As a proud Oakland resident, I have seen and participated in countless protests, including demonstrations organized by Occupy Oakland, as a result of the George Zimmerman verdict, and in solidarity with hunger strikers in state prisons. Each protest brought people to City Hall to resist the effects of crony capitalism, racial injustice, and California's failed prison system. As the historic home of the Black Panthers Movement, the Third World Liberation Front (the movement to establish the Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley), and the Free Speech Movement, the East Bay has a long, established legacy of anti-racist activism. But the unofficial renaming of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza to Oscar Grant Plaza, as some activists have done, does a disservice to this legacy and is misplaced.
Since the Occupy Oakland movement began in 2011, signs and banners emblazoned with "Oscar Grant Plaza" have increasingly appeared on the steps of City Hall and throughout the city, and it's not uncommon to hear the words "Oscar Grant Plaza" on KPFA. But this renaming movement fails to recognize the life and achievements of civil rights activist Frank Ogawa and the reasons why the City of Oakland decided to dedicate City Hall plaza in his honor. A second-generation Japanese American, Ogawa was interned for four years at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during World War II. Later, he was barred from living in an all-white neighborhood. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these experiences, Ogawa went on to become a political activist and the first Japanese American to ever serve on Oakland's city council. He held his seat for 28 years, the longest tenure in city history.
The attempts to rename Frank H. Ogawa Plaza to Oscar Grant Plaza are understandable. The killing of Grant by a BART police officer served as a national reminder of police brutality. Grant's death spurred countless protests across the Bay Area, an annual memorial to his life, and the recent critically acclaimed film Fruitvale Station.
However, in trying to illuminate how one community experiences race in America, the effort to rename Frank H. Ogawa Plaza fails to account for another. Critically, the change ignores how Grant and Ogawa's experiences are connected. Considering their lives together sheds light on racism, incarceration, and human rights in the specific context of Oakland. As the proud home of leftist — indeed, revolutionary — movements, Oakland must pay visible tribute to how different communities of color continue to endure and fight marginalization.
To honor the legacies of both Ogawa and Grant, it makes more sense to rename Fruitvale BART Station as Oscar Grant Station. This is not a new proposition. Former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said he supported the name change in an interview with Youth Radio's Pendarvis Harshaw. Harshaw, Jamon Dru, and Young Gully also produced a hip-hop tribute album named The Grant Station Project, which advocated for changing the station's name. Doing so would be more fitting for Grant's legacy and would not be difficult.
According to BART spokesman James Allison, the transit agency's board of directors makes final decisions on renaming stations per a 2005 policy. BART station names are based on ten key (mainly logistical) factors. These include brevity and overall helpfulness to the passenger. Currently, BART policy discourages naming stations after people living or deceased because, according to Allison, personal names have no geographical significance. However, he further explained that BART policy is flexible because the agency's directors are elected and thus accountable to their constituents.
The name Oscar Grant Station adheres to important BART stipulations — namely, that station names are distinct, have a historical basis, and have prominence in the area. To make the name "geographically significant" or descriptive, a hyphenated name could be employed, like Oscar Grant-Fruitvale Station. Admittedly, there's no precedent for this in the Bay Area, but the city of Oakland and its inhabitants have always been pioneering.
Oakland is one of the most diverse major cities in the country. With a population of nearly 400,000, its residents are 28 percent black, 25 percent Latino, 17 percent Asian, and 26 percent white. The city needs public landmarks and spaces that recognize and celebrate the varying backgrounds and contributions of these communities. Grant's death is seared in American history as a watershed moment. Re-naming Fruitvale BART Station Oscar Grant Station does not simply commemorate one man's death; it honors Oakland's historic and highly visible struggles and triumphs as one of America's battlegrounds for racial equality. Ogawa and Grant represent only two facets of our city's history, but dedicating public spaces to their memories creates a sense of ownership and shared experience.
Oakland consistently finds itself at the epicenter for national discussions about race, politics, and power. As its residents we must recognize this visibility as a part of our city's fabric and act accordingly. To date, BART officials have received no applications requesting Fruitvale BART Station be re-named Oscar Grant Station. I admit that officially recognizing Frank H. Ogawa and Oscar Grant in this way is just a simple gesture. It won't alleviate crime or close the gap between Oakland's poorest and its wealthiest. But doing so represents a step in the right direction. By naming our landmarks after symbols of racial injustice and marginalization, we pay tribute to our city, our history, and ourselves.