sons went unanswered in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Bryson knew something was wrong. At that moment, his sons, Nigel, 20, and Jackie, 23, were on the Fruitvale BART platform when then-BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed their childhood friend, Oscar Grant III, of Hayward.
"I was in complete shock when I found out," Bryson said. "My sons' mother called me, screaming that the police shot Oscar, the boys were in jail and I needed to do something. ... For a long time, I didn't believe it had happened and especially that it was filmed."
Cell phone videos of the graphic images were shown on the Internet and television.
Mehserle, who was charged with murder, was convicted July 8 of involuntary manslaughter. He faces up to 14 years in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 5.
Despite the conviction, public outrage has surged because many Grant supporters thought the involuntary manslaughter conviction was too lenient. They wanted to see Mehserle convicted of murder. (Second-degree murder was the highest conviction the former BART officer could have received.) Bryson's two sons could not be interviewed for this story because they both have pending civil litigation against BART.
In the nearly 22 months since the killing, Bryson has played a crucial role as the uneasy spokesman for the "New Year's Movement for Oscar Grant," which was formed by a group of supporters following Grant's death. Bryson has become the voice of Grant's family at community rallies, benefit concerts, film screenings and other functions to demand justice for the 22-year-old. He has been invited to attend meetings with Oakland police Chief Anthony Batts, as well as Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.
In July, Bryson addressed members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, along with Grant's uncle, Cephus Johnson. During that meeting, the union voted to honor Grant by shutting down all Bay Area ports this Saturday, said Jack Heyman, a longshoreman and member of the ILWU's executive board. A rally calling for justice for Grant is also planned that day at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland.
"Not in a million years did I think I would be in this position," Bryson said. "I used to read about (Black Panther Party co-founder) Huey P. Newton, Malcolm (X). I was always amazed at how they would stand up. If I could be anyone, I would like to be a leader -- that was just a thought after you read (about them in a book). I would have never thought it would come to this."
Bryson went out of his way to credit many in the local activist community for giving him advice and helping him to traverse the new, unfamiliar and uncomfortable terrain.
On a sunny, warm day at Oakland's Lake Merritt, far removed from the chaos of the night of Grant's death, Bryson reflected on what happened. First, though, he took a moment to notice children running around the park, enjoying life. The sound of an ice cream cart vendor grabbed their attention, and about a dozen kids ran to the cart. They giggled and pointed excitedly at what they wanted, and what they'd order if they had the money.
The 48-year-old Bryson was their hero this day. He walked to the cart, just as excited as the children, and bought a rainbow of ice cream flavors to pass down a line of grateful children. Parents stepped up to thank him and made sure the children did the same.
Bryson smiled, sat down on a park bench and stared at his ice cream. Children hold new meaning for him now.
He took a long pause and spoke, his soft voice filled with sorrow. He spoke about his frustration with what he considers an increase in the number of African-Americans killed by police. But it wasn't until Grant was killed that it really hit home and moved him to get involved.
Bryson sees the Mehserle trial in the context of the larger historical racial injustice.
"In the past, you could hang a black man from a tree and nothing would happen," he said. "Now, the same thing happened to Oscar Grant. It's the same mentality. It hasn't changed."
Bryson said he thinks what happened to Grant and the trauma experienced by his sons will go unheard.
"Why is it always a white officer killing a black or brown youth with the excuse that the victim was reaching for a gun or it was an accident? I'm not speaking badly about whites or police. I'm speaking badly about this racist system that's still in place."
Bryson said he believes good police officers need to stand up so these kinds of crimes don't reflect badly on all law enforcement.
The day after Grant was killed, Bryson attended a memorial service at the Hayward park where his sons and Grant played Little League.
"Seeing all those people crying for Oscar, I knew something had to be done; somebody needed to represent Oscar correctly," Bryson said. "My sons kept asking me, what are you going to do? As a parent I didn't know what to tell my sons."
Scared and worried, Bryson took it upon himself to contact civil rights attorney John Burris to encourage him to take the Grant family's case. Not only did Burris take on the civil case, he encouraged Bryson to reach out and tell the community who Grant was.
"I have great admiration for him," Burris said. "He has tried to do right by his kids and this whole event. He speaks from the heart."
Burris said Bryson has become somewhat of a folk hero for his activism. He invited Bryson to attend key meetings with Batts as the department prepared for the aftermath of the Mehserle verdict.
"He's trying to help his sons, and basically all young men," Burris said. "There has been a lot of positiveness about him over the past 1½ years I have known him. He has been there every day, more so than most."
Bryson said he's "meeting a lot of people getting the message out, but this is a day-by-day thing; there is no plan in place ... You don't just get up and say I'm an activist, you're forced into it. I'm not a leader. I just follow the sentiments of the people -- that's where the power is."
'It was preventable'
Before the shooting, Bryson said he had a normal life. He went to his job as a groundsman crew chief for the Oakland Housing Authority where he's worked for 10 years, walked the lake, spent time with his sons (Jackie lived with him at the time of the shooting) and hit the gym. A self-described loner, Bryson said his life is now filled with pain.
"I hurt everyday for what happened to all the boys on the platform that night. The only rewards I have come from the people who walk up and hug me and show concern for the battle I'm fighting."
Bryson's biggest fear as a father was that one day his sons would be victims of police abuse, that one day he might have to bury one of his sons. As a worried father, he always made it a point to meet his sons' friends and show up at parties and games.
"Oscar knew I was a worried father. He told me one night I didn't have to worry, all the boys would look out for each other."
Their bond grew after Grant became a father.
"I saw Oscar one night," Bryson said. "His daughter had just been born. He said having his daughter made him realize why I was such a worrier. ... He loved being a father."
Bryson said his sons have been traumatized. Jackie provided emotional testimony during Mehserle's trial. After the shooting, Bryson said his son told Grant, "Don't close your eyes, Oscar."
Bryson said his son had a panic attack on the platform watching Grant die.
"I feel angry as a parent that my son had to go through this. "... It was preventable."
Of his new activist role, Bryson said, "It was scary at first. But if you're doing the right thing, there's is nothing to fear. I'm not trying to be radical, but just trying to get justice for a young man."
Adimu Madyun is a West Oakland resident and member of the Oakland Tribune's Oakland Voices Community Correspondents program, run in partnership with the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and funded in part through a grant from the California Endowment. For more information about the program, visit www.oaklandvoices.us or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.