by Davey D
In the wake of the brutal police execution of Mario Woods by San Francisco police in Bayview Hunters Point, many are asking where is California state Attorney General Kamala Harris?
She was elected with the hope and expectation, naive as it may be, that she of all people would be out there weighing in and demanding justice for Mario. The hope and expectation was not only would she be sympathetic but legislatively effective and politically impactful to issues of concern from the communities that backed her. In this case the issue front and center for many in California is police terrorism.
Kamala got her political jump off in the Bayview as was noted last week by her good friend and longtime San Francisco activist and promoter Shelly Tatum. He stood before a standing room only crowd of more than 500 people inside the St. Paul of the Shipwreck Church and talked about how before anyone really knew who Kamala was, she had reached out to his family for help.
Tatum talked fondly of Harris. He talked about how he saw her go from assistant district attorney in Oakland to two term district attorney of San Francisco to two term state attorney general of California. She is perched to replace outgoing U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. “She was someone to believe in,” he noted.
Shelly told Mario’s grieving mother Gwendolyn Woods, what took place was beyond egregious. He added that he had never asked Kamala for any favors but promised he would personally call her and press her to get involved with this case.
Tatum then turned to the audience and somberly stated: “Kamala, I say this to you. I love you. We love you. Bayview Hunters Point, the Black community of San Francisco, helped get you to where you are today – and today, we need you.”
He then asked the capacity crowd to repeat loudly in unison: “Kamala Harris! We need you today!”
In the days that followed we’ve seen and heard a number of other prominent folks from the Bayview public call for Harris to step up including “Straight Outta Hunters Point” filmmaker Kevin Epps as well as Minister Christopher Muhammad of Mosque 26. He is on widely circulated video calling for Chief Greg Suhr to his face to step down and calling for Kamala Harris to get involved. Sadly Harris has thus far been pretty much absent from the fight.
Now, in the past, people gave Kamala Harris a bit of a pass when she was running for state attorney general to replace then outgoing Jerry Brown, who is now our governor. People figured they’d hold back and not upset the proverbial apple cart so she could get into the top position and then make moves. Once she became state attorney general, however, instead of going hard on police accountability, Harris has been currying favor with police unions.
Here’s a breakdown on this …
The relationships between DAs and police
Back in January 2015 during her inauguration, Kamala Harris pledged to make a series of reforms to help restore trust between police and communities of color. She gave the usual line of calling for more sensitivity training, pushing body cameras and insisting on community policing.
She completely sidetracked the main police accountability measure that has been vigorously pushed up and down the state by damn near every organization fighting for police reform: special prosecutors in cases of police shootings. Folks have been crystal clear that the day to day relationship local prosecutors have with police puts victims of police terrorism at a severe disadvantage. There’s an inherent conflict of interest.
This conflict was glaring during the Oscar Grant case back in 2009. Many forget that in the beginning Alameda County prosecutor Tom Orloff refused to investigate, much less charge BART cop Johannes Mehersle. I was present when over 100 Black ministers, elected leaders and community activists came to his office on the morning of Grant’s funeral and demanded he step up and press charges on Mehersle.
At first Orloff refused to meet with folks. Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson convinced him otherwise. He then tried to hand pick two or three people to speak with and that was rejected by the crowd at hand. Finally everyone piled into his conference room, where he dragged his feet and made no commitment to go after Grant’s killer.
It was only after intense political pressure, both locally and nationally, that Orloff finally pressed charges. It was an unusual move but resulted in a conviction. That was the first time that had happened in California history. Mehesrle was due to get 14 years, but the pro-cop judge Robert Perry down in LA where the trial was moved vacated 10 years, claiming he “made a mistake.”
With regard to district attorneys, we’ve seen time and time again from place to place a reluctance for prosecutors to go after “killer cops.” From Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland to LA to Houston to Chicago and beyond, the bonds between cops and DAs are too strong. Their political ties are even stronger.
We saw those strong political ties in Ferguson in the case around Mike Brown and DA Bob McCulloch. We’ve seen this playing out in Cleveland around the Tamir Rice case with DA Timothy J. McGinty.
The Andy Lopez case
Here in the Bay Area, we witnessed how the political interests of District Attorney Jill Ravitch and Sonoma County sheriffs trounced justice around the case of Andy Lopez.
For those who are unaware, in October of 2013, 13-year-old Andy Lopez was gunned down in Santa Rosa, California, by a Sonoma County deputy sheriff named Erick Gelhaus as he was walking by a field to return a toy gun that a friend had left at his home.
The field Andy was walking by was a well known spot where neighborhood kids frequently play target practice with their pellet guns. It’s the same field where they hold pellet gun and paint ball leagues. In short, holding an Airsoft rifle like the one Andy was holding was not an unusual sight in Santa Rosa.
Gelhaus, upon seeing Lopez, claims he thought the gun was real because it didn’t have an orange tip. He drove his patrol car up behind him and told the kid to stop. As Lopez turned around, the officer claimed he “feared for his life” and shot him seven to 10 times.
Months earlier, Deputy Gelhaus had penned an article in a police trade publication instructing officers how they can clear themselves of wrongful shootings especially if the case involves toy guns.
The shooting set off 60 days of protests in Santa Rosa, led mostly by Lopez’s middle school classmates who were devastated at the loss of the popular student. It was the 54th killing in 10 years in that area with the Brown or Latino community being disproportionately on the receiving end.
