Interview with Oscar Grant Muralist Desi

Posted Jan 16 2009

The community response to the Oscar Grant shooting continues to impact all of us in Oakland, including a lead article in yesterday’s Oakland Tribune said that two of our students were arrested for graffiti. This actually ended up not being true, although two artists were questioned by the police. One of these artists, Desi, actually teaches in our after school program at Unity High. In a nutshell, they were painting a mural in honor of Grant, with permission from the owners of the building, and were harassed by the police. At some point, one reporter did interview students from our school, but later, as one of the adult artists was cuffed by police (but was released) another reporter was on site. Apparently, once the reporters got together they got their information mixed up. Desi and I briefly sat down the next day to discuss what happened and his views on the shooting, including if the BART train system should have police. Ironically, as I transcribe this interview I’m on the BART, delayed at the Coliseum station (one after Fruitvale, where Grant was shot) as a fight/attempted robbery just took place and our train operator is on the platform handling the situation. Apparently he’s the only BART employee at this station. (Please not that this is a bit rough as I’m in transit for an out of town trip but wanted to get it up before another week passed. I will add more pics and refine as time permits)

Desi-I was approached to do the mural by CAPE (Citizens Against Police Executions), the organizers of the (January 14th) protest. I painted the names on the coffin, the day before the protest. I was originally supposed to do a canvas and do it live during the march, but there was nowhere to hang it. We were driving around, looking for a place, and saw this store owner putting up some boards. We thought this would be the perfect place. We approached the owners and they were with it. I went and got some paint and called up one of my partners. He came later. The owners were really cool. I think part of their agreement was out of fear, to protect their businesses. But I heard they already dumped it. I haven’t been back yet, but I heard the wood was already on the side of the street, with a sign that said “free wood.” If I had a truck I would go and get it. I feel like once the protests were over they just took it down as it served its purpose for them. The truth is, the picture wasn’t that great…it was a bit rushed.

Part of me is pissed at them. This is a consumer driven culture. They want us to support their businesses by consuming more goods. They can go consume new windows. We have a four-year old girl who wants her daddy! But I felt that at least some of them agreed out of genuine support.

I have a comrade from Mexico in town and she was singing a lot of traditional songs that gave me a lot of strength. My partner showed up and started painting across the street. His said “No Justice, No Peace.” That’s when the first two cops showed up, asking us questions and for ID. We told them that we had permission, but by then the store owners had left. We told them to contact their supervising officer as they knew the situation. We had supplied all of the addresses of where we were painting to the organizers, who provided them to the police. These officers should’ve known we had permission to alleviate these types of tensions.

I was wearing a rag over my face because of the fumes and they told me that was illegal. I’ve never heard of that law before. Either that was a blatant lie or it’s selectively enforced. They called in the situation and the permission was verified.

The problem is how they assert their authority. They push their authority by using force to hold onto control, to hold on to their small semblance of power. I really felt disrespected by the way they approached us. After the call they took pictures of me and I put my rag over my face and gave them the finger. I’m not trying to be a punk and provoke the cops, but I wanted to let them know how I felt.

Some women started giving me the business about giving the cops the finger. They were right. We need to make cops integrated into the community. That divide is what allows this to happen. They need to know the community. If the officer knew Oscar or his mother, would’ve this happened? I don’t think so. We need partnerships and collaborations, yet people don’t trust cops, and for a good reason. We need cops to enforce the community’s ideals, not those of the corrupt government. We’re seeing the end of the American Empire. People are tired of it. The Earth is tired of it. The structure is changing and it’s beyond our control.

We’re trying to find ways to express ourselves. It’s like the Truth Commissions in South Africa. People just got to scream and it was OK. So what if stuff got broke? People need to be heard. We’re letting all of that anger and frustration out. Parents have been screaming for help. Back to the stores and my earlier comments, we have to aim our anger toward the right people, not small businesses. We need to aim it toward the D.A., the police, etc. if you got stung bay a scorpion, why would you go smack a bee?

This is people’s pain coming out and sometimes the screams hurt us. Ultimately, I believe that the true change will come through peaceful means. The revolution is in the classroom, in the garden, it’s in the people. That’s a reason I felt it was important to come in today and be honest with the youth about what I did and my thoughts, as well as what the women said to me. We have to learn. Men need to learn from women. A lot of times women are checking us and we don’t acknowledge who righted us. We have to acknowledge female leaders like Dereca (Blackmon), Jumoke (Hodge) and Jennifer Johns. A lot of times men don’t step up, and even when we do, women aren’t often treated as equal partners. We need to have balance.


1. The Galley said at January 17, 2009 8:27 pm:

Unfortunate, the whole BART situation. I don't even know what to say on that - the struggle continues I guess. A nice interview though, inspiring in its own way. I esp. liked when he touched on the women. Props.

2. hopes4 said at January 24, 2009 5:57 pm:

this is a very good article because I was there when DESI was getting down and you can tell that the cops wanted to mess with us sense every time a cop car would pass they would stop and they would try to mean mug us but my guess of why they didn't do nothing to us at that moment was because allot of people were there to see the art and to support us but either way we are finally revealing against the system and maybe one day will make a new revolution

3. Daniel said at January 25, 2009 10:47 pm:

Thanks for the comment. People need to hear from people like you, who are involved directly on the front lines. Murals like this are part of the change, as is you graduating!

4. Daniel said at January 25, 2009 11:11 pm:

Galley, I agree 100% with DESI addressing some gender issues. It's always good when men own up to some of our baggage in this arena!

Add your own comments