Angel Oscar Grant,” Thomas Hawk

December 11, 2018; The Root

Should public places be transformed into memorials to help reclaim community in the wake of tragedies? That’s the issue at the heart of a petition by the family of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man fatally shot nearly 10 years ago by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer. The young man was shot at BART’s Fruitvale station in Oakland, California, and with the anniversary of his death approaching, Grant’s family is asking BART and the city to memorialize the crime by naming the building as well as a side street after him.

BART already has commissioned a $30,000 mural for the west exterior wall by the bus stop, below the platform where Grant was shot in the back by former officer Johannes Mehserle while pinned down by a second officer. The entire incident was caught on video by passersby with mobile phones.

However, Grant’s family and some BART directors say a mural is not enough.

“[Renaming the building] would be an atonement, it would be part of BART saying yes this happened here, we vow that it won’t happen again and we vow to work with the communities and ensure that all people are treated equally,” Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, says.

BARD board member Robert Raburn, whose district includes Oakland, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t know that a mural really solves it all. Fruitvale Station will always be known for this tragic incident.”

This is in part because little has changed in the institutions blamed for Grant’s death. A report found that more than half of BART use-of-force incidents in 2017 involved black men. Yet black people made up just 12 percent of BART ridership in 2015.

However, the renaming of the station is unlikely, since most BART officials say they can’t (or, rather, won’t) change their policy of naming stations after their location. And that decision is backed by some in the community for less-than-admirable reasons. When BART Director Debora Allen tried to spark a dialogue on the issue on Facebook, it incited a stream of racially charged comments.

The US Institute for Peace (USIP) explains the range of reactions to such proposals by noting that “memorialization is a process that satisfies the desire to honor those who suffered or died during conflict as well as serves as a means to examine the past and address contemporary issues. It can either promote social recovery after violent conflict ends or crystallize a sense of victimization, injustice, discrimination and the desire for revenge.”

Places serve as natural vehicles for memorialization; psychologists hypothesize that we lock in memories of significant events by linking them to a where, and that integrating many stimuli together helps us remember. They call this process ”episodic memory formation,” or the association of ideas and objects to a single place and time. Thus, for example, it’s no coincidence that, when recalling a tragedy, we often instinctively ask where someone was. (“Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?”)

The USIP observes that “memorialization is often not recognized as an important tool of transitional justice initiatives. National and international actors involved in transitional justice—especially in tribunals and truth commissions—have largely missed the opportunity to incorporate memorialization. This repeated failure to deal with memorials (whether ad hoc or sanctioned) and their potentially negative impact can imperil transitional justice efforts and peacebuilding.”

Liz Sevcenko, director of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, explains this sometimes-deliberate oversight by observing that “in every society emerging from a traumatic past there are efforts to suppress memory in an effort to ‘move on’ or ‘put the past behind us.’ Yet remembering is a basic human instinct, and memory cannot be imprisoned—it will usually come out in one form or another. The challenge is to find ways to harness memory to learn lessons from the past in an effort to avoid repeating it.”

However, there can be a negative side to memorialization as well. Hassan Mneimneh of the Iraq Memory Foundation notes that it can be used to fan the flames of ethnic hatred, consolidate a group’s identity as victims, and demarcate the differences among identity groups. That’s what happened in Durban, South Africa.

Durban’s postcolonial leaders naturally desired to give some of the area’s avenues and landmarks names honoring the architects of democratic South Africa. But the very understandable intentions became an intense political debate.

“It was very badly handled,” Mary de Haas, an anthropologist who has tracked political and racial violence in KwaZulu-Natal for decades, said in an interview. “The whole thing has been provocative. People want reconciliation. They don’t want to reopen old wounds.”

In fact, on one day, at least 6,000 marchers paraded through the city’s downtown, protesting proposals to give new names on as many as 180 major streets and buildings. The demonstrators packed in front of city hall to complain—not necessarily about the idea of renaming landmarks, but about the new names themselves. Specifically, they complained that some names seemed chosen not to honor modern South African heroes, but to heap glory on the African National Congress, one of the main political parties.

That’s why the USIP notes that the process of determining what form a memorial should take and how the space should be used is essential—more important, ultimately, than the physical edifice itself. In addition, to be truly a memorial, efforts should be taken to encourage visitors to explore contested memories of the past and engage in critical thinking. While the Grant family is pushing for the mounting of a plaque on the station building along with the renaming, an accompanying exhibit or display would do more to achieve a long-lasting impact.

“The memorials that have the most positive effect are those that promote ‘dynamic performances of civic engagement or democracy,’” notes USIP. “Memorials that merely list the names of victims without providing education about the past or a place for interaction run the risk of being either ignored or amended by others who perceive the memorials as frozen in the past.”—Pam Bailey