2018 Third Place Writing Winner

Alison Kuznitz

Third Place
Pennsylvania State University
$5,000 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

‘A lack of courage’: John Burris goes head-to-head with San Francisco DA

SAN FRANCISCO — Civil rights lawyer John Burris blasted the district attorney’s decision to not file criminal charges in two separate police shooting cases, calling the maneuver “disingenuous” during a press conference Monday.

Burris’ continued criticism of George Gascón came less than a week after a rally in front of City Hall, where the Oakland-based lawyer announced he intends to urge the state attorney general to launch new investigations into the deaths of Mario Woods and Luis Góngora Pat.

“[Gascón] could have charged, in my view, involuntary manslaughter if he really didn’t want to see murder,” Burris said. “I viewed his statement as a lack of courage. Involuntary manslaughter is a lesser charge, but it’s certainly an intent.”

Woods, an alleged suspect in a knife stabbing, was shot more than 20 times by police in December 2015. Góngora Pat, a homeless man who didn’t speak English, was swiftly shot six times by police in April 2016, near the tent where he lived.

To Burris, these cases represent the “heights of frustration” that have fueled community outrage and protests. While he’s filed civil suits on behalf of the families, Burris said the recourse isn’t rewarding enough.

People will want more, he said.

Gascón has said he’s disgusted with the criminal outcome, yet he lacks the threshold of evidence to prove the officers acted unreasonably in both incidents.

“The DA’s view was, ‘I need a clear roadmap that there’s no way possible I would lose a case,’” Burris said. “Well, much of life isn’t that way. Very few criminal [cases] are like that.”

San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi also slammed Gascón’s legal argument.

“I would simply point out that district attorneys, they try cases all the time where the charges are questionable,” Adachi said in an interview Monday.

But what’s also questionable to Adachi is Burris’ latest strategy for holding the San Francisco Police Department accountable: turning to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“It’s very unusual for the state attorney general to get involved,” Adachi said. “Certainly it’s possible, but whether it will actually happen, we’ll see.”

Burris remains more optimistic: “I thought it may be the best look they’re going to get now is with this particular AG’s office.”

Burris said Becerra — whose office did not respond to a request for comment as of publication time — is willing to look at the cases. And, Burris might have an ally in a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who now works for the AG.

Even so, Burris is cautious about setting false expectations for the families. That’s why the letter of appeal will be postmarked to the state — and not federal — level.

“It’s the last option that we have,” Burris said somberly.

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A lifelong marathon against police brutality, racism

John Burris is in a social justice relay race.

For as long as the Oakland civil rights attorney can remember, he’s been suing law enforcement agencies to crack down on racially fueled police misconduct.

When Burris passes the baton and turns left, the next runner will inherit the legacies of Rodney King, the Rough Riders and Oscar Grant. They represent just some of the high-profile cases that define four decades of practicing law and making sweeping change — often for a generation not yet born to reap the benefits.

“I recognize that each generation has a responsibility to move the social agenda toward a more perfect union,” Burris said. “I’ve certainly come to appreciate I’m just moving the thing along.”

Burris grew up in the midst of the civil rights movement. He’d claim the morning newspaper before his father even had a chance to read it, eager to stay informed on current events.

From his blue-collar home city of Vallejo, Calif., he watched as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

In many ways, Burris has picked up where famed activists left off, exposing patterns of rampant brutality to a disbelieving white America.

At age 73, he shows no sign of slowing down.

“Quit to do what?” Burris asked, his hands flailing comically.

He still travels to hole-in-the-wall places to fight for the underdog, taking the depositions and tracking down witnesses for himself despite a growing staff.

“He’s always on,” said Ben Nisenbaum, an attorney in Burris’ firm. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job — it’s a life work.”


Burris’ path to achieving multi-million-dollar outcomes wasn’t straightforward.

African Americans had a constrained roadmap, Burris said, and he was pointed in the direction of accounting. Hired at a CPA firm, a 22-year-old Burris was expected to become the Jackie Robinson of his field.

