Still Searching for Answers to a Police Killing
The mother and father of Alan Blueford gathered again yesterday with about one hundred supporters, as they have done probably a dozen times over the Summer and into the Fall. This time they rallied before the entrance to the Alameda County Courthouse, a massive stone building that is a familiar setting for protests. They came in frustration and hope to deliver a letter to the District Attorney demanding answers to the questions swirling around the slaying of high school senior Alan Blueford five months ago on a dark street in East Oakland by one of the city’s cops. They wanted to know when the DA’s independent report on Blueford’s killing would be made public. More to the point, the family and community came demanding answers to questions about the nature of the multiple investigations of the shooting —in addition to the DA’s probe, and inquiry is being conducted by the Oakland Police Department’s own Internal Affairs Division, which is widely believed to be corrupt and inept— and actions taken, or not taken, by city and county officials in the wake of Blueford’s death. The slaying of Alan Blueford is a tragedy, and possibly a crime, that has galvanized the community and given specific form to a much broader set of grievances against Oakland’s troubled police force.
After conferring with Sheriffs deputies standing guard at the courthouse entrance, a white man in a grey suit accompanied by two other conservatively dressed men came down to speak. Adam Blueford, the father of Alan, wasted no time addressing the representative of the justice system: “we’re here asking you to bring charges against officer Masso,” said Mr. Blueford, referring to the cop who shot his son multiple times. Masso also shot himself in the leg, later claiming to have been involved in a gun battle. The man in the suit, who identified himself as a deputy to the DA, and who was obviously quite uncomfortable and unhappy to have been nominated for the task of meeting with the Blueford family on the sidewalk, had little to offer and evaded the request.
Walter Riley, a distinguished lawyer and civil rights leader stepped forward in support of the Bluefords: “This murder,” Riley said to the deputy DA, stressing the word murder, “occurred on May 6. Why hasn’t the investigation been completed by now?”
“We take the time it takes to do the job right. I can tell you only that the investigation is not complete,” said the man from the DA’s office.
Unhappy with the vapid response Riley pressed him. “Why can’t we get the police report? Are there impediments to the investigation that you know of?”
The deputy DA became more defensive. “I’m not going to answer that.”
“Is there a legal impediment, or legal reason why the OPD cannot, or has not, released this report?” demanded Riley
“I don’t know, I’m not going to answer that.” said the prosecutor before retreating back into the courthouse.
A prayer was led by Nichola Torbett, founder of Seminary of the Street and a leader among Bay Area clergy. The rally then stepped into the street to march to the city council meeting which was set to begin shortly at City Hall 10 blocks away. Upon reaching Broadway, Oakland’s main thoroughfare, the march, which occupied the street, grew in size and elicited raised fist from young black men waiting at bus stops. Motorist drove by tapping their horns in support.
The last meeting of the Oakland City Council on September 18 became a spontaneous forum against police brutality, and a venue for Alan Blueford’s family to demand answers that have been lacking. Shortly afterward Oakland’s City Administrator, a career bureaucrat who is reviled by many of the city’s citizens for what they perceive as her manipulation of city affairs, and her self-interested attempts to aggrandize her own power, floated the idea of restricting access to the council chambers.
Knowing this threat to bar access, Alan Blueford’s family and dozens of supporters quickly made their way into the chambers, but police soon closed the doors to a hundred more Oaklanders seeking to access their council meeting. The galleries were closed off, three police officers guarded the main entrance and stairway to the chambers within the rotunda, while other cops, alone or in pairs, walked about the building’s first through third floors. They looked confused, bored, annoyed, tired. None of them seemed to care much for the tasks they had been called to undertake: closing off Oakland’s legislative assembly from the citizenry. Follow orders they did, however.
The mass of those locked out began to yell, chant, and blow whistles that pierced the air.
“Let us in! Let us in!”
“Our City Hall! Let us in! Our City Hall!”
A supporter of the Bluefords yelled down to even more locked out citizens who were behind a line of police below: “The family is asking people not to go into the overflow room the city has set up, and to instead join us at the door to the chambers. We are one group, we came here together, and we have the right to be in our City Hall.”
Suddenly above a confused member of the council emerged from a stairwell adjacent to the chamber’s main door, perhaps unaware of the protest and expecting to simply walk into the meeting via the front. It’s not at all unreasonable. Before Blueford’s death, before the silence and the lies and the growing mistrust, Oakland’s city council meetings were distinguished by a lack of formality and easy access. The people seized the open door the councilor had left ajar because it also provided access to the closed galleries where dozens of seats remained empty. Police officers moved in and a shoving and pulling match ensued.
