San Diego — “When we fight for justice and we want something that represents our struggle and actually represents the community to monitor the police, what do we get? Bureaucratic positions that are made, and they don’t represent our interests, do they?” Larry Hales, a national organizer for People’s Power Assemblies, asked the crowd. “No!” they responded.
“You see, we have to fight for real representation and the representation is us. And that is what we mean by ‘People’s Power Assembly.’”
Hales’ words were a fitting opening to the convening of San Diego’s PPA on Saturday, March 9. The spirited assembly of close to 100 people focused on the struggle against police terrorism in California communities. Representatives from anti-police brutality coalitions and families of police brutality victims from the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the state traveled to San Diego to be a part of the assembly.
The assembly was organized by the San Diego Committee Against Police Brutality. At times, participants were visibly shaken and moved to tears during presentations given by family members who had lost their loved ones to police violence. The event was co-chaired by Gloria Verdieu and Carl Rices.
Also in attendance were the Rev. C.D Witherspoon and Sharon Black of the Baltimore PPA; Adam Blueford and Jeralynn Blueford, parents of Alan Blueford; Wanda Johnson and Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, the mother and uncle, respectively, of Oscar Grant; Shakina Ortega, widow of Victor Ortega; Dan Venable and Iman Venable, parents of Billye Venable; and Cyndi Mitchell, sister of Mario Romero.
Witherspoon, who initiated the call nationally for PPAs, thanked the families for their courage in standing and fighting against the state. He said that during a rally of 10,000 in Baltimore in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the crowd was asked how many of them had personal experiences with police brutality or had family members killed by police, and the response by show of hands was “egregious.”
“At that particular time,” said Witherspoon, “we knew we had to do something. And so on June 30th, we conducted a People’s Power Assembly.” In spite of storms that had knocked out power to half the city, more than 150 people showed up to talk about their experiences.
Loved ones killed by cops
Following Witherspoon, a panel of family members shared their experiences. Adam Blueford said of his son’s killer: “This guy Officer Masso was an Iraqi war veteran who spent six years in the war in Iraq. He left the war and went to New York, where he was charged in a federal lawsuit where he abused a prisoner. Eleven days after the lawsuit was filed, he came out to the Bay Area.”
Jeralynn Blueford fired the crowd up and moved some to tears as she made an impassioned plea for justice: “And if you’re sitting there, yeah this is a sad occasion, because we have lost. But stand up on your feet! Hold your fists up and tell them, ‘No justice, no peace!’”
Cyndi Mitchell stressed that the killing of her brother, Mario Romero, by the Vallejo [Calif.] Police Department on Sept. 2 was murder. “He was murdered. This is not a case of excessive force because no force was needed. He was murdered in front of our home, while he was sitting in his car.” Mitchell said the officers fired over 30 shots at Romero, with one officer jumping on the hood of the car while continuing to fire his weapon at her brother.
Shakina Ortega recounted how in the June 4 killing of her spouse, Victor Ortega, the police department’s account of what happened changed over time and drastically differed from the initial statements they made. After talking to witnesses who heard the exchange between Ortega and Officer Jonathan McCarthy, she concluded: “This is not going to happen. We’re not going to just sit here and be quiet. We’re not going to believe their story.”
Wanda Johnson talked about how the court tried to demonize her son, Oscar Grant, and make the officer who killed him out to be the victim. “Uncle Bobby” Johnson talked about the California’s Police Officers’ Bill of Rights and how it protects police from prosecution. “We have to take this to [Washington,] D.C. We have to begin to address this very issue of the [police] bill of rights.”
Dan Venable and Iman Venable, whose son, Billye Venable, was shot nearly point blank in the head by San Diego police 10 years ago, talked about the devastating effect Billye’s death has had on the entire family. Young Venable’s brother Dominic, who was with Billye at the time of his death, “just started talking a year ago to us. Nine years with not a word coming out his mouth.” Their father said his daughter was unable to deal with the loss of her brother.
Time to ‘stand up and fight back’
Representatives from local organizations took the stage after these family members had spoken. The panelists were Mario Lewis of 100 Strong, who organized a rally in support of Trayvon Martin last spring; Margaret Dooley Sammuli of the San Diego ACLU, who works on challenging curfew sweeps targeting youth of color; Gabriel Seth Conaway of Canvass For A Cause, a local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group; Ivan Penetrante of AnakBayan San Diego; Jack Bryson of the Oscar Grant Movement and Justice 4 Alan Blueford Coalition; and the Rev. Dennis Malone of Ban the Box, a group working on passing a law to prevent employers from discriminating against felons.
The assembly was also contacted by several families unable to attend. The family of Kenneth Harding Jr., a 19 year old who was viciously gunned down by the San Francisco police on July 16, 2011, for allegedly evading a $2 bus fare, sent a written solidarity statement which exhorted, “It is important that we as a community stand up and fight back against police brutality. … It will continue to happen until we unite as one people and say we’re not taking this any more.”
RoseMary Duenez, mother of Ernest Duenez Jr., who was killed by John Moody of the Manteca [Calif.] Police Department on June 8, 2011, also sent a written message. “It’s time all police-involved killings are investigated by an outside review board,” she said.
The assembly lasted nearly four hours. Organizers plan to reconvene the assembly in a month for a roundtable strategy discussion.