News Story from Interview
D.A. showed “lack of courage” in declining to file charges against officers in Woods and Gongóra cases, families’ attorney says
The attorney for the families of two men killed in police shootings said Monday he believed the San Francisco District Attorney’s decision to not bring charges against officers showed a “lack of courage.”
San Francisco DA George Gascón said last month he was disturbed by the killings of Mario Woods and Luis Góngora Pat but didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the officers. John Burris, who represents the families of Woods and Góngora in their civil rights lawsuits, suggested Gascón failed to consider lesser charges and called the DA’s statement insincere.
“I think that view is one of a lack of courage, because he could’ve charged,” Burris said. “If he really didn’t want to say murder, he could’ve charged manslaughter.”
Burris also suggested Gascón, who will face re-election in 2019, may have been politically motivated in his reluctance to take on police in cases that weren’t cut-and-dry.
“The DA’s view was, ‘I need a clear road map that suggests there’s no way possible I would lose a case,’” Burris said. “Much of life isn’t that way.”
Woods, a 26-year-old African-American man, died in December 2015 after officers fired 26 shots at him while responding to a reported stabbing. They had found Woods holding a four-and-a-half-inch blade, which he held onto after police used pepper spray and fired beanbag and foam rounds.
Woods staggered. Officer Charles August cut him off, then fired at him, and the other officers followed suit. August has said he was trying to protect bystanders, while Burris has maintained the number of shots fired was excessive.
Góngora, a homeless indigenous Mayan man, died in April 2016. Homeless outreach workers had seen him brandishing a kitchen knife and called police.
Police said he refused to drop the knife and charged at the officers, causing them to shoot him. The family’s lawsuit contends Góngora was shot while sitting on the sidewalk.
Burris announced last week he would ask California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to consider charges in both cases. As of Monday, he was still drafting a letter to Becerra.
Becerra’s office has been active in other police shooting controversy: In March, he announced the office would oversee an investigation into the death of Stephon Clark, who was shot by police in Sacramento.
Jim Chanin, an attorney who has worked alongside Burris on high-profile cases, said the tactic could help keep the cases in the public eye.
“Years can go by looking like a failure, but if you keep up the pressure, you may succeed,” he said.
Conversations with Becerra have given Burris hope the attorney general will look carefully at the case, he said, which factored into his decision to request charges on a state rather than federal level.
Even as the family’s lawsuits move forward, he said a civil victory would not be as rewarding as a criminal conviction.
“Whether or not they ultimately (bring charges) or not, I don’t know that,” he said. “But it’s the last option that we have.”
• Interview with John Burris
• Jim Chanin — (510) 928-9436
• https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Families-of-SF-men-killed-by-police-to-ask-12952062.php (Families of SF men killed by police ask attorney general to file charges — San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 2018)
• https://www.sfgate.com/news/bayarea/article/Protesters-Mark-Anniversary-Of-Luis-Gongora-s-11059147.php (Protesters Mark Anniversary of Luis Gongora’s Death by Police — SFGate, April 7, 2017)
• http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article206963509.html (California AG to oversee investigation into fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark — Sacramento Bee, March 27, 2018)
More than 30 years into his civil-rights career, attorney John Burris isn’t slowing down
People recognize John Burris everywhere he goes. They stop him on the street, or at a Warriors game, or during his regular walks around Lake Merritt. They ask for selfies or tell him about their legal cases, maybe hoping for some nugget of advice.
Many know him, after all, for the high-profile civil-rights cases that have dotted his career. Maybe they know he helped Rodney King win a $3.8 million judgment, or that he worked on the Riders Case that led to sweeping reform within the Oakland Police Department.
Maybe they know him for more recent cases where he’s represented families of police shooting victims: Oscar Grant, Mario Woods.
But there was a time long before his renown when he had yet to find that path, and the case that set him on it.
* * *
In March 1979, two Oakland Police Department officers shot and killed a black teenager named Melvin Black, Burris recalled. Police said Black pointed a gun at them; the bullet holes in his back said he died running away.
Then-Mayor Lionel Wilson, maybe hoping to quell community uproar, recruited Burris to investigate the shooting independently. He was 33 then, less than a month into his own criminal defense practice and fresh off a move from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
He found the shooting unjustified. The local U.S. attorney, the District Attorney, the police department all disagreed.
“Saying the police were wrong,” Burris said later, “that was blasphemous.”
Some small flame inside him flared.
Those who know him well see the case as a turning point. It showed him he couldn’t depend on any politician or party, and it pushed him toward cases of police abuse long before the subject dominated the news.
“The crucible of my life,” he called the case in a career retrospective published last year in the Golden Gate University Law Review.
