by Mike King
Originally posted at CounterPunch.org
The killing of unarmed high school Senior Alan Blueford on May 6th by Oakland Police officer Miguel Masso is both unthinkable and commonplace. When the unthinkable becomes commonplace, any decent society, any society trying to imagine or portray itself as a democracy, is forced to ask some hard questions – some questions that necessitate interrogating the nature of modern policing in American cities.
Just after midnight on that Saturday night, Alan and two of his friends were waiting for some girls to pick them up on 90th Ave., in East Oakland, after the Floyd Mayweather fight. Not long after he had phoned his parents to check-in with them, a car slowly pulled up to them with its lights off. Alan ran. One officer gave chase. A few blocks later Alan was shot by officer Masso. Masso also shot himself in the foot. Over a dozen witnesses all said that Alan had no weapon and posed no threat to the officer.
As is typically the case, the police said, and the press immediately reported, that not only had Alan had a gun, but he had died in a “gun battle” with the officer. The police would later try to distance themselves from these comments, saying that the press had made up the story, while still maintaining that Alan had a gun. There was no gunpowder residue on his hands, and over a dozen witness have told investigators that Alan had no weapon. The smearing of Alan’s name in the press and the police misrepresentation would continue. After a series of rallies, press conferences and a march of over 500 people the weekend after Alan was killed, Oakland Police Chief Jordan addressed the community at Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland. The Chief mispronounced Alan’s last name, calling him “Buford” numerous times, while continuing to promote the story that Alan had pointed a gun at officer Masso. He also stated that the OPD had provided emergency CPR to Alan, something that has not been corroborated by any of the witnesses, who have all stated that no emergency medical attention was given by police.
Why did the police approach Alan and his friends with their lights off? Why did they give chase when Alan had committed no crime and posed no threat to the officer? Why was Alan shot three times when he had no weapon? How did a trained officer shoot himself in the foot? From the witnesses’ statements, why was Alan not given emergency CPR by OPD? Why did the OPD change their story to the family several times in the days after the shooting? Why have they refused to release the coroner’s report, despite the fact that it has been complete for weeks?
When the Unthinkable becomes Reality: the Unmeasurable Loss to Victims’ Families
These are similar questions to those being asked by Ramarley Graham’s mother in New York, by Trayvon Martin’s family in Florida, and by Aiyana Jones’ family in Detroit. Most of these families probably always new that policing (vigilante policing in the case of Trayvon Martin) was biased, and that the courts did not really treat all people equally, but hoped and prayed that it would not be their son or daughter that ended up being killed. When I asked Alan’s mother and father, Jeralynn and Adam, about how they viewed the police before their son’s murder, Jeralynn Blueford told me that they had “never believed in ‘Protect and Serve’” as something that applied to the black community. Adam Blueford, Alan’s father, added that before his son’s death, however, “the police seemed more fair than they seem at this point.” To compound their loss, they have been lied to at every step by the OPD, who at first refused to confirm it was their son that they had killed, even though the police had his identification. The family has seen their son’s name smeared in the press, they are still being denied the coroner’s report over two months after their son’s death, and are being told an internal investigation by OPD could take up to a year, despite all of the evidence having already been collected.
Something the Blueford’s never thought would happen to their son has become a tragedy for the family and his friends. The word tragedy fails to capture the loss in two ways, however. It implies a certain boundedness in time that glosses over things like the Skyline High School diploma that Alan earned but never collected himself. It makes invisible the decades of Christmases in which Alan’s stories and smile will be absent. The word tragedy also tends to decontextualize and individualize what happened to Alan. What happened to Alan was unjustified, but not random in a social context. We have seen over a half-dozen cases of police murder in the past few years in Oakland that looked very similar – an unarmed black man killed by police, often stopped for no reason.
The Blueford family, and the coalition that has emerged to support them, are seeking justice for Alan Blueford, but also systemic changes in the way that policing is done. The family wants officer Masso to be fired and tried in criminal court. They also want OPD Chief Jordan held accountable, not only because the killing happened under his command, but because of the harmful lies the family and the community were told about Alan. Adam and Jeralynn both expressed to me that justice for their son goes beyond holding the responsible parties accountable, towards also making structural changes to how policing is done. As Jeralynn Blueford put it, “We are demanding policy changes and police being held accountable for their actions, to spare parents from going through what we are going through.”
“To Enable and Protect Your Own”: Stop-and-frisk and the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights
Two major policy reforms that Alan’s parents are trying to organize around are an end to stop-and-frisk and a revoking of the California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights. Stop-and-frisk is one of many police policies that, in practice, legalizes racial profiling on the street. The practice is ineffective as a policing tool, with 99% of stop-and-frisks not leading to arrest. Furthermore, the practice is a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search. In cities where thorough research has been done, a clear pattern of racial profiling emerges. The Center for Constitutional Rights recently released areport on New York City’s stop-and-frisk data which revealed that 87% of those stopped in 2011 were black and Latino.
