Social media post by BART director prompts outcry from Oscar Grant’s family

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BART’s plan to memorialize a man who was shot dead by one of the transit agency’s police officers led to a taut confrontation Thursday, when the man’s mother demanded the resignation of a board director who had questioned the project on Facebook.

The post by board Director Debora Allen asked whether BART should commission a mural to honor 22-year-old Oscar Grant at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station, below the platform where he was killed 10 years ago. Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, has called the proposed artwork a first step toward atonement — she and other family members also want to rename the station and a small bus roadway after Grant.

Noting that neither idea had appeared on a board meeting agenda, Allen put both of them before her Facebook followers on Sunday.

“Should BART ever memorialize or name stations after individuals? Your thoughts?” she asked.

Allen said she intended to spark a dialogue on public policy and that she was surprised by the stream of racially charged comments that her post incited. She deleted it on Tuesday, which wasn’t enough for Johnson.

“I am totally offended, Ms. Allen,” the bereaved mother said at Thursday’s BART board meeting. “I think you did this for your own motive to divide communities further — for racial motives.”

Johnson called for Allen to step down and vowed to show up at every subsequent board meeting until it happened.

At the same time, Grant’s family is ramping up its request for the station renaming. On Thursday the slain man’s uncle Cephus Johnson made it official by submitting an application. He also called for a plaque to be installed on the platform.

“Oscar Grant has positively impacted the lives of a nation and the world,” Johnson wrote in his application cover letter, referring to the immense impact of the shooting. It happened in front of a crowded train where bystanders captured the violence on cell phones and posted it to YouTube — a documentary method that witnesses would use over and over again to expose killings by police officers.

Yet the debate on Thursday veered away from the artwork and the other efforts to commemorate Grant. Instead, directors focused on the appropriateness of tackling the subject on social media. Several speakers who’d come to support Grant’s family had sharp rebukes for Allen.

“There’s no need to poll a question on Facebook when there’s a family that could have been talked to,” said Keith Muhammad, a minister with the Nation of Islam. He called the Facebook post a dog whistle.

Allen apologized for “the outcome” of the Facebook query, but not for the post itself.

“I often ask questions of my followers and of the public,” Allen said. “My intent was to talk about policy, and there was no hidden motive to divide people.”

Tension surrounding the mural has created rifts among BART directors, who have not publicly discussed the artwork, nor approved it. The reason is procedural, according to art program manager Jennifer Easton. At $30,000, the artist’s contract is worth far less than BART’s $150,000 threshold for a board vote.

But behind the scenes, board members appear divided. Director Lateefah Simon said she supports both the mural and the station rechristening, or anything else that Johnson wants to do to eulogize her son.

“This (killing) is a scar on the district forever and ever and ever,” Simon said. “We’ve spent 10 years trying to heal what is unhealable, this malignant wound in BART’s history.”

Some of her colleagues were more guarded. Director John McPartland agreed the agency should somehow celebrate Grant, but said that any emblem needs to be vetted and made socially acceptable.

Several board members distanced themselves from Allen’s Facebook comments. Simon seemed particularly frustrated, fearing the Facebook post would unravel BART’s ongoing dialogue with Grant’s family — which the agency’s staff had approached “with feather-like grace,” she said.

Now “we’re seen as a body that’s inflicting more pain on this family as they try to deal with the death of their son,” she said.

That notion seemed to trouble Director Bevan Dufty. He chastened Allen and apologized on behalf of the entire transit agency.

“To ask this question begged a terrible thing,” he said.

Other board members sat silently and stiffly in their chairs. Director Thomas Blalock finally softened the atmosphere with another apology that Allen’s query “ended up the way it did.”

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @rachelswan

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