San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
State must follow lead, make police accountable
About an hour after the judge announced the Derek Chauvin verdict, I walked to downtown Oakland, sat in the open space across from City Hall called Oscar Grant Plaza and took a few deep breaths.
I felt relief.
Police officers in this country are rarely charged and convicted of murder for killing someone while on duty. Even with a nineminute video of Chauvin, a white man, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, history has taught me I shouldn’t be confident the trial would have a just outcome. Yet it did.
A Minnesota jury convicted Chauvin of murder and manslaughter, but it was Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison who levied the charges and orchestrated a tough prosecution. Ellison gave Black America something rare: a glimpse at what true police accountability looks like.
We’ve seen recent attempts at this from locally elected district attorneys in San Francisco and Contra Costa counties, but there is by no means a pattern of holding officers to account here.
Ellison gave Black Californians something more: a standard to which we should hold our present and future state attorney generals. The truth is, California, the last few have not wanted to investigate the officers who kill us. “Any time somebody comes at me with some kind of racial paradise version of California, I always say how if it was a racial paradise, why would the Black Panther Party have been created and existed here, or Black Freedom Schools or all of our symbols of resistance,” Tianna Paschel, an assistant professor of African American studies and sociology at UC Berkeley, told me last week. “California is not the salvation or the promised land on any level.”
“Police shot and killed blacks at almost five times the rate of whites and three times the rate of Latinos” from 2006 to 2015, according to a 2016 Sacramento Bee review of California Department of Justice data.
And according to data compiled by Mapping Police Violence, a research and advocacy group that examines police killings, California police killed more than 200 Black people from 2013 to 2020.
“We are hunted here in levels unlike anywhere else,” Cat Brooks, cofounder of the Anti PoliceTerror Project, told me. “There’s a war being waged on Black bodies in a state that the rest of the country looks at as progressive.”
Vice President Kamala Harris was California attorney general from 2011 and 2017. Although she became more assertive about police accountability near the end of her tenure, there was a significant period where Black Californians felt she wasn’t doing enough to investigate problematic police killings. Mario Woods was killed by San Francisco police in 2015. Community members spent months urging Harris to take a direct role in investigating the shooting. She declined. None of the officers faced criminal charges. The department changed its useofforce policy after the shooting.
Xavier Becerra took office after Harris in 2017. The next year, Stephon Clark was killed by Sacramento police in the backyard of his grandmother’s home. He was unarmed. After a review of the shooting, Becerra said there was no need to charge the two officers who killed the young father of two.
In 2019, Becerra refused to provide media outlets with requested records on police misconduct, CalMatters reported. He pushed back against AB1506, which called on the attorney general’s office to review police killings of unarmed civilians. Last year, he refused multiple requests by Vallejo city officials to investigate the fatal shooting of Sean Monterrosa.
AB1506 could have forced Becerra’s involvement, but it wouldn’t have guaranteed justice. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in Minnesota invited Ellison to work on the Floyd case six days after the shooting last year. He accepted. The murder and manslaughter charges against Chauvin were announced three days later.
This is the kind of proactive attorney general Black Californians want and need.
Becerra stepped down as attorney general to become President Biden’s secretary of health and human services in March. Next up: Rob Bonta. He’s seen as one of the most progressive lawmakers in Sacramento, according to The Chronicle.
But will he summon more courage than predecessors Becerra, Harris and even former Gov. Jerry Brown? Only time will tell.
Before leaving the plaza, I read Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Twitter post about the Chauvin verdict. He acknowledged that Floyd “would still be alive if he looked like me,” and added that the state must “continue our work to root out the racial injustice that haunts our society.”
It read like familiar woke talk from other California politicians over the past year. It’s on Bonta to produce results.
The next time a police officer murders a Black person in California, my hope is that county and state authorities like Bonta will seek justice for the victim, that the jury will deliver the appropriate verdict, and that I’ll be able to walk to Oscar Grant Plaza again, not to protest, but to breathe a sigh of relief.