Demanding answers about a police killing

September 24, 2012

Alessandro Tinonga reports on the latest protest in a struggle for justice in Oakland.

AFTER MORE than four months, Alan Blueford's family still hasn't gotten a response to their questions about why their teenage son was shot and killed in the middle of the night by Oakland, Calif., police.

So on September 18, they and some 100 supporters flooded Oakland's City Hall to demand some answers from the City Council.

Alan was weeks away from graduating from Skyline High School when he was killed around midnight on May 6. Police and the media initially claimed he was shot after opening fire on cops and injuring one officer. But they had to admit later that Alan hadn't fired a weapon, and that the officer's injury was self-inflicted.

Blueford was reportedly struck by three bullets, which hit him in the back and legs while he was running away. By some accounts, Alan might have survived had he received immediate medical attention. However, his body wasn't moved from the scene for four hours after he was shot. By comparison, the wounded police officer, Miguel Masso, was rushed to the hospital.

Alan's mother Jeralynn Blueford speaks on the steps of Oakland City Hall
Alan's mother Jeralynn Blueford speaks on the steps of Oakland City Hall

At the September 18 meeting, Alan's family confronted the City Council during the opening public comment period.

"My son did not deserve to die on the streets of Oakland," said Alan's father, Adam Blueford. His mother, Jeralynn Blueford, directly addressed the Council President Larry Reid: "We came here in May asking for help. You came to our [funeral] service, Mr. Reid. [We] still don't have a police report, Mr. Reid. You don't know what it's like to bury your baby."

After nearly half an hour of testimony from Alan's family and growing outbursts from supporters in the audience, council members tried to appease the family. Reid asked City Administrator Deanna Santana if she had any information about the police report on the shooting. When she said she had no knowledge about it, the council chambers erupted in jeers and shouts.

Reid then informed the family that Police Chief Howard Jordan would come to the meeting to personally deliver the report to the Blueford family. Reid declared a 10-minute recess. The recess lasted 45 minutes, and the crowd began chanting, "Where is Howard Jordan?" and "Where is the report?" Neither the promised report nor Chief Jordan made an appearance.

As Reid nervously walked around the chambers, council member Ignacio De La Fuente tried to reconvene the meeting, but was met with shouts demanding the report. As the city clerk read the first item after the delay, declaring Oakland an "international city of peace," the crowd shouted, "No justice, no peace."

De La Fuente then tried to quiet the audience by claiming that the Blueford family was meeting with Larry Reid--even though the family was sitting in the front row of the gallery, without Reid present. Angry family members and supporters continued chanting until the council members gave up and adjourned the meeting.

Following the meeting, Santana claimed that Chief Jordan would give a redacted copy of the police report to the Blueford family's attorney--but she didn't give a delivery date. "We don't want a redacted copy," said Adam Blueford. "We're looking for the truth."

Despite the continued stalling, the Blueford family saw the City Hall protest as a step forward. "Now we know there's a report," said Jeralynn Blueford. "And now they promised to deliver."

THE LATEST protest is the product of months of organizing. It also demonstrates the great challenges ahead.

Despite the silence of City Hall and the media's character assassination of Alan, his family has bravely stepped forward to speak out against his murder. In the week following his death in May, they held a vigil to bring attention to the killing, and then led a hundred-person strong march to a police sub-station close to the crime scene.

On May 15, the Blueford family confronted the City Council during its public meeting, demanding answers. "We were told that our son was involved in a gun battle," said Jeralynn Blueford. "That is not our son...We were told complete lies of our dead son."

At that meeting, Council President Reid left his seat to talk to the family in an attempt to placate them. A few days later, Reid attended Alan's funeral and spoke to the family and congregation. "I work for the city," Reid said. "The police department is part of the city. But I'm also an African American man. When I heard about Alan, I almost resigned...I promise you that you will get the answers you seek."

But for anyone who knew Reid's career, those statements rang hollow. Reid has been part of Oakland city politics for 23 years and a member of the City Council for 15 years. Throughout his career, he has staunchly supported the police department. When a young man was killed in a shooting near the Occupy Oakland encampment in December 2011, Reid joined other city officials in tacitly blaming occupiers for the man's death.

To build pressure, the Blueford family joined a small coalition of activist groups and other family members of victims of police brutality to plan next steps. The group called a protest at the district attorney's office to demand that Masso be held accountable for his crime.