The council member, Rebecca Kaplan, stumbled wide eyed and fled the scene with a look of confusion on her face. Rushing around a corner guarded by police to a back entrance to the council chambers, Kaplan, who I caught up with, said she was unaware of why the council chambers were sealed off to most of the public.
“The council didn’t do this,” she told me. “This was not a council action,” she said about the decision to implement a lock-out.
“Who made the call to close the chambers to the public and some members of the press then?” I asked.
“I’m going to find out who did,” said Kaplan as she slipped into the meeting room through a side door that was then fastened shut.
Back outside the council chamber’s front door, now reinforced with several more OPD officers, Crystallee Crain, a professor of sociology at Peralta College, shook her head negatively, “The mayor, the City Council, they’re being passive in their leadership. If they wanted to they could open this door right now. It was their decision to do it.”
Crain looked around with an equally defiant and concerned expression. “This is about Alan today, yes. But what we’re seeing here right now —this,” said Crain motioning to the locked door and the locked out people of Oakland, “—this is also about a national infringement on our right to assemble. There is this disturbing national threat against anything that challenges the status quo. That’s what we’re seeing here.”
Inside the chambers the meeting had commenced and Alan Blueford’s family took to the mic during public forum, a fifteen minute block of time, to address the city’s officials through the only channel available to them that seemed to be putting real pressure on the police and council members.
“Who did the background check on this officer before he was hired? He had a history of brutalizing people in his former job as a New York cop,” said Alan’s cousin, referring to a report about the officer’s controversial past before being hired by OPD (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/oakland-police-officer-involved-shooting-of-alan-blueford-raises-questions/Content?oid=3295686). “I want to know who signed his papers,” she demanded. “Who hired him? Who let that slip through the cracks? Your covering up something he’s done? Who’s responsible for this?”
Another member of Alan’s family stepped forward. “Mr. president, you too were told by the police that Alan shot the officer. Today we have scientific evidence that proves Alan never fired a firearm. You too were lied to by the police. This department practices racial profiling. Police Chief Howard Jordan stated that his officers saw three teenagers handling a bag of drugs or a gun. No. They were stopped simply because they were three African American males.”
Oakland City Council president Larry Reid attempted to shut down speaker after speaker through procedural stricture. Each time the public cried back in outrage at the council, an official body that seemed unable to hear the family and community’s pain, and unable to understand the pressing need for answers. Outside the chamber chants and whistles reverberated, echoing into microphones and looping back through speakers creating a cacophony of protest.
A supporter of the Blueford family took to the microphone, a white man in an A’s ball cap. “Rebecca Kaplan, I am ashamed of you sitting here today,” he said to the at-large member of the council, an openly gay rabbi who has built her political career around advocacy for social justice. “When MLK was marching in Birmingham and they said ‘wait,’ it always meant they weren’t going to do anything.”
As I reported 2 weeks ago for Counterpunch, the killing of Alan Blueford has festered in the city of Oakland for five long months (http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/09/19/searching-for-answers-to-a-police-killing/). Police lies and disrespect to the Blueford family were exposed early on, outraging the community and giving specific form to widespread fear and distrust of a police force that for nearly ten years has been careening toward federal receivership due to mismanagement and systematic abuses of power.
All the while Oakland’s ultimate authorities, Mayor Jean Quan, members of the City Council, Police Chief Howard Jordan, and the powerful City Administrator Deanna Santana, have told the Blueford family to wait, providing no answers, and showing no real sign that they were actively pressing for the truth. The Blueford family and the community understand the stakes; without pressure by those in power to hold the police department accountable, the OPD’s own internal investigation might exonerate the officer who shot Blueford, regardless of what the truth is.
Blueford’s mother and father have been told to wait on the official investigation to conclude, but in the midst of this official investigation a respected police consultant hired by the city to assess the Oakland Police Department —hired in response to the OPD’s brutal attack on protesters back in November of 2011— reported that OPD’s own Internal Affairs and Criminal Investigations Divisions are in fact broken, and that even some officers have little confidence in these units’ ability to hold cops accountable for crimes and misconduct (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/damning-report-of-opd/Content?oid=3244833).
Among the few remaining speakers allowed to address the council, Nichola Torbett explained the need for answers, the need to stop waiting. “To the degree we’re being loud and disruptive, it’s because there’s something we want you to hear. Yes, city council business is important, but city business is killing us, city business as usual is hurting us. Until you give us some justice there will be no peace.”
