In 2014, Oakland Police Beat looked at the extent of civil rights complaints against the Oakland Police Department (OPD) through a survey of court cases. In talking with civil rights attorneys with experience representing citizens in civil lawsuits against OPD, it became clear that the cases that make it to court are just the tip of the iceberg. While high-profile police killings, especially those captured on video, make headlines and spark protests, the struggle to find justice through the citizen complaints process or the courts is often frustrating. Grand juries in Missouri and New York failed to hand down criminal indictments of the police officers whose actions led to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Prosecutors were unable to get a guilty verdict in the Oakland’s notorious Riders case. Johannes Mehserle’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter in the shooting of Oscar Grant is an outlier.

In cases like the Riders, citizens have turned to civil courts, filing lawsuits to seek justice. The Riders case, Allen vs. City of Oakland, led not only to an $11 million settlement with 119 plaintiffs but also to a decade of independent oversight of OPD. The civil courts aren’t an easy place to find justice from police civil rights abuses, however; many cases are too small or too challenging for attorneys to take on and those who attempt to represent themselves in court against OPD rarely succeed.

Sign at 1/1/2015 rally. Photo by Laura McCamy

Sign at 1/1/2015 rally. Photo by Laura McCamy

Taking it to the streets

Given this environment, it’s not surprising that activists in Oakland and around the country are taking to the streets to demand an end to racial profiling by police, or, as some activists refer to it, police terrorism against Black people. While the recent demonstrations in the Bay Area and around the country look spontaneous, they actually benefit from a foundation of organizing that started long before Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, on August 9, 2014. Cat Brooks, a founding member of the ONYX Organizing Committee, pointed out that 20 to 30 years of organizing preceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“I think you have to take it back to Rodney King,” she said of the movement against police violence, referring to King’s 1991 beating at the hands of a group of LAPD officers. “It was the first time that we had caught it on camera.”

When Oscar Grant was killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, early on New Year’s Day in 2008, she says, “The pot had begun to boil again.” After Grant’s death, Brooks helped found ONYX to make sure that there was Black leadership in organizing around this issue.

“My belief is that the struggle for Oscar Grant changed forever” the movement against police terror, Brooks said. “It was a beautiful balance of passion and pragmatism.” She noted that the movement benefited from the involvement of Grant’s family members, seasoned organizers who brought strategy to the table, “very solid communications work,” and a new tool: social media. “That allowed the movement to go viral,” she said. “My joke is that the revolution will be viral.”

Signs of protest. Photo by Laura McCamy

Signs of protest. Photo by Laura McCamy

Trayvon and beyond

“Police are treating youth of color like an enemy to be exterminated,” said Forrest Schmidt, an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition, in a 2013 interview with Police Beat. “At this point, it is de facto illegal, if you are person of color, to not be subservient and submissive to the police.  That is really criminal.  People have a right to not be subservient.”

“There’s no law that says you can’t tell the police to f*ck off,”  said Oakland civil rights attorney Walter Riley (also interviewed in 2013), his voice rising with emotion. “Some of the discussion around Trayvon Martin is we have to teach our kids to behave differently.  That’s not right.  We can’t expect future generations to respect us if we teach them to be docile when approached by a cop.” He added, “We can’t get beyond the legacy of slavery if we tell folks to do that.  Everyone has a right to walk with dignity and say ‘You can’t do that’ to the police.”

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which became a rallying cry after Michael Brown’s death, initially grew out of concern at the resignation expressed by some African-American activists  after Florida neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman was acquitted of criminal charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin. “We started #BlackLivesMatter as a political intervention for our communities,” Alicia Garza said. Garza, Opal Tometti, and Patrisse Cullors “wanted to create a way for us to talk about the ways that state violence disproportionately impacts” Black communities, she said.

Although the protests against the ever-growing list of unarmed Black men and boys killed by police that began in the summer of 2014 were full of spontaneity and passion, they built on the foundation of organizing that went before and continues to happen. “Movements have to be built and that’s hard work,” said Garza. “No protest in and of itself is going to change the conditions we live in.”

Garza believes that, through strategic action, people can make change in the current system. As with other organizers we spoke with, she sees the struggle as part of a bigger picture. “State violence impacts our communities in multiple ways and it’s not just the police,” she said, noting that 61 percent of students suspended by OUSD are Black, although Black students only make up 32 percent of the student body. “We see that as an example of state sanctioned violence against Black communities.”

