Searching for Answers to a Police Killing
All summer long the slaying of teenager Alan Blueford by a police officer festered in the city of Oakland, a metropolis already stained by its troubled police department which for nearly ten years has been spiraling toward federal receivership due to its institutionalized culture of brutality and misconduct. It was no surprise then that the first meeting of the City Council last night, in its new session after the Summer recess, was met by over one hundred outraged protesters and the family of the young man whose death at the hands of OPD frustratingly remains a mystery, with all known facts indicating an unjustifiable murder. The internal police department investigation of Alan Blueford’s killing drags on, as do virtually any and all other official investigations, studies, and reports intended to bring about transparency and accountability within Oakland’s police department. Nothing seems to be working.
“According to the Coronor’s report, my son’s body was removed at 1:25 in the morning,” said Alan’s father, Adam Blueford, before the council, describing the haste with which the police cleaned up the scene of Alan’s demise. “How can a murder investigation be done in less than one hour?!” he asked incredulously.
Alan Blueford was shot by officer Miguel Masso around 12:25 am on the morning of May 6 around 92nd Avenue and Birch Street in deep east Oakland after a brief foot chase. Alan had been waiting with a friend for a ride home after watching a boxing match. Police initially said Alan was in a “gun battle” with the officer, but then backpedaled when evidence showed Blueford hadn’t fired a shot. There had been no shootout, only a one way volley of gunfire. Blueford had committed no crime or offense prior to being confronted and chased by the police.
The next police claim, that Blueford was taken to the hospital after being wounded, was also later proven false; days after his death it became known that Alan died on the scene from gunshot wounds. The officer, who it turns out also shot himself in the leg, was taken to the county medical center. These were only the first false reports in a series of troubling claims. “Lies,” say the family.
“Why did this cop chase my son five blocks and murder him? He had no reason to stop or Chase my son,” said Mr. Blueford as members of the public murmured in support. The family has not yet sued the city over Alan’s death, even though they have retained the services of John Burris, a renowned civil rights lawyer who sued Oakland in the early 2000s over a particularly violent clique of cops known as the Riders, and set in motion federal oversight of the police department. The Blueford’s say they simply want justice and lasting changes that will prevent future police violence.
The deep east where Alan Blueford was killed is a part of Oakland devastated by the economic crash and foreclosure crisis that commenced in 2008. But the problems there go back much further. Blocks around 92nd Avenue encompass a region that was attacked by decades of divestment by both the Bay Area’s white middle class who fled to East Bay suburbs, and by corporations which shut down local factories sited on Oakland’s waterfront and busy railway and freeway corridors. Banks redlined much of east Oakland for decades, and only began extending credit through subprime loans in the late 1990s, often in a very predatory manner.
Local and state leaders abdicated any responsibility to the area’s growing black population and abandoned it, lavishing state resources instead on Silicon Valley, San Francisco, downtown Oakland, and nearby suburbs. While in the 2000s downtown Oakland, picturesque Lake Merritt, and the “Temescal” neighborhood were loci of artsy gentrification and real estate developments, the deep east declined further, sharing in none of the associated benefits of urban revitalization efforts promoted by various mayors, most notably Jerry Brown.
Meanwhile the police department spiraled out of control, disfigured by their own gangs of criminal officers who have infamously brutalized and framed hundreds of residents, and more systematically shaped by an internal rank and file culture that holds Oakland’s majority population in open contempt. Today 91 percent of OPD officers live outside city limits, mostly in majority white suburbs where the schools haven’t been destroyed by decades of tax cuts, and the where the Black population is less than 5 percent to Oakland’s 30 percent, places where there are jobs, clean air, and parks. In many Oakland neighborhoods, especially in East Oakland, cops are seen as an occupying army of outsiders, mercenaries prone to make arbitrarily brutal, even lethal decisions when patrolling, especially when approaching young Black and Latino men (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/the-high-costs-of-outsourcing-policeandnbsp/Content?oid=3306199).
Family members of Alan Blueford have taken to speaking of a cover up, a purposeful effort by the Oakland Police Department to suppress the truth, an effort aided in no small part by the inaction of a do-nothing City Council that has become all the more paralyzed in an election season. In a city divided by sharp racial lines and harsh economic inequality, Oakland politicians skirt a fine line between pandering to the city’s hill residents, mostly white middle and upper class homeowners who demand a Reaganesque war-on-crime politics and low taxes, and the working class flatlands majority who are as worried about the cops killing their children as they are about drug dealers and car jackers.