Family members of Alan Blueford continued volleying questions at council president Reid and others in the waning minutes of open forum. “When we spoke with many of you back in May, you acted as though you were going to help. Mr. Reid, you promised you would do everything you could. You were lied to by the police. You know what the lies were. How have you fulfilled the promises you made to us? Ms. Brunner, what have you done? Ms. Brooks, what have you done to help this family?”
Council president Reid, visibly annoyed and possessing no more patience or sympathy complained aloud that by law the city council cannot discuss business that does not appear on the official agenda, therefore including anything to do with the killing of Alan Blueford. Reid asked the City Attorney’s representative to explain this reasoning. A representative of the City Attorney leaned into her microphone and stated in a monotone voice, “the Brown Act does not allow for discussion of items not on the agenda. Council has been advised not to discuss this case.”
Amazingly the Brown Act, California’s open meeting and open government law, was cited to justify closing off any discussion and glossing over the community’s indignation, all the while locking out more than half of the city’s own residents who sought to attend the meeting.
“What’s happening here seems incredibly illegal,” said Scott Johnson, a supporter of the Blueford family. Downstairs a member of the City Clerk’s staff admitted that she had never seen the closure of council meetings before and that she was shocked. Other members of the Clerk’s staff ran about the building searching for citizens who had signed up to speak in open forum, or to address specific agenda items, attempting to provide some semblance of democracy and openness in spite the armed police sentries.
As time was running out, Alan Blueford’s mother then literally took over the council meeting, forcefully demanding answers to a panel of mute officials. Amazingly though the council attempted to move on to its business, an agenda fluffed with absurd and symbolic measures like declaring Oakland a “City of Peace,” and an ordinance deeming the week of October 14 the “Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week.” One resolution honoring Oakland’s first youth poet laureate was withdrawn; the recipient asked to move the item to a future meeting.
Perhaps in a sign that the council is beginning to hear the community’s anger and need for answers, council member Jane Brunner interjected, recommending that the core issue raised by the Blueford family and supporters not be thrown aside. “People are here tonight because they think we’re not acting,” she said to her fellow council members. Turning to the people she said, “you’re here tonight… I don’t think it’s an appropriate way to address the issue, but you want answers. This is not the place, but I believe we need to lay out the procedure, the whole process. I suggest that we create a procedure where everyone knows how the investigation is going….”
It was a vague suggestion interrupted by another seemingly unplanned manifestation, the sudden appearance of the OPD’s draft police report on Alan Blueford’s killing. Larry Reid in sudden possession of it ceremoniously handed it over to the Blueford family and their lawyer John Burris. Cell phones and lap tops suddenly also buzzed with the receipt of a message from OPD Chief Howard Jordan, the city’s top cop who has become invisible in recent weeks, seemingly hiding during council meetings. Jordan, from his ethereal place of existence, verified his production of the report, adding;
“Pursuant to their request under the California Public Records Request Act, documents were released this afternoon, October 2nd, to the attorney representing the family of a young man named Alan Blueford who was shot and killed during an officer-involved shooting shortly after midnight on May 6, 2012. Although the District Attorney’s Office has not yet released their independent report regarding the filing of criminal charges, and my Internal Affairs Division has yet to present its findings to the Department’s Executive Force Review Board, I have authorized these reports for release to the public. I am hopeful that these documents, once posted to the Oakland Police Department’s website, will help serve to provide clarification.” (http://local.nixle.com/alert/4894664/)
Outside the council chambers a simple chant of “cops – pigs – murderers” rang out. Little faith is put in the police department’s own investigations. Once again in Oakland the city’s elected officials and law enforcement leaders have only acted after a crisis situation has been escalated by the community to the point of disruption. Even so, their responses do not seem to be answering the underlying questions raised by the community. Indeed, their response seems to be raising entirely new and different problems; many are coming to see the city’s elected officials as facilitating the dysfunctions and brutality of the police department because of their fear or unwillingness to take responsibility and act, to intervene and seek the truth on behalf of those they represent.
Shortly after receiving the report the family of Alan Blueford and supporters moved outside for another rally and debriefing. Inside the council moved on to its agenda, an agenda that since May has not included any inquiry into Blueford’s slaying, nor into what attorney John Burris said was the perception of misinformation disseminated by OPD’s leadership, misinformation that sought to characterize Blueford as a criminal threat who caused his own death when in fact all physical evidence has indicated the opposite.
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.