By Greg Zeman
The People’s Hearing on Racism and Police Violence, a two-day event for the families and friends of those killed by police officers to tell their stories to a panel of jurists, was held Feb. 19 and 20 at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland.
The testimonies, which highlighted mistrust and anger toward law enforcement, in part stemmed from Oscar Grant’s 2009 killing by BART police. People giving testimony noted what they saw as Bay Area police officers’ systematic targeting of non-white youth, particularly black men.
“This is not just about my son,” said Lori Davis, whose son was recently killed by police. “This is about everyone whose children are getting murdered, not just by the OPD, but SFPD and police departments all across California.”
Davis’ son, Raheim Brown of Alameda, was shot to death on Jan. 22 by Oakland Unified School District police officers. He was 20 years old.
Organizers brought in the jurists, who were mainly attorneys, so a record of their testimonies about police violence could be created and shared with the United Nations and other international judicial bodies.
Civil rights attorney John Burris, who is representing Oscar Grant’s family in a $50 million wrongful death suit against BART, served as a jurist at the hearing. He said the official response to unjustified police shootings is as predictable as it is despicable.
“Whenever there’s a police shooting, there’s two things you’re going to hear — the excuse for the shooting and the demonization of the victim,” he said, adding that official responses to police killings are invariably lies.
A recurring theme of the hearing, and core assertion of the movement, is that the killings in question are not isolated incidents but expressions of a violent, racist police culture that values the supposed benefits of racial profiling over the negative, sometimes lethal, impact on the communities being profiled.
Civil rights attorney and jurist Dan Siegel said legislators and police oversight committees’ inaction in response to repeated killings amounts to an endorsement of those killings.
“My belief is that these police officers are doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “That’s why they get immunity.”
Cathy King, the mother of Gary King Jr., 20, who was beaten, repeatedly shot with a stun gun then fatally shot by Oakland officers in 2007, said that her son was not a suspect in any crime and that his initial stop by the Oakland Police Department was racially motivated.
“They don’t like black people as a whole, which is why they live in the lily-white suburbs, but they come to Oakland to police the black community,” she said. “Speaking as one 53-year-old white lady, I will never trust the police ever again. I will never call them for any reason again. I hate them and hold them responsible for my son’s death.”
King, like all of the surviving family who testified, said that she was deeply unsatisfied by what she sees as a half-hearted response of the justice system to killings by police.
“The man who murdered my son continues to work for the police department,” she said.
The hearing was also an attempt to unify the movement’s various concerns, including the implementation of “gang injunctions,” with the public outrage over the string of killings leading up to, and following, Grant’s death.
“Gang injunction is a nice word for ethnic cleansing — it’s a euphemism,” said Manuel LaFontaine, an organizer with All of Us or None, a group that advocates for ex-convict rights. “Inside the prison system, there is no transparency, no accountability.”
Liz Derias of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement said she believes the judicial system and law enforcement agencies are a “legacy of black enslavement” geared toward the repression of minority communities and the perpetuation of white supremacy.
“It’s our fear that more young people will fall at the hands of the police,” Derias said. “I truly believe in community and people being organized where they can police their own neighborhood.”
The event was sponsored by a coalition of community advocacy groups, including the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.