On Tuesday evening, a small group of protestors gathered in front of the towering Oakland Police Department building downtown to demand answers about the death of Marcellus Toney, 45, who died in the custody of Oakland police in late September. Toney was tased following an automobile accident on the 4100 block of Foothill Boulevard.
As of early November, the police department had not released any more information than was originally reported by Oakland North the day after the incident. “We are waiting for the coroner to determine the cause of death,” wrote Oakland Police Public Information Officer Johnna Watson this week in an email.
Immediately after Toney’s death in September, the department had put out a press release stating that officers went to the scene of the crash, where injuries had been reported, and that Toney (who, at that time, was unnamed) was “identified as being involved in the vehicle collision and attempting to flee the scene.” The release also stated that Toney was being “physically resistant” toward the officers who were arresting him, that he was tased at that time, that officers called for emergency services and that Toney later died at the hospital.
The Anti Police-Terror Project, an Oakland-based group that provides support to families of people killed by police officers, organized Tuesday night’s gathering. Members of the project carry out their own investigations to put together a community version of the events surrounding these deaths. They raise public awareness about officer involved shootings through social media, and by holding gatherings like Tuesday’s. They sometimes raise funds for families who can’t afford funeral costs.
The rally had been scheduled to run from 5 pm to 7 pm, and as of 4:45 pm there were at least five police officers at each of the Oakland police building’s main entrances. The five male officers at the front entrance seemed relaxed—texting or making phone calls, talking amongst themselves, and passing around a sleeve of cookies.
The protest group slowly grew as people walked up, often in pairs, but leveled off at about 40 people. Most were dressed nicely, a few in suits and ties. They greeted each other with smiles and hugs.
Asantewaa Boykin, a co-founder of the project, laid out the plan for the evening’s demands, in an interview as the protesters gathered: They wanted to find out why the police continue to use Tasers, which officer deployed the Taser the day Toney died, and why crisis intervention hadn’t been used instead of lethal force, since, Boykin said, Toney had just been in an accident and was “obviously in crisis, and needed medical attention.” Boykin said that, “historically,” Oakland police officers have not given answers to these kinds of questions.
Cat Brooks, another co-founder, took to the mic of their mobile PA system. “Tasers kill,” she said. Brooks went on to say that this case was unusual because they had to “comb through Facebook” to get any details about Toney’s death, and these came from videos posted by people at the scene. Brooks ended by saying that they wanted answers, and that, no matter the weapon used, they would “stand behind the family.”
John Burris, who is serving as legal representation for the family, said that he has made requests for documents involving the case, and that “there must be transparency” from Oakland police. Burris is a civil rights attorney. In the past, he represented plaintiffs in their suit against a group of Oakland police officers known as “the Riders” who were accused by the plaintiffs, according to earlier Oakland North reporting, “of severely beating them and planting drugs as evidence in order to detain them.” He also represented the woman known as Celeste Guap, who was sexually exploited by Oakland police officers, in her case against Oakland.
Burris also represented the family of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, an unarmed African-American man, who was shot and killed on January 1, 2009 by then Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer, Johannes Mehserle. He won a settlement of $5.1 million from BART for Grant’s daughter in 2011, according to a statement on his website. Toney’s arrest happened close to the Fruitvale BART Station, where Grant died.
Toney’s wife, Lamesha Smith, spoke through tears, saying that she can’t get closure because she doesn’t know what happened to her husband. “He was unarmed,” she said, “so why did he deserve to be tased?” She said that he was in a three-car accident, and that he was “a victim also.” She wondered aloud whether he had a concussion, because in the videos taken at the scene, she said, she heard him screaming “Somebody, please help me.”
The couple’s pastor, Anthony A. K. Hodge, Sr., of Zion Hill Baptist Church, spoke as well, saying that Toney was “more than a victim: he was a father, a husband. He was also a gainfully employed gentleman,” who had been at his job at a Goodwill in San Francisco for eight years. Toney “didn’t come to Oakland to die,” Hodge said. He finished by saying that the family had to bury Toney “without a death certificate.”
Brooks said the project is coordinating with Burris’s office to “plan next steps,” and thanked everyone for coming. As people slowly dispersed, only 40 minutes after they’d come together, the family’s pastor, Burris, Brooks and family members gathered around Toney’s wife, who was crying.
The only interaction between Oakland police and the demonstrators happened when an officer approached Burris as the attorney was leaving. The two talked amicably for several minutes.
Brooks said afterward that the turnout was lower than expected, she thinks, because “not a lot of people know” about Toney’s death, since the police haven’t released information. During her closing comments, she said she believes that the police had worked to keep things quiet because “they know they’re wrong, and they know that when that information gets out, this community, like it always does, is going to erupt in rage and resistance.”
“I swear to you,” she told the people gathered, this “will be a long path, and these crowds will grow.”