By Scott Johnson
Originally posted at Truthout.org.
After seeking justice from the City of Oakland for months, the family of Alan Blueford finally caught the attention of city leaders on September 18 when their protest brought the City Council to a halt.
Alan, an African-American high school student, was murdered on May 6 by Officer Miguel Masso, who drove up on the young man who had committed no crime, chased him for five blocks and shot him dead outside a Cinco de Mayo party. Masso initially claimed that Alan shot him, a story spread by the local media, although when it was revealed that Masso actually shot himself this lie turned into the claim that Alan pointed a gun at the officer. The Bluefords refute even this claim, considering Masso’s earlier lie.
Since May, the Bluefords have demanded that Masso be fired and prosecuted and that stop-and-frisk and racial profiling practices be ended among Oakland police. The elected leadership of Oakland have largely ignored these requests outside of a handful of closed door meetings where the Bluefords were promised a timely investigation and no slandering of Alan in the press. Neither promise was kept.
The Bluefords arrived at the September 18 City Council meeting with over 100 supporters to speak during open comments, recounting not only their heartbreak but also the endless unkept promises from the city and OPD. “I just want to know what happened to my son,” Adam Blueford, Alan’s father, both begged and demanded of the Council.
The Councilmembers, typically masters of evasion who are usually absorbed in their cell phones and magazines during public comments, suddenly all sat upright at full attention. Once it was clear the Bluefords were not going to walk away quietly without answers, City Administrator Deanna Santana went scurrying to find something to offer the Bluefords. Finally, it was announced that OPD Chief Howard Jordan was on his way to City Hall with the police report in hand – after refusing to release it for months.
This promise also evaporated within the hour after the Bluefords refused yet another closed-door meeting with Jordan, insisting he address the public in order to be held accountable. With no sign of either Jordan or the report, the Council attempted to resume with its first order of business – passing a resolution declaring Oakland an International City of Peace. This absurd resolution, from a city internationally known for the murder of Oscar Grant and the repression of Occupy Oakland, led to chants of “No Justice No Peace” and “Howard is a coward!” from both the Bluefords and the audience, many of whom were beaten and tear-gassed during those two movements.
After a Councilmember politely asked the crowd to quiet down and even offered a half-hearted “mic check,” the Council adjourned without considering a single order of business. The City of Oakland is typically enabled by the inaction of the City Council, but in this instance, it was ground to a halt.
Days later, after defending the decision not to release the police report, OPD leaked to the press that Alan’s fingerprints were found on a gun discovered at the scene of his murder. This unsubstantiated claim recalled the days after his shooting when OPD claimed Alan was in a “gun battle” with Masso, when in fact it was later discovered that Alan had no gunshot residue on his hands at all.
The possibility that Alan held a gun that night may raise doubts about his “innocence” – a distorted concept to apply to a young Black man murdered by a cop – but it has also been met with skepticism coming from a police force with a known history of planting evidence. More importantly, the question of whether he had a gun obscures the issue that Masso should have never accosted Alan in the first place, treating him like a criminal from the moment he saw him until the moment he shot him dead in the street.
Inaction in the Blueford case should be unsurprising as the City of Oakland has proven itself completely unwilling to reform the Oakland Police Department. For nearly a decade, OPD has failed to abide by a series of reforms it agreed to coming out of the 2003 Negotiated Settlement Agreement in response to the “Riders” scandal, which revealed several officers planting evidence and maliciously beating suspects in over 100 cases. Rather than demand accountability, the City Council has enabled the evasions of OPD, even recently voting to pay $40,000 in punitive damages ordered by a judge on an officer guilty of performing strip searches in public, a fine that was meant to come out of the officer’s own pocket.
It is not clear that there can be justice for Alan Blueford in a world that will never see him again and which will see continued police killings of young Black and brown men regardless of what happens in Oakland. The family, however, defines “justice” as firing Officer Masso and reforms in OPD to avoid a repeat of this situation. In order to win these seemingly reasonable demands, various careers will be thrown into turmoil and perhaps ended.
Beyond Masso’s career, the positions of both Santana and Jordan are under serious threat as OPD faces hearings in December that may send it into federal receivership. Failure to make basic reforms – not least improving Internal Affairs investigations into police shootings – is what makes this outcome seem likely. If this occurs, it would be an enormous stain on Santana’s political career and may force her to resign. If nothing else, she would no longer be the supervisor of OPD and Jordan would likely be demoted from his position as Chief.
This same stain lingers over the careers of the Councilmembers, most of whom have held their positions during the entire NSA period and are complicit in OPD’s failure to reform. What’s more, four of the eight Councilmembers are running in elections this November and not a single one wants to be seen ignoring the pleas of an African-American family in a city with a well-known history of violence against people of color. This is partly why the City Council chose to end their September 18 meeting rather than make the decision to have the Bluefords removed.
Furthermore, none of the Councilmembers want to stand up to OPD, an institution which consumes 40% of the City of Oakland General Fund, but seems to hold as much independent political power as the Port of Oakland or the Chamber of Commerce. The highly coveted endorsement of candidates by law enforcement for the November election is on the line and there remains the embarrassing likelihood of continued non-compliance from officers who refuse to cooperate with court-ordered reforms. In some ways, OPD often seems to dictate orders to City Hall rather than vice-versa.
Whether federal receivership would have any real impact on the OPD is an open question as no police department has ever been put under receivership. It is very possible that the federal government will simply run the department for several years before putting on their stamp of approval and moving on. Nonetheless, there exists the possibility of the receiver “cleaning house” by firing a number of individuals in order to show some nominal action. Considering the short-term possibility of receivership, Masso and his enablers in OPD may come up on the chopping block if for no other reason than for the new boss to save face.
What the the Councilmembers, Santana and Mayor Jean Quan – who spent the September 18 meeting hiding in a back room – want most of all is for this entire issue to go away. The prospect of an angry electorate or federal judge tarnishing their political careers due to their action – or inaction – is not one that will be taken lightly. At some point, the city leaders will have to make a calculated decision: is Masso’s career more important than their own? At the very least, the Justice 4 Alan Blueford campaign has the potential to force this decision on city leaders rather than allow them to avoid it as they have every other difficult decision they have faced.