Nearly forty years later, only a few internet snippets refer to the Melvin Black case, but Burris brings it up readily, and that flame inside him still burns. At 73, he’s busy as ever, people close to him said, and he shows no sign of slowing down. The kind of work he’s dedicated his life to has a stronger spotlight now, but it doesn’t blind him to the work yet to be done.
* * *
Most nights, Burris and his wife, Cheryl Amana-Burris, crawl in bed at 9. He falls asleep while she sits up reading. Sometimes she’s still awake when he rises, always between midnight and 2 a.m., she said, to pull a book from one of the five bookcases in the room or from the overflow piles on the bed and floor. He reads for hours, takes a final hour-long nap and wakes by 6:30.
He still works full days, but Amana-Burris said Burris now cedes more responsibility to the young attorneys who work for him. Amana-Burris, a professor in the North Carolina Central University School of Law, has reduced her workload, and Burris tells her he’ll slow his pace soon.
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “In terms of the intensity of his work, it’ll slow some, but I don’t know if he’ll do any less of it.”
His intensity stood out to her when they first crossed paths in the early 1980s, and after they met again in 1999 at a law conference, she found it came with humor, gregariousness and romance.
They married three years after that, and 16 years into their marriage, he still surprises her, she said. She’ll return home from teaching to find the house filled with balloons that say, “I love you,” or with her favorite lavender roses.
George Woods, a forensic neuropsychiatrist, befriended Burris 35 years ago. He has seen Burris remain modest despite how he thrives in the spotlight, Woods said, and he seems to have more energy than ever, be it for his practice or social activism or his family.
“He has the stamina of six mid-sized cities,” Woods said.
Amana-Burris attributed some of that energy to balance. She and Burris carve out time for two major trips every year, she said, and art from China, Uruguay and South Africa fills their home. They exercise together, though he’ll only watch an aerobics tape enough to learn the routine before adapting it to his liking.
They go to all of their grandchildren’s sporting events, she said, and playing with the younger kids brings out a youthful zeal in him, one that takes him into their world of adventure.
“He really has them believing that he goes out and fights alligators.”
* * *
He will not be around forever, he knows, and so he keeps things. Pictures from law school, report cards from the sixth grade, newspaper clippings from his little league years.
He wants a historical record, Amana-Burris said, because he wants to pass along any wisdom he can.
He believes the next wave of social progress belongs to younger generations, he said, and he feels them running up from behind, ready to take the baton he’s carried for so long.
“I will feel like I have … planted trees that will provide shade for people in the future,” he said.
He takes most pride in the cases that have caused institutional change — police department reform, changes to canine unit training, an end to rampant public strip searching.
Four decades after the Melvin Black case, police abuse has become one of America’s dominant cultural conversations. Burris can see both the vast changes — more accountability, better training — and the things yet to change.
“I don’t see (police abuse) ending in my lifetime,” he said. “I don’t. I see where we are as a continuum.”
Others will come in his wake. But he believes his community still needs him, and he has a responsibility to the community — to speak for people who cannot speak for themselves.
“There are people who ask me all the time, ‘Mr. Burris, when are you gonna quit?’” he said. “And I say, ‘Quit to do what?’”
• Interview with John Burris
• Cheryl Amana-Burris — (510) 504-0037 / firstname.lastname@example.org
• George Woods — (510) 922-8880 / email@example.com
• https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2008/02/24/famous-lawyer-after-a-better-world/ (Famous lawyer after a better world — East Bay Times, February 24, 2008)
• https://johnburrislaw.com/jlb_ggu_law_review.pdf (“Life as a civil rights lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area” — Golden Gate University Law Review, Vol. 47 No. 2, May 2017)
• https://www.mercurynews.com/2012/06/17/oakland-attorney-john-burris-remembers-tough-life-of-rodney-king-the-face-of-police-brutality/ (Oakland attorney John Burris remembers tough life of Rodney King, ‘the face of police brutality’ — The Mercury News, June 17, 2017)
Amid a crumbling Oakland warehouse scene, a DIY lifer tries to find what’s next
OAKLAND — When Sinuba Dreem moved out of the warehouse more than a year ago, she thought she’d get to come back.
It was spring 2017, a few months after 36 people — including some of Dreem’s close friends — died in a fire at the Fruitvale warehouse artist collective Ghost Ship. In the ensuing months, the city cracked down on other illicit spaces, which provided affordable homes for DIY artists and their work.
Many of Dreem’s friends had already been evicted from their spaces when she dismantled her loft and moved out in advance of a city inspection, which found several code violations. She moved down the street, where she paid a higher rent for a smaller space. She hoped to move back when scrutiny passed.
Then, in late May, Dreem said, her warehouse’s landlord put out a notice: The remaining tenants had to tear down their rooms. Dreem didn’t have anywhere to return to.
“I don’t know if I can be here anymore,” she said.