They’d had enough and pushed for DA Jill Ravitch to press charges. Initially she stalled on making a decision and then she flat out refused.
It was revealed there was a political relationship between the sheriff and Jill Ravitch, meaning they were both campaigning and pushing for each other’s respective re-election bids and attending each other’s fundraisers. In fact, the sheriff directly contributed to Ravitch’s campaign.
According to civil rights lawyer Jon Melrod, who was a key organizer around the Justice for Andy Lopez efforts, numerous calls were placed over and over asking for Kamala Harris to intervene. The community called for an independent special prosecutor to eliminate what they perceived as a conflict of interest. Those calls were met with deafening silence.
Kamala’s silence gets police union support
Many figured Kamala, who was gearing up for her 2014 re-election, was trying to stay above the fray and not piss off California police unions whose endorsement she wanted but did not actually need. Many forget that in her first election, most police unions in Cali got behind her opponent and she still won.
Police were upset with Harris and avoided endorsing her because as San Francisco district attorney she refused to seek the death penalty against David Hill, a man from the Bayview who was accused of killing police officer Isaac Espinoza back in 2005. They held that against her in 2010 when she first ran for state attorney general. This time, as she is running for U.S. Senate, she wanted police union support in hand. This is important to note and here’s why.
In January of 2015, around the same time Kamala announced her package of police reform proposals, Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty proposed Assembly Bill 86, the “Peace Officers: Department of Justice: independent investigation” bill. Basically, his bill would mandate that the Attorney General’s Office would review and handle all police shootings. This is what folks had been fighting for all these years. The California Peace Officers’ Association opposed the bill before it even hit committee.
Kamala sidestepped it by publicly stating she is “philosophically disinclined to take away the discretion of local elected officials.” In short, let’s keep the status quo and let’s not piss off the police unions.
One month after she stated her position, the Los Angeles Police Protective League came out and endorsed her bid for U.S. Senate. Many political pundits feel that move derailed any chance for former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was threatening to challenge Harris in her senatorial bid, to jump into the race. Read about that here: http://lat.ms/1R9Ukzz.
More police unions are expected to line up behind Harris as the latest newspaper headlines detail her opening up campaign offices on Sacramento’s K Street, the Democratic Party expressing concern that she is spending too much money on her campaign and medical marijuana clubs throwing weight behind her Republican opponent because she is distancing herself from them. What we have not seen or heard publicly is Kamala Harris weigh in on the Mario Woods killing. See for yourself HERE: http://bit.ly/1R9UcAf.
She hasn’t even weighed in on the recent major five-part exposé by the U.K. Guardian that shows the most dangerous police department in all the U.S. is located here in Cali’s Kern County. What routinely takes place here is heart wrenching: 13 people have been killed by police in 2015; 79 have been killed since 2005. The exposé has been met with stonewalled silence. Read about that HERE: http://bit.ly/1jO27oa.
Perhaps we should not be surprised when you consider that Kamala Harris has a rather interesting relationship with law enforcement in that county. Earlier this year Kern County deputy prosecutor Robert Murray admitted to falsifying a confession transcript that he provided to a defense attorney during plea negotiations.
The false confession would’ve sent the defendant away for life. When the judge realized the confession was false, he threw out the case and Murray was facing possible suspension from the State Bar.
In this particular case, Kamala Harris did intervene. She stated to the appeals court that the prosecutor’s actions were “not outrageous” and that only physical abuse would warrant the dismissal of the charges. Yes indeed, she said that. The courts rejected her arguments. You can read about that HERE: http://bit.ly/1SO2gnK.
Kamala Harris in her political ascent has attempted to remain above the fray and absent from some very important fights. Her absence leads one to wonder, what good is it to have Black and Brown faces in high places if they are not going to step in and change the game when the community needs them most?
Harris has the power to change the game right now as state attorney general, not as U.S. senator, where she has to obtain favorable votes from the majority of 49 other senators to get a bill passed. As AG, she can jump into controversial cases where the community is crying out and level the playing field.
When running for her current position, Kamala Harris said she was there to protect the most vulnerable and voiceless people. From Santa Rosa to Kern County and now the Bayview, vulnerable people are crying out.
We should not forget that vulnerable and voiceless people came out for her big time in four major elections. There is no doubt Kamala is expecting folks to come out and generously support her bid for Senate. When will Kamala come out for them is the 64k question?
You can help
On Dec. 9, the SFPD police union came out backing the actions of the officers who executed Mario Woods. Will Kamala back the unions or the people who voted for her?
People are urged to call or write to Kamala Harris and let her know the following:
Script: “The San Francisco Police Department has lost our confidence after the shooting death, recorded on video, of Mario Woods. We demand that California Attorney General Kamala Harris immediately appoint a special prosecutor in this case. The San Francisco Police Department cannot police itself.” How’s that?
- Write to Attorney General’s Office, California Department of Justice, Attn: Public Inquiry Unit, P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento, CA 94244-2550.
- Phone 916-322-3360 or, toll-free in California, 800-952-5225.
- Fax 916-323-5341.
- Email using contact form: https://oag.ca.gov/consumers.
Davey D can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website, daveyd.com, and his blog, Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner, where this story first appeared, and listen to him weekdays at 4 p.m. on KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio.