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When will James Earl Rivera Jr. get justice?

August 31, 2012

by Jeffrey Boyette and Ragina Johnson

Just one day before his 17th birthday, on July 22, 2010, James Earl Rivera Jr. died in a hail of 48 rounds fired by three Stockton, Calif., police officers after they forced the car he was driving to crash. Nearly two years later, a report by the district attorney found James’ death “justified.”

Dionne and Carey Smith-Downs, parents of James Earl Rivera, constantly protest his murder by Stockton police on July 22, 2010. – Photo: Socialist Worker
James’ mother, Dionne Smith-Downs, has pieced together an understanding of what happened to her son through a series of eyewitness accounts, none of which indicate that the police involved – Stockton cops Gregory Dunn and Eric Azarvand and John Nesbitt of the San Joaquin Sheriff’s Department – had any justification for opening fire on James’ vehicle.

Smith-Downs, her husband Carey Smith-Downs and her family have been on a tireless campaign to force the police to answer for James’ murder. The family has also connected with the families of other victims of police brutality, in Stockton and in the Bay Area nearby. Smith-Downs spoke with us about the loss of her son and her experiences fighting for justice.

Jeffrey Boyette and Ragina Johnson: What do you remember about the day your son James was murdered?

Dionne Smith-Downs: I received a phone call early in the morning on July 22, not from the police, but from a community member. She told me that the police stopped my son in a car down the street, and they let him go.

You could hear the gunshots from my house. I could hear them clear as day. I thought it was maybe firecrackers.

I drove there, and my heart hurt. I had a bad feeling. I felt sick like I was going to cry. I called my mom, and I asked her where my kids were. I asked people, “Has anyone seen James?” People starting putting up yellow tape, people were hollering and running with babies.

I started crying. I didn’t know the police shot James when they put my son in the ambulance.

I followed the ambulance driver to the hospital. Both a sheriff and police officers wouldn’t let me see my son in the hospital. It wasn’t until James’ body was released to a funeral home a few days later that I got to see him and know he was actually dead.

The police put his picture all over the news station while I was still at the hospital trying to see my son. I didn’t even know he had died yet. How are they going to show James’ picture when he’s a minor? He wasn’t even 17. When no one knew who the three officers were?

I couldn’t sleep. I still didn’t want to accept my son was gone. I knew he was gone when I touched him at the funeral home. That’s why I can show the pictures. I had to see his face and see what kind of stress he felt. I could see where the bullet holes went out of his skin. When they grabbed him and they dragged him out of the car. He had drag marks on his backside.

The ambulance driver said to me later that there were so many bullet holes in James’ body that he wouldn’t have been able to survive. I think he was dead before he arrived at the hospital.

The police put his picture all over the news station while I was still at the hospital trying to see my son. I didn’t even know he had died yet. How are they going to show James’ picture when he’s a minor? He wasn’t even 17. When no one knew who the three officers were?

JB and RJ: What’s it been like trying to get information, and what has your communication been like with the police?

DS-D: It hurts because as a parent, when your son was shot like that, and there is still no answer. There is still no closure. And then I go to the police station and City Hall, and they tell me “talk to this guy” and then “talk to that guy.” If he had a stolen van, why didn’t they post this in the paper?

James Earl Rivera Jr.
Why are the officers anonymous, and they are allowed back into my community to hurt my other kids? I’m stressed out because I don’t know if they’ll be able to go after my other kids. They have resources. They can manipulate the system. They have people in higher places.

I feel that James’ case could have built more awareness. The people who have been killed in Stockton since James’ death shouldn’t have been killed. The police are using the same words to justify these murders.

Why do the police get paid to be on vacation while we’re burying our loved ones? When the officers see me out in the neighborhood, they give me a smirk.

I met one of the officers personally. His name is Gregory Dunn, who is part of Stockton police. He was out there at the scene of a car accident in my neighborhood. I let him know I am James Rivera’s mother, and they murdered my son.

JB and RJ: How has this affected you and your family? You mentioned the other day that you lost your home during this time after James’ death.

