How we protected Jose when the system didn’t

May 16, 2017

Activists, mothers, clergy and many others won a measure of justice for a young man charged with assaulting the cops who actually assaulted him, writes Juan Miranda.

ACTIVISTS, CLERGY and community members packed the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, on May 11 in solidarity with Jose Charles, a 16-year-old falsely accused of assaulting a police officer.

The encounter took place last July and was recorded by a police body camera, but the video hasn't been released to the public due to a new law that went into effect in October.

This court date was the culmination of a nearly yearlong struggle led by Jose's mother Tamara Figueroa. The anxious crowd sighed in relief as juvenile court judge Angela Fox read her decision that Jose's charges were being dropped as part of a plea agreement--the direct result of months of grassroots organizing which engaged thousands of people from across the city.

The organizers built great momentum in the months leading up to the final court date. They coordinated a creative campaign that successfully exposed the corruption and injustices of a system that disproportionately criminalizes and brutalizes Black and Brown working-class people--a system designed to crush people's efforts to change it.

Jose Charles (foreground in blue shirt) marches with his supporters
Jose Charles (foreground in blue shirt) marches with his supporters (Matthew C. Brown)

ON JULY 4, 2016, 100-pound Jose Charles, who was then 15 years old, was waiting for his mother while she took the smaller children to the bathroom during the city's Fun Fourth Festival in downtown Greensboro. As he stood and waited, Jose was attacked by a group of teens.

The police arrived, and all the kids except Jose scattered--he stayed put as his mother had instructed him to do. He was injured and obviously distressed, but instead of attending to him and providing proper medical care, Officer S.A. Alvarez and other officers from the Greensboro Police Department (GPD) brutalized Jose, eventually placing him under arrest.

When Figueroa returned, she found her son bloodied and face down, with Alvarez's knee on the back of his neck.

"He kept screaming 'Mom, mom,' but the officers wouldn't let me get close and threatened to arrest me, too," said Figueroa. Eventually, Jose was taken to jail where he was illegally questioned and held for several hours before being taken to the hospital to receive medical care.

Jose was charged with affray (fighting in a public place), disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but the gravest accusation was a felony charge for assaulting a government official—for allegedly spitting blood on an officer.

In an interview with Triad City Beat, Figueroa explained what happened: “The way he was pinned the blood was going into the mouth. He said, 'I'm choking, I'm choking.' When they let him up the blood sprayed at the officer. They tried to say he spit. He did spit, but it wasn't with malice.”

Jose's mother, who has seen the police video of the confrontation, immediately filed a claim with the department's Professional Standards Division (PSD). Shortly thereafter, the district attorney offered a plea deal--if Jose would plead guilty to the felony charge, the DA would drop all the other charges.

Such a strategy is regularly deployed by the justice system against poor defendants who are unable to afford a lengthy and expensive fight against the overwhelming resources of the state. This predictably compels a disproportionate number of defendants of color to plead guilty even if they are innocent.

But in this case, Tamara and Jose courageously refused and sought support from the community to spearhead their struggle for justice.

AFTER SEVERAL frustrating months full of delays and intimidation, Figueroa received a letter from the PSD informing her that its internal investigation found the officers had acted appropriately.

Unsatisfied, Figueroa demanded that the claim go to the Police Community Review Board (PCRB)--an independent body under the guidance of the city's Human Relations Commission (HRC) and composed of members appointed by the chair of the HRC and City Council. At this point, Figueroa reached out to "GSO Operation Transparency."

Operation Transparency is a multiracial activist group that reflects the long struggle against the racist violence of Greensboro's police. The group was formed last December around the case of Dejuan Yourse--a 37-year-old Black man who was brutally beaten by GPD Officer Travis Cole while sitting on his mother's porch.

After months of pressure from faith leaders and community activists, the video of the encounter was released and consequently went viral, placing abuse by the GPD once again in the national spotlight. In October 2015, the city was featured in a New York Times article about the "disproportionate risks of driving while Black."

Cole, who already had a long history of police misconduct, resigned days before the video went viral.

