Lawyers guild investigating excessive force accusations
on July 20, 2010
Wearing a white tank top spotted with blood, Susan Harman, a 69-year-old former school principal and Oakland resident, told a crowd of reporters that she was a victim of police aggression during the protests following the July 8 Johannes Mehserle verdict. The tank top she was wearing was the same one she had on that night when, she said, while peacefully protesting she was pushed down, hit on the head with a baton and arrested.
Many local residents peacefully protested the involuntary manslaughter verdict for Mehserle, the BART police officer accused of having shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back as he lay face-down on the platform of Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station in January, 2009. But a small number of people looted businesses and vandalized downtown Oakland, destroying property, setting fires in trashcans and breaking storefront windows. Police arrested 78 people that night. The majority have been released after being cited with misdemeanors, such as failure to disperse.
Now, the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild is claiming that police manhandled some of the people arrested, as well as arrested people who had done nothing illegal. “There are at least half a dozen people with injuries that go beyond mere bruises,” said Carlos Villarreal, the executive director of the guild’s Bay Area chapter. According to Villareal, the injuries range from people being hit on the head with batons to one man who had some of his dreadlocks pulled out.
On the night of the protest, the National Lawyers Guild posted dozens of legal observers in the street to see if police acted aggressively towards the protesters. “We’ve been looking over the evidence we’ve gathered and what we have found is the story that’s developed is quite different,” said Villarreal. “Police were violent; police violated peoples civil rights.”
At a guild press conference last week, Harman said that she was a peaceful protester. She said that when the official city-sponsored rally near Frank Ogawa Plaza ended, the police began to try to get the protesters to disperse and she joined a line of citizens, including Oakland city councilmembers Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, who linked elbows and barricaded the police from the crowd. They slowly walked in front of police to help disperse the gathering.
Harman said they came across two people sitting on the ground playing chess who refused to stand up. “I’m not going to walk on these people,” Harman said she told the police. Then, she said, a police officer charged her and hit her on the head. “I still have a lump,” she said.
Harman claims police officers put her in an ambulance, that she was taken to the hospital so her wounds could be treated, and afterwards taken to jail, where she spent the night. The next day she was cited with a misdemeanor and released. “The whole thing was very frightening in a country that is using security as an excuse for increasing oppression,” Harman said.
According to a 2004 Oakland Tribune article, this isn’t Harman’s first skirmish with authorities. At that time, when she was a principal at an East Oakland public charter school, the Tribune reported that she was banned from the school district headquarters after she had a confrontation with then-State Administrator Randolph Ward’s bodyguard.
Oakland attorney Walter Riley was also present at the National Lawyers Guild press conference. He said that he was at the rally peacefully protesting, and that when the officially sanctioned speaking portion of the rally ended he and his son walked down to his office at 15th Street and Broadway. As he was opening his office door, he said, “I was grabbed and pushed against the wall.” Then, he said, an officer choked him. “It was CHP [California Highway Patrol] and they were outrageous.”
Also allegedly injured by police was John Weston Osburn, a 26-year-old self-proclaimed anarchist from Salt Lake City, Utah, who claims that, while he supported the vandalism that happened that night, he was at the rally as a reporter. He said he was wearing a press pass and was videotaping the protest for Indy Media, an open publishing media site that allows anybody to contribute. He said that he was thrown to the ground and that the police twisted his arm behind his back so roughly that they injured his wrist. “I told them they were going to break my arm,” he said, “and they kept twisting.” He was taken to the hospital in the same ambulance as Harman and then brought to jail.
Harman and Riley were cited for misdemeanors and released; Osburn was initially arrested for attempted arson, a felony. According to his police report, officers thought he was trying to light a match near his backpack, as if he was trying to set something in his pack on fire. Osburn was later let off with misdemeanor citations for acts constituting a riot and failure to disperse.
The night of the protest, the regional California Highway Patrol and Alameda County Sheriff’s Department officers joined Oakland police officers. All groups were outfitted in full riot gear, including shields, bulletproof vests, helmets with facemasks, billy clubs and bundles of zip-ties to be used as handcuffs.
Law enforcement officials say that their officers acted legally during the protest. An Oakland Police Department spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle that OPD officers gave protesters lawful orders to disperse and announced over bullhorns that those who did not leave the area would be arrested. As of last Thursday, only one complaint of excessive force had been received by the OPD. Department spokespeople did not return interview requests this week.
California Highway Patrol spokespeople also did not return interview requests.
As of Monday, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office had received no complaints regarding use of excessive force. “I attribute that to our deputies being well trained,” said Sergeant Ray Kelly, a public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. “Our deputies have a long history in crowd control situations.”
However, Villarreal said that it’s rare that people file complaints with law enforcement agencies while they have a pending legal case against them. One reason, he said, may be for fear of retribution. Another is that typically lawyers advise against bringing complaints, since they could reveal information relevant in a criminal or civil case. “I doubt that there’s going be any other people filing complaints with the Oakland police,” Villarreal said.
The National Lawyers Guild Bay Area chapter is continuing to investigate possible legal action on behalf of protesters who were allegedly injured by law enforcement officers during the protest. “There are civil liberties issues and also criminal issues,” said Villarreal. “We can urge criminal prosecution and also bring civil suits for people being assaulted and violations of people’s First Amendment rights.”
Image: Police stand at the ready during the protest after the Mehserle verdict.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.
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