DS-D: I didn’t really fight for my home. I was so stressed out. I didn’t know I could fight.

I miss my son. He cooked breakfast. He’d help get the kids ready for school. He’d meet them after school on his bike and bring them home. Before James died, I was sick. He knew I was sick, and he wouldn’t have put himself in a situation knowing the stress it would cause me. The kids say they miss James. When I go to Oakland to protests, they want to go with me. They don’t want to go to school. If I’m hurting, I know they’re hurting worse than me.

JB and RJ: At what point did you decide you could begin to fight back?

DS-D: About September of 2010, a few months after James died. My brother started organizing. He started the day James died. He met up with Cop Watch, and he was a spokesman. When I really started pushing, organizing out there, it was meeting up with Oscar Grant’s family around the Los Angeles court hearings.

I miss my son. He cooked breakfast. He’d help get the kids ready for school. He’d meet them after school on his bike and bring them home.

If they had an event, I’d go to it. A lot of times, when they had an event or protest, I was just so shy to say anything. But we were out there to see how they were organizing. So that’s how I really started. It seems weird, but that’s how it started.

On the “We Are Oscar Grant” Facebook page, they did a little article about James. I was like, “Oh, okay, now we just have to put a face on James.” He has a face. He has a mother. He has brothers and sisters. He had someone to love. So that’s when it took off. And since then, I have just been going everywhere.

I’ve been going out to everything, to the scenes of other victims of police murder, and I’ve been marching. I tell other families that this is what we need to do. We have to protest. We are people power. I’ve been doing it since that day and haven’t stopped.

JB and RJ: What have you learned through this process?

DS-D: People in the Oscar Grant Committee let me know that you don’t have to be ashamed. Since my son was killed by the police, I was ashamed. How many people do you know whose kids got killed by the police?

On the “We Are Oscar Grant” Facebook page, they did a little article about James. I was like, “Oh, okay, now we just have to put a face on James.” He has a face. He has a mother. He has brothers and sisters. He had someone to love.

You hear about Black-on-Black crime or gang violence. You barely hear about police murdering people. I have a bunch of kids. I was worried what people would say about me. I have 14 kids. I still say 14, even though James is dead.

I always thought the police were the good guys. I’m not going to lie. I felt that you could call the police. Let’s say you disagree on something with someone, you don’t take things into your own hands; you call the police and let them decide. But I look at it differently now. If you call the police, you’re looking for a death wish.

JB and RJ: What was it like to hear about the murder of Trayvon Martin?

DS-D: I feel that mother’s pain. When I heard about it, I felt her whole heart. I felt everything about it. The family didn’t know he was dead for all those hours. I have something in common with Trayvon’s mother, because we are not going to see what our sons could be, or could not have been.

The murderers took that opportunity. And we’ll never know if they would have had kids, if they would have been married, if they would have been a real part of society or not. We’ll never know because they took that.

We have to speak for the dead. These are grown men that are killing our kids. And they are pushing their words, their side of the story. Everybody listens to their cry, but what about the kids that die crying?

These are babies; they aren’t grown men. What about their cries? They don’t matter?

What’s the name of the football player who had the dogfight? Michael Vick. He went to prison for a dogfight, and people want to make sure they got justice for the dogs. So my son wasn’t a dog. Can he get justice?

I want our people in these little towns to know they can speak up – speak up like they did for Trayvon. That was a small town, I heard, too. Protestors made it known that a murder happened in that city, in that town, and they want it to stop.

Every time something goes down in Sacramento, you hear about it, but you don’t hear about these little towns. We have a lot of killings here, too. And that’s why we get out there and protest. That’s the point of having protests here: to create awareness that you have a voice – people power. If we come together, we can’t be defeated. They feel we don’t want it because we don’t holler about it.

Whitewashing police murder

by Jeffrey Boyette

After nearly two years, authorities in San Joaquin County, Calif., have finally broken their silence surrounding the police murder of 16-year-old James Earl Rivera Jr., but predictably their 27-page report finds that police were “justified” in their use of lethal force against the African American teenager.

