In the news in the last few weeks: multiple incidents where citizens have been killed by police officers for reasons that seem trivial or non-existent. They range in gravity from a policeman shooting a guy in Missouri who might or might not have pinched a few cigars all the way down to a twelve-year-old kid in Cleveland gunned down for flashing a toy gun in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The common thread: all were African-Americans, and all had done nothing to merit summary execution. And none of the uniformed killers have been held to account.
Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out about the latest outrage, the failure of a New York Grand Jury to indict a police officer for homicide (“human killing”) inflicted on Eric Garner, accused of selling single cigarettes. “…we seek to restore trust, to rebuild understanding and to foster cooperation between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” he said. Congresswoman Barbara Lee noted that “These tragedies have been happening for many years. But the recent high profile cases of injustice for the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have and should spark a national debate and long overdue action to address the structural and institutional racial biases in our nation.”
There’s been a lot of outrage expressed over the failure to prosecute police officers for their role in these deaths. But what also needs to be examined is the continuing accumulation of seemingly trivial incidents where African-Americans and other citizens of color are needlessly harassed by the very law officers who are supposed to be protecting them. Holder, whose brother is a retired officer, said that “the vast majority of our law enforcement officers perform their duties honorably and are committed to respecting their fellow citizens’ civil rights as they carry out their very challenging work.”
Well, maybe. But a recent incident I’ve learned about, right here in supposedly liberal Berkeley California, makes me wonder.
Bobby G’s Pizzeria is a very typical neighborhood pizza- and-sports-screens joint a few blocks from the U.C. Berkeley campus. Bobby, the boss, is a former tech executive who thought owning his own business would be more fun. It turns out—no surprise—to be a lot of hard work, but he prides himself on maintaining a convivial atmosphere. The food is great—the place has been a big favorite of my visiting granddaughters and my sports-fan son-in-law since it opened eight years ago.
But on a Sunday afternoon in late September (September 28, to be exact) the customary gathering to eat pizza and watch a 49ers’ game was disrupted by multiple police officers arriving in force in several cars with lights flashing. They stayed for almost an hour.
The Berkeley Daily Planet has gotten a copy of a letter (now a matter of public record) which the proprietor wrote that night to the Berkeley Police, with a copy to his councilmember Jesse Arreguin. Here’s just the beginning of what he said in an eloquent two-page single-spaced letter:
“I would like to request a meeting with internal affairs, and the officers who came to my restaurant at 2072 University on Sunday afternoon (around 4:30pm), September 28 and used my hallway as an interrogation room to question a man who, with his wife and child, was minding his own business while watching the 49ers game. I was not in the restaurant at the time but the officers did not seek my permission to use my hallway for what seems to amount to nothing but harassment. My manager tried to speak with the officers about the incident and she was completely ignored.
“While I am a big supporter of the Berkeley Police Department, and always will be, I do not under any circumstances appreciate or condone what went down in my restaurant on Sunday. From what I understand some customer in my restaurant called the police and alleged that this mixed race couple, who are good customers of Bobby G’s Pizzeria and who have never once created any problems, were abusing their child by drinking beer and wine in front of the kid.”
The owner’s letter went on to recount what a witness had told him, that one officer even lectured the parents for taking their son to a “bar”. He pointed out that Bobby G’s is a family friendly restaurant which has the kind of alcohol license that allows children to come in for meals and their parents may order beer and wine—it’s not just “a bar”.
His letter was accompanied by a list of signatures and phone numbers which Sarah Danley, the manager on duty, had collected from 18 restaurant patrons who were outraged by what they witnessed, including one family therapist. Sarah happens to be trained as a lawyer, so she understood the implications of the scene she was watching.
“There were at least eight cops,” one witness told me. “It was pretty tense.”
I learned that the family in question comes in often on weekend afternoons to eat pizza and watch games on the big screens, and the regulars like them a lot. A patron who signed the list of witnesses describes the scene when the boy, who looks to be about 5 or 6, watched his dad being interrogated for the better part of an hour by multiple officers as “heartbreaking”.
One of the witnesses I spoke to, Jacob Woods, told me he thought the fact that one of the parents is African-American had a lot to do with the disrespectful way the police treated them, and others agreed. Even if some racist busybody had called in a complaint, Jacob said that a two-minute conversation with the manager or anyone in the restaurant should have been enough to show the cops that no child abuse had taken place.
Instead, according to witnesses, the parents and everyone else in the place (most of whom were white) were essentially held hostage for close to an hour while a pair of police officers exhaustively (and arrogantly) quizzed the African-American father, in the process blocking the hall leading to the restrooms and making it impossible for anyone else to get past.
This is Berkeley, to be sure, and both the restaurant owner and his patrons were quick to condemn the abuse of authority which they witnessed. But if the officers involved have not been reprimanded, if what appears to be their standing operating procedure, the pattern and practice of their response to complaints against citizens, does not change, it will happen again and again, with eventually tragic consequences.
The letter I saw concluded this way:
“I’m not filing a formal complaint against the officers but I think they need to show a lot more respect for people when investigating a complaint that was basically nothing…I am a big supporter of the Berkeley Police Department but that doesn’t mean I support this kind of boorish behavior. Nobody should, and Berkeley Police should be above the nonsense of treating everybody like criminals.”
After I was given a copy of his letter, I asked Bobby what had happened since he wrote it in September. He told me he’d had an inconclusive conversation with someone in the Berkeley Police Department who asked him to supply a copy of his surveillance video. It turned out that wasn’t possible because the recorder had malfunctioned—and he never heard from the BPD again. As far as he knew, none of the 18 witnesses had been contacted either, and that’s where it stands.
Small businesses like Bobby G’s depend on the services provided by police officers, so the owner has understandably been reluctant to press his complaint any further. It took a good deal of courage to write this letter in the first place. The last thing a struggling local enterprise like his needs is enmity from the police.
This story might seem like small potatoes when compared with recent incidents where people died, but it’s hostile encounters like this that eventually destroy what Holder describes as “the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect.”
Why on earth should that little boy who watched his father being bullied trust the police when he’s older?
And here’s the thing: this happens all the time, everywhere, even—god forbid—in liberal Berkeley. I’ve heard dozens of similar stories from African-American friends and family members, each more or less outrageous than this one. That watching African-American child whose father was harassed by a posse of Berkeley police officers on the basis of a bogus complaint could have been my own mixed-race granddaughter. And nobody, regardless of race, should be treated like that.
Worse cases, cases where people have been killed by police, seem to be on the news every night, it’s true. But many, many smaller indignities like those visited on that family at Bobby G’s on a September afternoon are daily occurrences.
What are we, in Berkeley and in the rest of the country, going to do about it, and about all the rest of the situations where persons of color are unjustly accused on a regular basis? I’d be interested in getting comments from Berkeley’s police chief, city manager, mayor and city council on this topic, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for them to call. I didn’t contact the family in question—they’ve been annoyed enough—and I’m not using their name to protect what remains of their privacy, but if they asked me for advice, I might just give them John Burris’s phone number. [He’s the Bay Area’s leading police misconduct specialist attorney.]
Becky O’Malley is the editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.