OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | It may have been Oakland’s most eventful public meeting in recent memory. Rep. Barbara Lee called for protesters to continue applying pressure toward alleviating social and economic equity and ridding the city of police brutality at a special session of the Oakland City Council. Public officials and stakeholders met to discuss the historically tattered relationship between police and residents in the black community.
Later, Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent acknowledged his department’s role in facilitating injustice over the years and Councilmember Desley Brooks called for the formation of a new city department charged with examining race and equity in its government.
“The laws of this land would not have changed had it not been for young people and had it not been for the protest and the street heat," said Lee. "That’s happening here in Oakland. So, you can be proud. I’m proud of what has taken place here.” Lee statement came within the context of the Civil Rights movement generations ago.
In regards to discussions many in the black community are having today about police relations and brutality, Lee recalled having the same conversations with her sons in the 1970s “That’s un-American,” she said. “We shouldn’t be having these tough conversations about how to behave and how to interact and what to look out for in the streets. Let’s stop this. It’s time for change.”
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Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who convened the special meeting, said, suggestions made during the session will be offered by the City Council starting in February. “This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end," said McElhaney.
In a highly forthright manner, Whent acknowledged the historically strained relationship between residents and the police department. “The tactics employed by the Oakland Police Department have absolutely contributed to that strained relationship,” said Whent. “But, I also think it is important to point out the Oakland Police Department of 2015 is not the Oakland Police Department of the 1960s,” he added, nor the department he joined 20 years ago or even the group that met Occupy Oakland demonstrators over three years ago.
Whent said the department has responded favorably to reforms prescribed in the Negotiated Settlement Agreement, which highlighted troubles with oversight, training and internal affairs that discouraged complaints. “That environment does not create a situation where officers feel they have to act appropriately,” said Whent.
“The Oakland Police Department doesn’t want bad police officers on the streets any more than you don’t want bad police officers on the street,” he added.
The police chief’s comments were notably delivered without a single outburst from the audience. In fact, applause and cheers followed his words. The reaction was diametrically opposed to the response over the years given to past police chiefs.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf applauded Whent for his candor and urged city advocates to continue holding city hall accountable. “Nobody expects the past to be forgotten,” said Schaaf.
The new mayor also pledged to spend time during her first 100 days in office to sit in with 100 youths in restorative justice situations.
But, these are difficult times for many elected officials, including Schaaf, who were drawn to public service to help uphold the law, she said. “We came to work in government believing that this was part of our call to social justice. And yet we have to acknowledge that the institutions that we serve are built on a foundation that is steeped in racism.”
A few of the afternoon's more confrontational moments included Brooks, who called for the council to put add more funding toward restoring social justice in the city. At the end of the nearly six hours meeting, Brooks criticized the lack of new ideas offered Saturday and the rare mention of more funding needed to combat racism in the city.
Earlier in the session, Brooks put on the spot elected officials in the audience to publicly call for the BART Board of Directors to drop all charges against the so-called Black Friday 14 who shut down BART service to San Francisco the day after last Thanksgiving. BART officials had called for $70,000 in restitution for each demonstrator. Later, BART’s general manager later asked for community service. Brooks, though, called for dropping all the charges.
Brooks later aimed to put public officials on the spot and asked them to sign a letter agreeing with her suggestion. Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan agreed with Brooks. BART Board of Director Robert Raburn, however, appeared to be sympathetic to the proposal while speaking out against “inequitable punishment.” But Raburn added, “We are elected official, not judges.”
Brooks again pressed Raburn to commit to dropping all charges. “At this time I cannot make this commitment,” said Raburn as he immediately walked away from the podium. Members of the Black Friday 14 then began singing “Which side are you on?”
Legislation from the statewide level may be on its way to help bring accountability to police officers who kill while in the line of duty. Assemblymember Rob Bonta says he will offer a bill in the State Legislature that would call for a special prosecutor in such cases. Critics say the current system tucked within the police department tends to insulate officers from fault in the alleged suspect’s death.
NOTE: BART management asked for $70,000 restitution from demonstrators who shut down BART, not the District Attorney's office.