Justice for Mario Romero

Bay Area activists are standing with family members to demand justice for Mario Romero, a victim of Vallejo police, report François Hughes and Claire Douglas.

Family and supporters rally for justice for Mario RomeroFamily and supporters rally for justice for Mario Romero

SOME 50 family members and community activists fighting for justice for Mario Romero rallied September 20 at the Solano County District Attorney's office in Vallejo, Calif.

The demonstrators were protesting the September 2 killing of unarmed 23-year-old Mario Romero, who was sitting in his car when Vallejo police shot him dead. The police fired 31 rounds, 11 of which struck Romero. Romero's brother-in-law Joseph Johnson was in the car next to Romero and survived, despite being hit by five bullets.

Since the day he was killed, Mario Romero's family and friends have been organizing to win justice. The Vallejo and Oakland NAACP, National Network in Action, and several Vallejo pastors and community groups took part in the September 20 action. Attorney John Burris described plans for a civil rights lawsuit against the Vallejo Police Department.

There have been several protests since September 2. About 150 supporters protested outside the Vallejo Police Department two days after the shooting. Hundreds gathered at the City Council on September 10 and 11 to voice their outrage that city officials have so far taken no action in response to the killing. They were also protesting the mayor's position that he was "satisfied" with the police report.

Although police are spreading lies about how and why Mario Romero was killed, family members and others witnesses have remained consistent: The police never turned on a siren or verbally identified themselves. They turned the corner and came upon the two young men in the car, and minutes later, Mario was dead.

Mario's family members say that Mario never got out of the car. Mario's sister Cynquita was watching from a distance as her brother was gunned down. She began yelling as one police officer emptied the first 15-round clip into the car, ejected the clip and reloaded to discharge a second clip.

The cops were so intent on their assault that one jumped on the hood of the car to get a better angle on Mario as he moved across the car to protect his brother-in-law. As family friend and activist Shawana Lord said, "If the cops really feared for their life, why did they jump on the hood of the car? Why didn't they call for backup?"

It's possible that without Mario's efforts, his brother-in-law Joseph might also have been killed. "He is a hero," says Cynthia Mitchell, Mario's mother, of her son. "He was shot so many times, yet he used his body to shield another body."

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GUNNING DOWN Mario in cold blood was bad enough, but police went one step further. "We would like to bury my brother, but they are hiding him," said Mario's sister about the refusal of police to release Mario's body to his family. When Cynthia went to see her son at the hospital, police denied her access and instead allowed someone else to identify the body. It has been three weeks, and still Mitchell has not seen her son's body.

So far, the police have still not attempted to collect the testimony of those who witnessed Mario's murder. As in many other cases around the country, police are stalking Mario's family members in an attempt to intimidate them. Meanwhile, the officer who shot Mario is on administrative leave.

To date, police have made several claims about what happened during the early hours of September 2, and their story is full of holes, inconsistencies and outright lies.

According to official police press releases, officers shone a spotlight on Mario, and he then exited his vehicle and stood behind the door. Police claim he reached toward his waistband, and only then did they start firing. The cops claim Mario got back into the car and reached across the vehicle--all while they continued firing. In a "subsequent search," they claimed to find an "airsoft" replica of a pistol.

"That's their story--that he got out of the car--when everyone else said he never got out," said Shawana Lord. "Now does that make sense to you? If confronted by police with a spotlight, would anyone pull out an airsoft pistol? How can they expect anyone to believe that story? They didn't even say they found the pistol in his hand or waistband, but somewhere in the car in a 'subsequent search.'"

Though police immediately cast suspicion on Mario as a gang member, his sister Cynquita described how Mario was one of the millions of working-class people to have lost a job since the 2008 recession:

Mario was a loving person, if you needed anything, any help, he'd be there. He put his family first. He was a peacemaker...He had just moved back to Vallejo a month before the police shot him. He had been a warehouse worker in Sacramento, but was recently laid off. Police accused him of being a Lofas gang member, but he wasn't involved in gang activity at all.

As civil rights attorney John Burris said at the press conference, "Who he was doesn't matter. They drove around a corner, he was in a parked car doing nothing, and they shot and killed him within minutes."

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VALLEJO RESIDENT James Kendall spoke out during the rally at City Hall. "The police give us two choices: It's surrender and get gunned down, or run and get gunned down, he said. "Does that sound like a choice to you? Four Black people hanging out to them is a gang, but four white people is a family."

Vallejo is one of three main cities where former Black residents of Oakland, pushed out by gentrification, go. As of September of last year, Vallejo's Black population stood at 25 percent, the largest percentage of any city in California. Vallejo's Black residents who moved here to escape, among other things, endemic police brutality in Oakland have found that it followed them to their new hometown.

Mario is not the exception, by any means. A report by the Malcolm X Grassroots movement documented that a Black person in the U.S. is killed every 36 hours by police, a security guard, or a self-styled vigilante.

Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Derrick Gaines, Derrick Jones and Kenneth Harding are the best-known cases of young Black men killed by police in the Bay Area in the past few years--and then there are the many cases that stayed in the headlines by sustained activism.

But families are beginning to fight back. Similar campaigns to expose other police murders have gained traction throughout the nation. In Oakland, Alan Blueford's family has been building community support in Oakland for months, culminating in a shutdown of City Hall.

In the Bay Area, a network of activists to protest police murders is beginning to take shape. Each protest has the effect of broadening the number of people ready to take part in the next protest--and many people politicized by the Occupy movement are also getting involved.

If the case of Oscar Grant is any guide, constant pressure will be needed to obtain justice and send the message that we won't let the police get away with murder.

Melissa Cornelius and Jeff H. contributed to this article.