While the investigation concluded that Cole used excessive force (Yourse settled for $95,000), the district attorney refused to prosecute him. Even more alarming was the fact that several training officers had watched the video, and yet Cole was still recommended for promotion weeks before the story broke.

With many unanswered questions and signs of a potential cover-up, a group of community activists initiated a campaign demanding the release of the investigative files, a demand that city officials steadfastly refused to grant. The campaign sought to mobilize people from across the city on a simple basis: "If there is nothing to hide, release the files."

The initiative culminated in the arrests of seven activists as they staged a "people's document search."

While the files were never released to the public, the campaign exposed for all to see that city officials would rather arrest concerned citizens than provide transparency and hold the police accountable. Most importantly, the campaign showed that if we are to change the system that protects racist cops, we must build a mass movement to generate the power necessary to see these changes through.

The momentum and lessons gained from the Yourse case, as well as Figueroa's determination, inspired other community groups to join Operation Transparency and take up the campaign for Jose.

ON MARCH 8, Tamara spoke to a crowd of hundreds at the local International Women's Strike rally, and dozens of supporters followed her that evening to the PCRB meeting where Jose's case was being discussed.

After impassioned public input, the PCRB went into closed session to watch the body-cam footage. Days later, the PCRB issued its decision: the board members had voted overwhelmingly to reject the findings of the internal police investigation.

The following week, Figueroa and her supporters filled the chambers at the City Council meeting to demand that Jose's prosecution be stayed, since evidence presented to the district attorney was now in dispute. At first, the council was completely dismissive. But by the next meeting, due to growing public pressure, a motion was introduced calling on council members to watch the video, which barely passed by a 5-to-4 vote.

While the PCRB has access to review the body-cam video and other investigative files, local and state legislation limits PCRB decisions to recommendations. Over the past couple of years, members of the board and the HRC have sought to refute claims that the PCRB is merely a rubber stamp for the police.

Whatever progress they had made, however, was thrown out when City Manager Jim Westmoreland, who has the final decision in the matter, decided to ignore the recommendations of the board.

Jose's case and the community pressure behind it created a rift among city officials, which was thrust into public view when three members of the PCRB resigned from their roles.

"If we can't see this one as wrong, we can't see anything as wrong," said PCRB member Lindy Garnette, who was forced to resign after she made a public comment about the case. "If this case is swept under the rug, we might as well pack up, go home and call it a day."

Yet a week later, after finally watching the video, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and three other council members held a press conference to announce that they supported GPD Chief Wayne Scott's opinion that there was nothing wrong with how the police treated Jose Charles.

THE CULMINATION of the campaign to defend Jose was a raucous City Council meeting, which Mayor Vaughan abruptly adjourned without addressing the campaign's demands for accountability.

After the council members left the chamber, the mothers and activists made their way to the front of the room, eventually taking the abandoned seats of the representatives. A "new council" made up of mothers and caregivers called the meeting back to order and announced that the speakers from the floor would continue.

It didn't take long, however, before the orders were given for dozens of police officers to sweep the room and arrest everyone who refused to leave.

Organizers then decided to march to Center City Park, where the July 4 assault of Jose by police took place. As the crowd arrived, eight activists pushed through a barricade of police bicycles and sat in the road, blocking traffic as others rallied around them. After several police warnings and the protesters' refusal to leave, they were arrested and transported to the county jail.

Two days after the council meeting, the chair of the HRC, which oversees the PCRB, canceled its regular meeting fearing protests. Regardless, several members of the commission decided to hold the meeting anyway, a clear sign of tensions brewing internally, and a direct response to the consistent organizing on the ground.

Now, nearly a year later, the charges have been dropped, and Tamara and Jose can breathe again. Their victory demonstrated to experienced and new activists alike what we can accomplish when we work together.

At the same time, it revealed to many the magnitude of the task ahead of us.

As Jose and his mother exited the courthouse, they were met by a crowd in a celebratory mood. Rev. Nelson Johnson with the Beloved Community Center said: "It feels good to be getting old—when you see young people take the reins and continue the fight to build a new Greensboro. When you see Black Lives Matter and the clergy, and Black and white, and LGBTQ, and immigrant folks coming together."

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