A lesser-known piece of legislation that provides added protection to police officers, beyond the normal rights of citizens, is the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, of which many states, including California, have their own version. This legislation helps shield officers from investigation and punishment and, along with the police union, help keep abusive police officers on the force. The Conservative think-tank, the Cato Institute, had the following to say about Police Officers’ Bills of Rights:
“[N]ot only do these laws give police officers more rights than the average citizens have, they also reduce the rights that citizens have by making it more difficult for police agencies to discipline bad officers, which only serves to encourage more abuse through a lack of consequences.”
Two recent cases of police killing unarmed, young black teenagers in Oakland – Gary King and Raheim Brown – have yet to receive justice, in part due to California’s Police Officers’ Bill of Rights. People within Occupy Oakland may know Sergeant Patrick Gonzales as one of the more aggressive bulls on the OPD riot squad. He is probably best known publicly as the officer who killed Lovelle Mixon, after Mixon had killed four Oakland police earlier that day. To the family of Gary King, he is the man who murdered their son in 2007. Gonzales had stopped King, mistakenly identifying him as a suspect, beat and tasered him repeatedly. When Gary King got up and ran, in fear of his life, Gonzales shot him in the back, killing him. The family was awarded $1.5 million dollars, but Sgt. Gonzales not only remains on the force – despite settlements for his abuses totaling $3.6 million – he also trains officers in the use of firearms. Raheim Brown was killed while trying to hot wire a car in front of Skyline High School in early 2011. He was also unarmed. Officers Bhatt and Bellusa reportedly called Brown racist names before Bhatt shot him five times, twice in the head. Both officers are still on the force in Oakland public schools, and were at the recent occupation of the Lakeview Elementary School numerous times.
The Financial Costs of the OPD’s Legacy of Abuse
Police abuse in Oakland is, and has been, notorious for decades, stretching beyond the OPD itself, to the Oakland Unified School District police that killed Raheim Brown, to the killing of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit cop, Johannes Mehserle. The OPD itself has been under federal oversight for years after the well-publicized case of the Oakland Riders who abused citizens, planted drugs and otherwise falsified evidence. The Riders, alongside the violent tactics used against anti-war protesters on the Port of Oakland in April 2003, were major factors in prompting ongoing federal oversight of the department. A recent independent review of OPD tactics against the Occupy movement revealed dozens of abuses and oversights. The OPD remains on the brink of federal receivership. What all of this reveals is more than a history of abuse and misconduct, but a legacy of systemic unaccountability, of which the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights is only one part.
In a cash-strapped city that is closing multiple public schools each year, slashing or eliminating essential social services, and making significant cuts to every department except the police, Oakland, a small city of approximately 400,000 people, paid over $13 million in police abuse settlements and associated legal fees last year alone. In the past few weeks, Oakland’s City Council voted to pay the $40,000 in punitive damages that a judge had order an Oakland police officer be held personally accountable for, after his abuse of two men he stripped naked in public – on top of the $1 million settlement the city has already paid. Over the last ten years, police abuse claims have cost the city $57 million. This figure is sure to rise with a number of high-profile police killings, the Scott Olsen shooting, and a wrongful arrest class-action lawsuit stemming from Occupy Oakland’s attempt to take over and make social use of the Kaiser Convention Center on January 28, 2012. However, financial penalty is not accountability, as the years of enormous settlements have not deterred ongoing police violence, abuse and misconduct.
Justice for Alan Blueford! Justice for the People of Oakland!
The Blueford family and the Justice 4 Alan Blueford Coalition are continuing to make political demands of the city while mobilizing the people of Oakland. Next Thursday, July 19th, there will be a rally and press conference at the coroner’s office demanding the coroner’s report. Occupy Oakland will be having its next BBQ at Arroyo Park, just blocks from where Alan was killed, on July 21st. The family will speak to the community and help build the grassroots movement that will be necessary to create enough social and political pressure on the city and OPD for fundamental changes to be made. On July 31st the family will go back to the City Council to demand an explanation for why they have been lied to and stalled at every turn, demanding that officer Masso be fired, a full investigation conducted quickly, and charges filed against the officer.
Members of Occupy Oakland, veterans of the Justice for Oscar Grant Movement, and long-time organizers in the movement against police violence are committed to building vibrant organizing in Oakland that pushes for Justice for Alan Blueford, understanding that true justice stretches beyond accountability for Alan’s murder itself. Justice means that this same thing does not happen 3 months from now, on a different street corner, to a different innocent kid. Justice means that police no longer get to hide behind several layers of legal protection that the people they police never gave them. The terms “police occupation” and “police terror” are common in East and West Oakland, and poor and working class neighborhoods all over the country. Looking at the history, and looking at the facts, this is not a conspiracy theory or hyperbole. The goals of completely undoing this type of policing and providing real security, empowerment, and opportunity to neighborhoods such as Deep East Oakland will be a long process. The immediate pursuit of Justice for Alan Blueford is well underway, with the conscious understanding that justice is not complete without that broader process of social justice and political empowerment as a core part of that goal.
The Blueford Family can be contacted at alanblueford(at)yahoo.ca and on facebook at: Justice4AlanDBluefordandFamily
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mikeking0101(at)gmail.com.