What we mean by justice

October 1, 2012

Clayton Plake reports from South San Francisco on a protest for a victim of police.

SUPPORTERS OF Derrick Gaines commemorated what would have been his 16th birthday on September 20 with a rally in front of the Arco gas station where he was shot and killed by a South San Francisco police officer.

Some 100 people turned out to the event, the latest in a string of demonstrations organized by family, friends and supporters since Derrick's murder on June 5. In the more than three months since officer Joshua Cabillo murdered the physically disabled teen of multiracial descent, an ever-growing section of the local community and activists from around the Bay Area have joined Derrick's family to demand justice.

In early September, Cabillo returned to work after three months on paid administrative leave following the incident. South San Francisco Police Department (SSFPD) officials maintain that an internal investigation into the incident is in progress, although they also say that any results will remain confidential as part of the officer's personnel file.

Following an investigation, San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe deemed Cabillo's use of lethal force "justified" in late August, and as of this article, the officer has yet to face any disciplinary action.

Derrick Gaines' mother speaks at a demonstration marking what would have been his 16th birthday
Derrick Gaines' mother speaks at a demonstration marking what would have been his 16th birthday

The local media hasn't deviated from the story told by police following Derrick's murder, despite the troubling inconsistencies in that story--among them, the fact that Derrick never reached for, produced or pointed a gun, according to witnesses, and that in all likelihood the weapon he was carrying (which was inoperable due to a missing firing pin) was at least six or seven feet away from him when he was shot.

The media has also portrayed Derrick as a troubled young teen flirting with criminal behavior. Derrick’s supporters at the rally, however, painted a decidedly different picture. Derrick's great aunt Dolores Piper emceed the event. And Derrick's mother Rachel Guido-Red, accompanied by Derrick's 4-year-old brother Michael, and Justine Lockhard, Derrick's aunt, were also in attendance.

Piper and Guido-Red recalled Derrick's wit, charm and gentleness, making it clear that Derrick was never one to put himself or the people he cared about at risk. During the event's open mic segment, Derrick's friends spoke about his immense talent--he was an aspiring rap artist--his easy-going demeanor, and how much they missed him.

Jalen Jewett, one of Derrick's best friends with whom he collaborated on a number of songs, produced and distributed a free CD featuring Derrick’s music. T-shirts were also sold, in part to build visibility for the campaign and also in an attempt to defray the cost of Derrick's funeral.

Rosa Dubon, a local resident whose children knew Derrick well, painted a horrifying picture of how local law enforcement treats people of color, recounting a night when, in response to her call for help, two police officers with guns drawn forcibly entered her residence through the back. In a separate incident, said Dubon, Cabillo--the officer who murdered Derrick--put a gun to her daughter's head while she was on the ground in her own apartment.

"I don't want this to be just another effort to memorialize Derrick," Piper said as she opened the event. "This has already been done at Derrick's memorial service, and at previous demonstrations. What we need to do is let Cabillo and the SSFPD know that we won't stand for this, and we will continue to fight."

Rachel Guido-Red made a similar call to action: "I see people out protesting all sorts of things, big groups of people, all over the country. But why aren't more people protesting this? What if this happened to you? What if it was your son, your child?"

ALSO IN attendance were key figures in local struggles for social justice and against police brutality. Cephus Johnson, a founding member of the Oscar Grant Foundation and uncle to Oscar Grant--a young man of color murdered by former transit police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009--offered powerful insights. "What happened here," said Johnson, "is not--cannot be called--an isolated incident."

"These people [the police] have to be stopped," said Johnson. "They will not stop unless we make them stop and demand they take some responsibility for the lives they take."

Johnson further emphasized the need for a mass grassroots movement demanding justice for victims of police violence by referencing the case of his own nephew, whose murder was filmed by a number of bystanders.

"If it hadn't been for people like you, people who cared about what was happening to Oscar back then, Mehserle would have gotten no time," he said. "The sentence he got [two years] was a joke, but we still made history. That's the first time a cop's been held accountable for what they did."

Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, who is representing Derrick's family in a civil suit against the city, was unequivocal in his insistence that Derrick's assault and murder were racially motivated. "These two kids weren't doing anything, and there was no need for the officer to stop them," said Burris. "It's a textbook case of racial profiling, and it was wrong."

Like Johnson, Burris emphasized the importance of persistent activism. "It's things like this, people gathered together, making their voices heard, that put pressure on the city, pressure on the police," Burris said. "They need to know that we're watching and that we will not back down."

The large, multiracial group of men and women of every age marched along the length of Westborough Boulevard and Gellert Avenue--two of the city's major arteries. Protesters marched behind two large banners, one reading "Justice for Derrick" and the other carrying a short list of demands--including that the South City Police Department "come clean" about the events that took place on June 5, that "stop-and-frisk" policies and racial profiling come to an end, and that Cabillo be held accountable for taking an innocent life.

Several of the youth in attendance carried placards bearing the simple question "Am I Next?" Chants of "Justice for Derrick" were greeted with supportive honks, upheld fists and waves from motorists passing by.

In a recent interview with the South San Francisco Patch, SSFPD Chief Michael Massoni, when asked about the demonstration, stated flatly, "I really don't know what they mean by 'justice'."

But our demands have been presented, and the list is likely to grow as the fight for Derrick continues to build. With time, Massoni may well come to know exactly what we mean by justice.

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