Dreem, 27, has an eruption of bright red hair and twin homemade tattoos on her shoulders — “KILLER” on the right, “CHILLER” on the left. A tattoo artist and musician, sometimes under the name Genital Quartz, she lived in DIY spaces in Chicago before moving to Oakland around 2012.
She remembers the Bay Area DIY scene at the time, back when it tilted toward utopia. Artists had spacious rooms in warehouses where they’d throw shows and screen experimental cartoons and have spontaneous karaoke nights, sad songs only. You needn’t pay your friends for goods or services — instead you might trade a pizza for a massage, a mixtape for computer repair. Dreem paid rent of $350 a month, and it felt like they didn’t have to play by the city’s rules or anyone else’s.
“Since they didn’t know about us,” she said, “they couldn’t control us.”
The first sign of change came in 2014, when a beloved squat house near Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 35th Street was shuttered.
“We’re all going to get kicked out of our houses,” Dreem and her friends said to each other, though they didn’t know when or how.
Then, throughout 2016, neighbors made noise complaints against her warehouse. It had been a safe space, she said — shows were on the ground floor, which had three exits — but like others in the gentrifying area, residents cut back on events for fear authorities would dismantle their haven.
Ghost Ship was still doing shows that December, though Dreem said many in the community considered it a last resort. They feared its haphazard infrastructure, with a narrow wood-pallet staircase the only way down from an upstairs show.
She was on her way to the show at the Ghost Ship when the fire broke out. She spent the rest of the night trying to figure out who had made it out and who hadn’t.
As warehouses shut down, Dreem went to community meetings to figure out what would happen next. They upset her — it felt like people were using her friends’ deaths for personal gain, she said — and after one meeting, she and a friend went to a pizza place to eat away their anger.
They wound up sitting with some architects who had been at the meeting, too, and together they made a plan to get people back in their homes.
That night spawned Safer DIY Spaces, a group of architects, activists and artists working to improve safety and stem displacement from DIY live-work spaces. Ayse Sercan, an architect on the Safer DIY Spaces board, said the group works with about 15 spaces trying to become legally livable or apply for the proper permits.
Most of them don’t have the hazards that made Ghost Ship dangerous, Sercan said. Their problems are smaller: extension cords stretched across the floor, wiring that works but wasn’t done to code. Most were safer than most single-family homes she sees.
“The biggest issue for safety of people being in these warehouse spaces is being kicked out by the city,” she said.
For Dreem, working with Safer DIY Spaces put her in conversation with the city — “which is not very anarchist of me, or whatever,” she said.
Still, she hoped the conversation could get her and her friends back in their homes. But a year and a half after Ghost Ship, she said, she feels like the city has pulled away every time the spaces make progress, and she’s started to wonder if the change she hoped for will ever happen.
Meanwhile, luxury apartments are going up across the street from a favorite coffee shop, on a block where she said people used fear walking alone at night. The marijuana industry — once a source of income for Dreem and her friends, who would move north in the fall for off-the-books work — has started moving into warehouses elsewhere in Oakland, stoking artists’ fears of displacement.
As Dreem sees it, the Ghost Ship fire wasn’t the only cause of upheaval, it was just the flashpoint. The destruction let in a new kind of growth, and something unrecognizable has sprung in the scene’s place.
Dreem pays $500 a month now for the little room down the street. She makes money by tattooing. Her station takes up most of her room’s free space, leaving her without a place to work on music.
She doesn’t know what will happen next. She can’t afford to keep paying that rent, and the scene has crumbled. She’s considered leaving the Bay Area all together but worries about moving into a new community that hasn’t had the same trauma.
“It’s horribly sad here,” she said. “But if I went somewhere else, no one would get it.”
She remembers her old room at the warehouse, how a previous tenant had built a platform overlooking the rest of the space. How sometimes she would climb up there to watch shows from a distance, and how she could look out and see all of it.
• Sinuba Dreem — (419) 410-2540 / firstname.lastname@example.org
• Ayse Sercan — (510) 928-9436
• https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/burnt-ramen-richmond-ghost-ship-eviction-DIY-space-12407820.php (One year after Ghost Ship, artists who lived at Bay Area’s ‘Burnt Ramen’ want their home back — SFGate, Dec. 6, 2017)
• https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/evictions-after-ghost-ship/Content?oid=11223343 (Evictions after Ghost Ship — East Bay Express, Nov. 29, 2017)
• https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/A-Look-at-the-Ghost-Ships-Wooden-Staircase-Before-the-Deadly-Oakland-Warehouse-Fire-404793415.html (A Look at the ‘Ghost Ship’s’ Wooden Staircase Before the Deadly Oakland Warehouse Fire — NBC Bay Area, Dec. 5, 2016)
• http://kalw.org/post/cannabis-business-threatens-artist-housing-east-oakland#stream/0 (Cannabis business threatens aritst housing in East Oakland — KALW, March 5, 2018)