Rivera died in a hail of police gunfire on July 22, 2010, one day before his 17th birthday, but until July 11, Rivera’s family had been denied access to all police reports, coroners’ reports and “dash-cam” footage from the incident. If it wasn’t for relentless public pressure organized by the family and their supporters – including weekly personal appeals to the city by Rivera’s mother, Dionne Smith-Downs – it’s unlikely this report would have ever been produced.

Needless to say, the conclusions issued by San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett haven’t satisfied Smith-Downs’ demand for justice for her son’s death.

On the morning of Rivera’s death, he was seen driving a blue van at normal speeds though his hometown of Stockton, Calif., while being tailed by an unmarked vehicle. According to Smith-Downs, two witnesses saw a police car pull her son over within a block of their home and then release him. There was no mention of this occurrence in the DA’s report.

Later, Rivera’s vehicle was confronted by several police cars, which repeatedly rammed the vehicle and forced it to crash through the side of the garage of a multiunit residence, landing only a few feet away from the wall of a family’s living room. The impact was so forceful that Rivera’s vehicle crashed straight through a set of large metal mailboxes bolted to the sidewalk and then through both walls of the single-car garage, leaving only a fraction of the vehicle protruding onto the lawn outside.

Needless to say, the conclusions issued by San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett haven’t satisfied Smith-Downs’ demand for justice for her son’s death.

According to the DA’s report, the front of Rivera’s vehicle was “inside the garage lifted off the ground by the community mailbox and some bushes it had ripped out of the ground.” In a matter of seconds, Gregory Dunn and Eric Azarvand of the Stockton Police Department and John Nesbitt of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department had surrounded Rivera’s crashed vehicle, exited their cars and opened fire with at least 30 rounds, ending Rivera’s life.

One officer was wielding an AR-15 assault rifle, though he asserted that he didn’t fire it due to a magazine failure. One witness reported seeing the officers drag Rivera’s lifeless body out of the van, slap his face, then pat each other on the back as if to congratulate one another. Beyond seeming unjustified, this brutal assault bears a disturbing resemblance to a racist lynch mob.

Every officer on the scene repeated the claim that just before the shots were fired, the van’s engine revved loudly as Rivera attempted to dislodge the vehicle from the garage. This “threat” was enough for the DA to declare Rivera’s van “a weapon capable of serious injury or death,” thus warranting the use of deadly force.

It’s certainly reasonable to ask how three heavily armed officers could feel threatened by a vehicle that they had already immobilized and surrounded. Or to wonder why these officers did not protect themselves from the reversing van by means other than killing the 16-year-old driver.

Beyond seeming unjustified, this brutal assault bears a disturbing resemblance to a racist lynch mob.

On top of these questions, eyewitness accounts raise doubts as to whether the claims that Rivera was backing up are even true. Of the nine civilian witnesses cited in the report, only one mentions hearing an engine revving prior to the shooting, and none report seeing the van move after crashing into the garage. The “threat” posed by Rivera’s crashed van would also be second-guessed by anyone who sees the video of the van’s removal from the scene later that evening, which shows a large tow-truck struggling to dislodge the crippled vehicle. The driver side rear wheel is clearly flat.

The DA report also attempts to smear James’ character in order to justify the initial pursuit. This description, however, is based on questionable allegations that the family has dismissed as shameful lies. One comes in the first footnote, which states that Rivera was 17 at the time of his incarceration and one day away from turning 18 at the time of his death. Rivera was, in fact, 16 at the time of his death, one day shy of his 17th birthday.

Rivera is also described as a “fleeing felon” who had escaped from a juvenile facility where he was incarcerated “for a variety of felonies.” The report asserts that Rivera escaped on May 9, 2010, but there was never any attempt by law enforcement to contact Rivera’s family or visit his home between that time and the day he was killed more than two months later.