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in 2014, Garza was among 14 activists (the Black Friday 14) who chained themselves to a BART train, immobilizing it for over three hours, in solidarity with Black Friday protests of the shooting in Ferguson taking place across the nation.

The Black Friday 14 are now facing not only criminal charges but a restitution bill of $70,000 for the BART stoppage. “We are being targeted to be silenced,” Garza said.

A petition asking the BART board to drop the restitution claim at iam.colorofchange.org garnered nearly 7,000 signatures in its first five days.

Jeralynn Blueford and Mollie Costello. Photo courtesy of Mollie Costello.

Jeralynn Blueford and Mollie Costello. Photo courtesy of Mollie Costello.

Love and unity

Shortly after midnight on Cinqo de Mayo in 2012, 18-year-old Alan Blueford and two friends were stopped by OPD. Blueford ran and Officer Miguel Masso, a former military MP in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave chase.  After five blocks, the teen tripped and fell into the driveway of a house where a party was taking place.  Alan’s father, Adam Blueford, noted that there were 31 witnesses to what happened next:  Masso fired his gun repeatedly, hitting the boy three times while, his father said, “Alan was on his back screaming.”  A forth shot hit Masso in the foot, leading police to initially report that there had been a shoot-out, though they soon admitted that the shot had come from Masso’s gun.

“These kids should never have been stopped,” said John Burris, an Oakland attorney who has represented people injured by the police, including the family of Oscar Grant, in an interview with OPB in 2013.  “They in fact were not doing anything illegal.” Riley added, “There was no reason for the stop other than the fact that there was three Black guys.”  Both Burris and Riley were part of the legal team representing the Blueford family in a civil lawsuit against OPD.

The Blueford shooting happened five days after protestors at Occupy Oakland’s May 1, 2011, General Strike had experienced violence at the hands of the police, an event captured on video that sent shock waves through the city and around the world.  Word of the slain teen quickly spread through the encampment and a coalition sprang up to protest the police murder.

“People were outraged over the murder of Alan,” Adam Blueford said. “We knew we couldn’t get Alan’s life back, but we wanted to fight for others.”  Within a few days after the shooting, friends and supporters organized the first meeting of he Justice 4 Alan Blueford Coalition (JAB). The group included Riley and Mollie Costello, who went from Occupy Oakland to organizing with JAB and helping Alan’s mother Jeralynn Blueford form the Alan Blueford Foundation. “Alan’s death is a horrible tragedy but his name will live on through change,” said his mother, Jeralynn Blueford.  “There must be accountability so things can get better.”

“We have to show love for our community in some other way than funding police officers and funding institutions that undermine our sense of stability, well-being and trust,” said Riley. “[The JAB coalition] begins to model what can happen when the community comes together to fight against oppression, to fight for a better city.”

The Blueford family settled its lawsuit against the City of Oakland in 2014 for $110,000.

Seen at Fruitvale Station 1.1.2015. Photo by Laura McCamy

Seen at Fruitvale Station 1.1.2015. Photo by Laura McCamy

Crossing the thin blue line

“When the people come together and unite, that’s when they can’t ignore us no matter what color our skin is or how large our bank account is,” Costello said. “Rather than the police having control over communities, communities need to have control over the police.”  She pointed to the Mehserle trial as proof that “coming together really does change that power structure.”

“We have to change how policing happens, which is why some of these bandaid reforms don’t actually work,” said Garza, observing that police need outside oversight, to be held accountable in the same way that other government entities are.

Costello sees two important fronts for organizers, if OPD behavior and tactics are to truly change: one is to overturn the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights, a California law that makes it difficult to hold police accountable for acts of violence committed in the line of duty; the other is to provide safety for police officers who decide to cross the “thin blue line” and expose misconduct they witness on the job.

After their arrest, the Black Friday 14 rode alone in a BART car with a group of BART police officers. “Devonte [Jackson] started talking, very genuinely and very soft spokenly to the officers,” said Costello, who was part of the protest. She said that Jackson explained why he had chained his neck to a BART car because he felt he had been chained all his life. Other protestors chimed in and told their stories. “More than a few of the BART officers … on the train … crying,” according to Costello. “We kept saying to them, ‘Which side are you on?’”