When Police Chief Jordan came to the Acts Full Gospel Church--the place of worship for the Blueford family--saying he would address community concerns about the case, activists prepared to confront him. When Jordan merely spouted the now-standard lies about case--including that Alan had pointed a weapon at police and had received medical attention at the scene--what had been planned as a silent protest turned into an angry vocal one, and Jordan left the church.

The family's pursuit of the truth continued during the summer. Its group of supporters--now calling itself the JAB Coalition, to stand for the Justice for Alan Blueford and also for Alan's initials--gained backing from groups like the Oscar Grant Committee, SEIU Local 1021, Dignity and Resistance, and members of Occupy Oakland.

On July 19, the Bluefords and their supporters held a press conference at the Alameda County Coroner's office where they demanded a copy of Alan's autopsy. The coroner refused to give the family a free copy, so the Bluefords paid $321 to obtain one. The findings are damning and contradict the Oakland Police Department's story: Alan had no gun residue on his hands, had no drugs or alcohol in his system, and was likely shot while on the ground, since bullets entered his body at an upward angle.

Armed with yet more evidence that Alan was wrongfully killed, the Bluefords and the JAB Coalition organized a march and protest at City Hall for July 31, the last scheduled council meeting for the summer. The meeting was canceled before the protest, but the rally was still spirited and provided an opportunity to organize more supporters.

During the rally, the Blueford family's attorney, Dan Siegel, Mayor Jean Quan's former legal adviser, revealed research into previous allegations of violence against Officer Masso.

The year before Masso transferred to Oakland in 2008, he resigned from the New York Police Department after a claim was filed against him for physical assault. Masso and three other officers were accused of Tasering, macing and beating a suspect while he was in a holding cell. The NYPD Internal Affairs unit later cleared Masso of the charges.

Tensions between the community and police are at a breaking point. Every year, Oakland cops prove to be completely ineffective in curbing the hundreds of violent deaths in the city. Instead, they are seen as adding to the death toll, from Gary King Jr. in 2007 to Oscar Grant in 2009, to Derrick Jones in 2010, to Raheim Brown in 2011--and now Alan Blueford.

For the past year, the Oakland Police Department has faced the danger of being taken into federal receivership for failing to adhere to court-ordered reforms from a police brutality lawsuit filed in 2003. The City Council is trying to demonstrate to a federal court that it is making the department more transparent--while at the same time giving officers more leeway to racially profile people of color and crack down on poorer neighborhoods.

AFTER THE protest shut down the September 18 City Council meeting, the Oakland establishment struck back.

For starters, Reid and other council members announced they would change the format of meetings to prevent future shutdowns.

Then Oakland police claimed that a gun found at the scene of Alan's death had traces of his fingerprints on it. The allegation was made on the basis of "newly completed lab tests," according to police--raising questions about why it took five months to complete the tests. Moreover, the cops have still not released their full report.

As Dan Siegel pointed out in a statement, the Blueford family and its supporters have every reason to be suspicious. Police initially claimed that Alan fired a gun, but the coroner's report disproved that. Not only was there no gun battle, as initially claimed, but Masso suffered a self-inflicted wound. "Now they leak this item to the press because they think it will help their case, but we still can't see the police report," Siegel said.

As Alan's father, Adam Blueford, said, "We still want the police report. We still want Masso fired. We still want an end to stop-and-frisk practices in Oakland. This doesn't change anything for us. This is just another broken promise from the police that they need to be held accountable for."

Without the determination of Alan Blueford's family and a small but growing movement that is fighting for the truth, the Oakland Police Department and City Council would have swept this case under the rug.

"We stand up because we have to give a voice to those who can't speak for themselves," said Jeralynn Blueford. "I don't want another mother to feel what I feel."

The Blueford family and the JAB Coalition want Masso fired and charged with murder. Next steps in the struggle include a series of public meetings at local schools to raise awareness about the case, a barbecue to rally new participants to join the JAB Coalition, and an interfaith march on City Hall on October 2 to support the family's demand for answers.

Only one California police officer has ever been convicted of killing someone in the line of duty--that was Johannes Mehserle, the transit cop who killed Oscar Grant III, and the conviction was for a lesser charge. It will take an ongoing struggle and a larger movement to win justice for Alan Blueford.

Adam Balogh and Gaston Lau contributed to this article.

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