In fact, the family made two attempts to return Rivera to the juvenile facility during that time, according to Smith-Downs, in order to be sure that he had served out his sentence. In both instances, they were told that James was free to go due to a medical condition. This fact also did not appear in the DA’s report, yet it completely discredits the claim that Rivera was a “fleeing” criminal.

These obvious gaps in the report demonstrate the need for a truly independent investigation into Rivera’s death. This report is also a disturbing reminder that the criminal justice system cannot be expected to hold itself accountable, especially in the case of a young Black man killed by white officers.

James Earl Rivera Jr. is yet one more name on a tragically long list of Black youth gunned down by police without justification and without consequences for the killers. Recently, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement shed light on the scale of the crisis facing Black communities in a study of what they call extrajudicial killings.

The study found that during the first six months of 2012, a Black person was killed without trial or due process by law enforcement, security guards or vigilantes once every 36 hours. A majority of victims were between 13 and 31 years old and unarmed. In Stockton alone, there have been at least three such killings in the last six months.

This report is also a disturbing reminder that the criminal justice system cannot be expected to hold itself accountable, especially in the case of a young Black man killed by white officers.

The only reason Rivera’s case stands out amid this parade of police killings is that the family and community have made the courageous decision to stand up and demand justice for their loved one and for an end to the continued police violence.

James Rivera’s mother, Dionne Smith-Downs, speaks at a rally on the second anniversary of her son’s murder by Stockton police. – Photo: Jeff Boyette, Socialist Worker
Since Rivera’s death, his parents, Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs, have spoken at countless events around Stockton and the Bay Area and have organized numerous pickets and protests in Stockton alongside allies from the Oscar Grant Committee in Oakland, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Stockton. Crucially, they have connected with the families of other victims of police brutality in the Stockton area, encouraging them to speak out as well.

If DA Willett expected his report to put an end to the ongoing campaign around Rivera’s case, then he has severely underestimated the courage and determination of Rivera’s family and their community.

On July 22, the two-year anniversary of Rivera’s death, the family raised its collective voice once again to demand justice. Dozens of activists and community members joined the family for a speak-out on the corner where Rivera was murdered. Smith-Downs directly challenged the DA’s report for its disregard of eyewitness accounts:

“We came back to the community to let the people know we’re still fighting and that we’re going to continue to fight. Because we’re not going to let this go – to be swept under the rug. We as a community, we cannot let them tell us that we didn’t see [what happened]. We know what we saw that day. Your children saw it. These kids are still walking around here saying, ‘No justice, no peace.’ They still tell me when I come in this neighborhood, ‘James was murdered by the police.’”

At the end of the speak-out, Smith-Downs released 19 balloons to commemorate what would have been Rivera’s 19th birthday and then led a “justice caravan” through North Stockton. With horns blaring and picket signs poking through sunroofs, the caravan retraced the path Rivera took the morning of his death and then continued on to a nearby park where the group joined dozens more family members, friends and supporters for a community BBQ.

“These kids are still walking around here saying, ‘No justice, no peace.’ They still tell me when I come in this neighborhood, ‘James was murdered by the police.’”

With the city of Stockton recently becoming the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, this sort of organizing gains even greater significance. A tighter city budget will mean greater economic pressures and increased racial scapegoating for a community that already suffers from high foreclosure rates and high unemployment. The more people are able to come together and raise their voices in unity, the harder it will be for the city to look the other way as injustice rolls on. In the words of Rivera’s father:

“We have to speak up and voice our opinions and let them know that we’re not going to stand for killing our kids in the street. We’re not going to stand for them taking our property, our jobs and not say nothing about it … James was our child, and we need to speak up before it happens to somebody else.”

What you can do

You can sign a petition calling for justice for James Earl Rivera Jr. at Change.org.

This is an edited version of two stories previously published on SocialistWorker.org: When will James Earl Rivera Jr. get justice? and Whitewashing police murder. Bay Area activists Ragina Johnson and Jeffrey Boyette can be reached at ragina@mac.com and boyette.jeffrey@gmail.com.

 

3 thoughts on “When will James Earl Rivera Jr. get justice?

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