The auditorium was not much warmer than the wet, 42-degree air outside, but the 200 people inside of it, bundled in coats and scarves, didn’t seem to notice. They sat listening with rapt attention when Cathy King picked up the microphone as part of the Oakland Tribunal: A People’s Hearing on Racism and Violence, a two-day summit full of testimonies from Bay Area residents and activists who spoke about the state of human rights in the city of Oakland.
The goal of the event was to gather testimony from twenty-five witnesses on topics including officer-involved shootings and racial profiling. An audience of roughly 200 and a jury of seven listened to testimony and were given the opportunity to ask questions of the witnesses. The jury, which was made up of civil rights attorneys, professors and activists, will compile information presented over the weekend in hopes of submitting their findings to the United Nations.
Cathy King rarely accepts invitations to speak publicly about her son Gary, shot by the police in 2007, and spoke more softly than the rest of her peers onstage. She was flanked by Lori Davis and Kristopher Brown, the mother and brother of Raheim Brown, who was shot in January by an Oakland schools security officer after he allegedly attacked another officer with a screwdriver; Sonya Wahnee, mother of Andrew Moppin who was shot by an OPD officer New Year’s Eve 2007, Frank and Nellie Jones, parents of Derrick Jones, who was shot last November by Oakland police officers responding to a domestic dispute call; and Jack Bryson, family friend of the late Oscar Grant, who was shot by former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day, 2009.
Brown, Jones, Moppin, King, Grant—for anyone living in Oakland at least four years, the surnames of these young men carry with them a bizarre kind of weight, one might even call it celebrity. Cathy King’s eyes were cast down at her statement as she began reading. Her son Gary was with friends in North Oakland when a police officer approached him for questioning, she said. According to her, King reached for his waistband during an argument with the officer, and the officer opened fire.
“September 20, 2007 is the day I changed the way I view the police department,” Cathy King said. “I believed they were brave soldiers on the street, here to protect us. That day I saw what my kids had been telling me all along, that they stop you on the streets, harass you. This was not the police I knew. If my husband wasn’t black, if my children weren’t of color, this wouldn’t not have happened.” King concluded her speech quickly and pointedly. “I hate them and blame them for destroying my family,” she said.
So far there have been three officer-involved shootings in Oakland this year: the deaths of Brown, Matthew Cicelski, who was shot by police after allegedly forcing entry into a home while carrying a fake assault weapon, and Martin Flenaugh, a 19-year-old who allegedly confronted officers with multiple weapons after being involved in a car chase. Many speakers at the tribunal called these shootings a systematic expression of racism and violence from government agencies, particularly the Oakland Police Department.
This weekend’s tribunal was modeled after similar tribunals that took place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and more recently in Philadelphia to address incidences of police violence. Although the forum did not exactly resemble a mock trial, the speakers were referred to as “witnesses,” their speeches as “testimony” and their questioners as “jury members” in order to convey the weight of their accusations.
The findings of the tribunal do not carry any official consequence. Miriam Zouzounis, a member of the organizing committee, said that while the group hopes to submit their reports to the United Nations, the event was largely for the benefit of the community.
“It’s a space for healing that we’re trying to create, to build community power around these events,” she said. “I think it’s great that we’re able to be grassroots about this, and allow people from the community to be the ones featured in this event. No one is speaking for them, that’s why it’s called ‘A People’s Hearing.’”
Dan Siegel, who has been a civil rights attorney in Oakland for forty years, served as a juror at the event. His wife is on the organizing committee for the tribunal, and his son is one of the attorneys representing many of the defendants named in the proposed Fruitvale gang injunction.
Though he was not on the organizing committee, he says much of the tribunal was organized in his office. “Some people came up with the idea that it would be good to take testimony about issues that should reported to the UN as far as the US’s compliance with the [United National Treaty on Human Rights],” said Siegel. “It’s a very exciting time to be involved locally and internationally in the struggle to improve human rights. I am hoping that by holding this tribunal in Oakland we’ll contribute to that effort.”
The auditorium was filled with activists for many causes, anxious to discuss freedom for Palestine, the environment, immigration reform and the gang injunction. Tables lined the back of the room with representatives from sponsoring organizations, among them the National Lawyers Guild and KPFA Radio. Signs posted at each entrance to the building expressly prohibited attendance by government employees, law-enforcement agencies, or anyone gathering information for the government and asserted that anyone’s invitation to the event could be revoked at any time, for any reason.
Among the witnesses who offered testimony throughout the tribunal were representatives of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an organization for the promotion of human rights in the African-American community, the Laney Black Student Union, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, an empowerment organization within Arab communities, and the Community Youth Center, a San Francisco-based organization that supports high-need Asian youths. Most of the speakers shared personal stories of profiling and abuse by the police or government policy based on race, citizenship status or prior incarceration. They presented examples of systematic governmental abuses of power, and spoke passionately about the need for reform.
The most passionate speakers, however, were the families and friends of those shot and killed by Oakland law enforcement officers. Jack Bryson, whose son was with Oscar Grant on the BART platform when he was killed, narrated a video clip of Grant’s death showing Johannes Mehserle shooting Grant while he lay on the ground, restrained.
Lori Davis held up photos of her son, Raheim Brown, both before and after his death, the latter illustrating the entry and exit wounds of bullets through his temple, chest and arm. “Make sure you turn the kids’ heads,” she said first to the audience.
The testimonies were emotional, with each member of the panel agreeing with Nellie Jones who called the death of their sons “cold-blooded murder.”
Anger about the shootings, both from the witnesses and the jury, was also directed at what the panel called a “culture of immunity” in which officers involved in shootings rarely, if ever, face consequences for their actions. “I’ve been doing this for forty years, and I never saw a case when the cop was found to be wrong. With Rodney King they had to admit it, because it was right there on tape, but even then they still fought it,” said juror and civil rights attorney Dennis Cunningham.
While the tribunal specifically sought to address concerns regarding police brutality and racism in the city of Oakland, Ajamau Baraka, executive director of the US Human Rights Network and a member of the jury, said that Oakland residents are not alone in their concerns. “Unfortunately, my friends, what we’ve heard today is not very unique. We hear these stories in every major city in this country,” he said. “These police officers are doing what they have been trained to do. Their role in this kind of society is not to protect and serve the people, but the elite. It’s one of social control.”
Oakland resident Shannon Alsup was present for both days of the tribual and said she was grateful she was able to attend and learn more about the experiences of those in her community. “Being a white person who recognizes a certain level of privilege, to hear those stories first hand was really hard for me,” she said.