Despite years of citizen complaints and lawsuits, it was rookie officer Keith Batt’s whistleblower testimony that finally ended the Oakland Riders’ reign of terror. “If we want to complete this cycle of healing,” Costello said, “we need to include the police in this.”

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From Ferguson to Oakland

In 2014, the US reeled from the deaths of Black men at the hands of police in Missouri, New York, Ohio. Nowhere, however, were the protests larger or more forceful than in Oakland and Berkeley.

“We have to honor the fact that this is ground zero for the Black Panther party,” said Brooks. “There’s a culture of radical organizing in the Bay Area, particularly around engaging police.”

Brooks sees the street protests as crucial for a number of reasons. “That’s how the media talks about it,” she said. “The media doesn’t talk about the day in and day out targeting and brutalizing of Black people that takes place every day.”

“That’s your opportunity to organize more people into the movement,” she added, noting the importance of organizing afterward. “It should never be just about getting into the streets.”

“[Protest] is important now because right now it’s the only consequence [the police] have,” Brooks said. “The only consequence they have is chasing us around the streets.”

Costello thinks that the property destruction in recent protests, especially at small businesses, will burn out quickly. “That seems anger-driven and not organized,” she said. “It takes energy to maintain anger. I don’t believe that’s a sustainable model. I believe people are fueled by love and unity.”

Activists on 1/1/2015. Photo by Laura McCamy

Activists on 1/1/2015. Photo by Laura McCamy

The campaign continues

Costello calls bringing a civil suit against the police “another dehumanizing, demeaning experience.” She believes restitution for victims of police shootings should be automatic.

“No family plans to have their son or their loved one murdered by the police,” she said, noting that finding funds to pay for the funeral can be a struggle. “We would like the law to be the ones to give these people restitution.”

To that end, the Alan Blueford Foundation, spearheaded by his mother, Jeralynn Blueford, is lobbying for a law called Alan’s Law, which would include restitution for victims and their families and make it a felony for a police officer to turn off his lapel camera, as Miguel Masso did before he shot Alan Blueford.

Brooks noted that we are in a crucial moment of awareness of police violence against, primarily, Black men and boys. People who would never give the issue a second thought, she said, are now saying, “Wait they killed another one?” She added, “Now here we are in the next social justice movement in this country with no sign of slowing down.”

“We’re just getting started,” Garza noted. “We’re excited to grow the movement.”

“It’s a very powerful and inclusive movement that has its eyes on the prize,” Costello said.

“Brooks sees a future where there are “zones where no one calls the police ever because we have figured out how to keep ourselves safe” and “we figure out how we create our own economic liberation.”

The Anti-Police Terrorism Project (#ATPTOakland), a collaboration between a number of groups, including ONYX, the Alan Blueford Center for Justice, is working on “creating a sustainable and replicable model for ending police terrorism,” according to Cat Brooks. “It’s really about getting us off the defense and onto the offense.” The group meets every third Thursday at 7:30 pm at Eastside Arts Alliance. All are welcome to join this multi-racial and intergenerational group.

A coalition of groups, including the Anti-Police Terror Project, are organizing Reclaiming King’s Legacy: a Jobs and Economy March for the People on Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 19, starting from Fruitvale BART at 11:00 am. For more information, visit the ATPT Facebook page.

2 Responses

  1. Len Raphael

    Why does Oakland hold the record for longest running Federal monitoring (since 2003) than any of the other two dozen cities that have had Federal monitors since Los Angeles was the first in 2001.

    And if the Federal monitor signed off on everything next week, the Feds would stick around for one year to make sure we didn’t back slide.

    LA’s monitoring ended in 2009. Detroit went 2003 to 8/14.

    Even OPD’s harshest critics wouldn’t say OPD’s problems were worse than Detroits or LA’s.

    The reason Oakland is still under Federal monitoring is the unwillingness of elected officials starting with Jerry Brown to face the problems and responsibilities of running a big city police department.

    Even now, officials here have no plan to make sure we learned our lessons from the Federal monitoring.

    Establishing a powerful, fully civilian, well-funded, independent civilian police oversight commission would be a good place to start.

    Len Raphael, CPA

    Reply

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