By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM
OXNARD, Calif. (FinalCall.com) – Victims’ families, activists, and a civil rights judge delivered messages of unity, power and justice during the first ever California Statewide Civil Rights Conference on Police Brutality.
Participants gathered April 27 at Oxnard College to resist what they called a clear epidemic of abuse from law enforcement. The epidemic of police violence goes beyond policy and the inherent sickness of the criminal justice system itself, organizers charged. Now more than ever, action and unity was needed, they said.
“So-called peace officers have organized themselves into associations and unions that hold unchallenged political sway in Sacramento, legitimizing and protecting their ability to inflict unrestrained force,” stated Elliott Gabriel, an organizer with the Colectivo Todo Poder Al Pueblo, an independent, grassroots community empowerment organization.
“Working class communities across the U.S. have fallen victim to a campaign of extrajudicial killings by police that claim on average between one and two lives per day across the country,” Mr. Gabriel said.
The day-long event, hosted by Oxnard College’s Movimiento Estudiantil [email protected] de AztlÃ¡n Student Group, was one way the community planned to address the problem. The conference included a sacred Native American blessing, several keynote speakers, break-out sessions to strategize for future actions, and workshops.
Workshop topics included gang injunctions, youth rights in schools, navigating the legal system, tips to gain media accountability, basic emergency first aid, and community selfdefense strategies.
According to Mr. Elliott, the only goal is peace, but peace is impossible in the face of direct aggression and the trauma of stolen lives. Take 26 year old Robert Ramirez, for instance. Teresa Ramirez, his mother, began family testimonies by sharing her son’s plight and her fight for justice. He was battling a drug problem, she said tearfully. He didn’t want to go back to prison and was trying very hard to better himself, she said.
“All he wanted was a family and a baby of his own. He never got that chance because on June 23, he got murdered by the Oxnard PD,” Ms. Ramirez said, referring to seven officers who allegedly tased and beat him.
The police have denied any wrongdoing. “They say it was a terrible tragedy … but in fact, just by looking at what they did to my son, they beat him to death,” Ms. Ramirez charged, as she put a life-sized poster depicting her son’s bruised face on the witness table.
On March 6, 2013, her family filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Oxnard, its police chief, and the officers involved. The suit alleges excessive and deadly force during the June 23, 2012 incident, when police attempted to restrain Robert Ramirez, according to court documents.
“I know that they murdered my son. And how could they cover it up? They hired a retired medical examiner to do his autopsy on Sunday morning … so that he can lie. He had nothing else to lose. And justice needs to be done because they did murder my son,” Ms. Ramirez declared.
Two of the officers accused in the Ramirez death were part of the officer-involved-death of Alfonso Limon, Jr., shot October 13. 2012 after police mistook him for a suspect, his sister tearfully shared.
Later that evening, participants held a prayer vigil for the 21 year old and the next day held the Oxnard Rally and March Against Police Brutality at Camino Del Sol Park.
Some of the families met for the first time in person at the conference. They included Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by a transit officer while lying face down on a train platform in Oakland, New Year’s Day 2009. Damian Ramirez (best friend of Michael Nida, killed in Downey, Calif.), Rosemary Duenez (mother of Ernest Duenez, Jr., killed in Manteca, Calif.), and others.
“One of the things that we fight for is the legacy because that’s all we have left … because their bodies are in the ground,” Mr. Ramirez stated. “We tell the truth. We tell the truth. We tell the truth. It doesn’t change but their lies change,” he continued.
Activists in Oxnard found that they weren’t alone and that people had been fighting police brutality for a long time. The Family Panel set the tone for the day’s activities and highlighted their efforts across the state.
“There are so many of us out there who are hiding because this is a hard thing to stand up to the cops and say we’re going to fight you back,” Mr. Ramirez stated. The families vowed to fight until justice for their loved ones are served.
Mr. Johnson urged all conference participants to get involved with the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality and mobilize for this year’s activities. “We will be in the streets. Let the world know we are tired of our families dying at the hands of these rogue police officers,” he said.
The peoples’ support held their family up, he said. “Had it not been for the community that stood with us, that prayed with us, that cried with us, that went back and forth to court with us, just there for us to lean on, and their utilizing their first Amendment right to speak to the injustice they saw happened to Oscar, we wouldn’t have been able to do this,” Mr. Johnson said.
“It was because of that, it was the first time in California state history that an officer was charged, arrested, convicted, and sent to jail … An officer needs to go to prison because that’s the only way we’ll be able to put a stamp on this issue,” he added.
Applause spread rapidly throughout the auditorium. “Hallelujah!” one man shouted.
Chants of “Whose streets? Our streets” and “No justice! No peace!” rang out during the transition from the family panel to the keynote addresses. Featured speakers were Student Minister Keith Muhammad (Muhammad Mosque No. 26B in Oakland), Alex M. Salazar (former Los Angeles Police Department officer,) Thandisizwe Chimurenga (Los Angeles-based independent journalist) and the Honorable Cruz Reynoso (civil rights lawyer, professor emeritus of law at the University of California-Davis, and the first Chicano associate justice for the California Supreme Court).
The problem is most police departments do not have a policy or practice to inform superiors of officers’ wrongdoings, according to Prof. Reynoso. That leads to a system saturated with an element of self-protection where very serious issues occur but are never reported, he said.
One remedy is a state attorney-appointed independent investigator, not local police or district attorneys, he said. Typically, the latters’ investigations focus on protecting the officers involved, he explained.
“This conference has the potential for being very important in organizing a statewide group to push for those aims, to get the legislature to pay attention to these issues, to get the attorney general to investigate them and to work with the local police chiefs to try to change the atmosphere in the police departments,” Professor Reynoso told The Final Call.
Minister Muhammad shared lessons learned while seeking justice in the Grant case. A study of the case revealed certain elements including the gross economic disparities that plague Black and poor America, the stripping away of constitutional rights, educational failures, wars on the homeless and drugs, and how these things are inextricably linked to vicious police murders plaguing the community, he said.
“It is our duty to learn of what’s going on, be inspired by what we learn, and organize our communities wherever they are in order to meet and overcome the obstacle called injustice … We are victims of human rights violations and we have to make these violations known,” Mr. Muhammad said.
Michael Prysner, an Iraq War veteran with the A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition, found the conference historic. It brought together more than a dozen families to tell their own stories and declare that they’re fighting back against the police, he said.
A.N.S.W.E.R.’s position is police brutality is rooted in the American system itself. “We reject the idea that there’s just some bad cops or just some bad apples. We don’t think that the police can be trained to be better. We think this comes to the core of the system, a system based on inequality, a system based on racism, where the police have license to go out and oppress poor communities, communities of color,” Mr. Prysner told The Final Call.
To really change the issue and end the scourge of police brutality, the fight must continue for accountability but ultimately, people have to change a system based on profits and inequality, he stated.