The City Administrator, a power-hungry technocrat trained in the purposefully de-politicizing profession of city management, Deanna Santana, seems more interested in preventing a federal takeover of the police force than undertaking a genuine effort to weed out bad cops and rebuild a department capable of respecting and protecting Oakland’s majority of working class residents. In fact Santana has been as much an obstacle to police accountability as anyone else in her short tenure as the city’s de-facto boss (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/deanna-santana-tried-to-alter-damning-report/Content?oid=3341245).
Alan Blueford’s mother Jeralynn opened the public comment period of Oakland’s first City Council meeting of the new session demanding answers: “We still don’t have the police report, Mr. Reid,” she complained, calling out Larry Reid, a fifteen year veteran of the Oakland City Council and major political force in city politics. “Back in May we came here asking for your help. You came to our son’s services, Mr. Reid, saying you would help.” The seeming inaction of Council members over the summer to provide the Blueford family and community with answers about Alan Blueford’s death has stoked widespread outrage. Monthly rallies downtown and in East Oakland routinely drew dozens of concerned residents. It’s not uncommon to randomly spot posters pasted to light posts around town with Alan Blueford’s face and the word “justice” printed boldly across the top. It’s equally common to spot youngsters sporting t-shirts with Alan’s handsome face. An image of Alan dressed in a white tux with bow tie, probably for his prom, has become a symbol of the movement.
“Where’s Howard Jordan!” The public at last night’s council meeting took every spare moment to demand the appearance of Oakland’s chief of police who was scheduled to give a crime reduction strategies report, but who was nowhere in sight.
“Howard is a coward!,” rang another chant after it became clear the brass would not make an appearance. There again would be no answers forthcoming as to why a young black man guilty of no crime was summarily gunned down by a police officer. It quickly became clear the city would not even provide the police report that the family had been demanding for months.
Speaking shortly after Blueford’s family was Cephus Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, the young man who was executed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Officer three years ago on New Year’s Eve. Johnson became a leader of the Oscar Grant Movement and was key in organizing the rallies and articulating the sentiment that drove the rebellion of Oakland youth following Grant’s murder. That rebellion, as painful and costly as it was, was widely credited for forcing the local power structure to take action, and to charge a police officer with manslaughter.
Johnson warned the Council of the consequences of their inaction: “We have an opportunity to resolve this before it turns violent. It behooves you to at least investigate officer Masso and fire him for lying, and for his violation of the police officer’s code of conduct.” Echoing sentiments held widely in Oakland’s neighborhoods where the police are viewed as a brutal occupying force that often brings summary judgement and death, Johnson warned, “This has to be addressed before the community explodes.” These days it’s a matter of conjecture as to what will happen first; will the community explode from grief and anger at police brutality, or will the police department implode from its own misconduct and ineptness?
After hearing an hour of testimony from Blueford’s family and a few supporters, City Council president Larry Reid called for a ten minute break. It could have been an attempt to disrupt the momentum of the public’s call for the police chief, and answers to the dubious circumstances Alan Blueford’s killing. It could have also been a goodwill effort to contact the police chief, and have him produce the report on Alan’s slaying.
After twenty minutes of this ten minute break, with the public impatiently waiting and council members walking among them, attempting to feel the pain and demonstrate concern, it became clear to many that the council had either executed a stalling tactic, or else the city’s police chief was refusing to appear. After thirty minutes a chant again arose – “Where’s Howard Jordan!? Where’s Howard Jordan!?”
Ignacio De La Fuente, the longest serving member of the Council reconvened the meeting while Reid was elsewhere, perhaps attempting to broker some kind of face-saving appearance. De La Fuente unfortunately attempted to move the city onto other business, creating an irony fit for the ages. On the city’s agenda was a resolution that would deem Oakland a “city of peace,” formally stamping September 21 as Oakland’s “international day of peace.” The City Clerk’s recital of the absurdly timed and obviously inappropriate peace resolution elicited an angry and flabbergasted boo from the audience, and a new chant – “no justice, no peace!”
“No justice, no peace!”
The chambers became a deafening roar of booing, chanting, clapping and whistling, all intended to prevent any business as usual from occurring until the police chief appeared or substantive answers were provided to address Alan Blueford’s death.
Within minutes Council president Larry Reid re-entered the chambers attempting to gain control of the meeting, but it was too late. Months of abdication and irresponsibility by the city’s leaders had allowed a questionable killing of a teenager to go unanswered, even while new facts emerged that indicated Alan Blueford was quite simply murdered. There was no way the people of Oakland seemed ready to entertain any business as usual.
Reid picked up his papers and made for the exit under a storm of jeers and cries of “shame!” from the galleries. “We’ll be back!, We’ll be back,” chanted Alan Blueford’s family and their supporters who exited City Hall to gather on its steps in the early evening darkness for a rally.
“I can’t bring Alan back, but I can stand up for him today,” said Jeralynn Blueford.
Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland, CA. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.