“The work was terrible. Accountants were to be seen and not heard,” Burris said. “The happiest day of my life was when I left.”

He graduated with a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1973, yearning to enter a turbulent world. While disparity was etched into his mind from childhood, blatant violence was only engraved once he pursued civil rights.

In the summer of 1972, Burris served on the Metcalf Commission in Chicago. Each day, he documented the stories of black men and women who allegedly endured police beatings.
Soon, Burris was exposing injustices back in his native California.

Melvin Black, a 14-year-old boy, had suffered eight fatal bullet wounds at the hands of Oakland police officers in 1979.

Burris was appointed the independent investigator. To the dismay of City Council officials, he declared the shooting unjustified in a 700-page report.

Burris described the case as the “crucible” of his career, but nevertheless, he felt stifled. Prosecuting in California and Illinois wasn’t enough. Neither was starting a criminal
defense practice with two former fraternity brothers.

“I felt that my wings were becoming clipped. I was frustrated,” Burris said. “I could see I could not really impact the system.”

He wanted to be himself — to control his destiny.

So, he launched the Law Offices of John L. Burris in 1985, emphasizing police misconduct and discrimination to rally against the status quo.

“I’ve always had the sense I wanted to be my own lawyer. My own man,” Burris said.


The day after Mario Woods was fatally shot over 20 times by San Francisco police in December 2015, Shawn Richard called Burris and asked if he would take case.

Richard, the Woods family spokesman and executive director of Brothers Against Guns, didn’t consider anyone else.

This was John Burris, the preeminent civil rights attorney who clinched a $3.8 million verdict for Rodney King after a 1991 police beating.

The attorney who helped yield a $10.9 million settlement from the 1990s “Rough Riders” saga, in which cops planted evidence and used excessive force against people of color. The attorney who secured a $2.8 million settlement for the family of Oscar Grant, who was shot in 2009 while lying facedown in a subway station.

Burris speaks the truth bluntly. He’s a no-nonsense person. But, he’s always there for his clients, Richard said, with the Woods case now on his litany of pending civil rights suits.

“He treats everyone like they’re the president of the United States. From the janitor to the dishwasher to the executive, he treats everyone the same,” Richard said. “He’s excellent.”

In the courtroom, he’s known to “fight tooth and nail,” as San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi put it. It comes down to his preparation, to the flawless notes and solid facts that can catch guilty cops in a web of lies.

“He has a way of persuasiveness — a level of advocacy that cuts right to the point,” Nisenbaum said.


Though the pursuit of progress has been stymied for Burris at times, he’s managed to cast chinks in the armor of officers who once considered themselves invincible to the law.

“Changes can occur — I do think that things are different,” Burris said, citing fewer police shootings while acknowledging persistent racism. “The beauty of it is there are lawyers like me scattered across the country holding people accountable.”

Ever since the Riders case, he’s maintained a constant presence at the Oakland Police Department, ensuring that more than 50 mandated reforms are implemented.

“It shows his complete determination in a way that no words ever could,” said Jim Chanin, the co-counsel in the lawsuit.

There’s a passion that pervades Burris’ work, fueled by the staggering responsibility of representing what can be a voiceless community. Now, he’s channeling his energies to mentor a new cohort of African American lawyers and youth.

He’s getting ready, in case he needs to pull back.

In case he needs to pass the baton.

“These lawyers will go on for the next 30 years promoting social justice, like I have done,” Burris said. “I will feel that I have planted trees that will provide shade in the future.”

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Facing crippling rent, a major Oakland workspace is fighting to survive

OAKLAND — By day, Clody Cates is an artist, fashioning copper roses with a green patina finish, renovating horned devil sculptures, and making the occasional gnarled cannabis plant to spite California’s burgeoning industry.

By night, she’s a security guard, ensuring the industrial-sized containers housing sculptures bound for the annual Burning Man festival are safe amid the pings of nearby gunshots.

For Cates, NIMBY is her fortress — an enclave of artists and craftsmen who make the city “cool.” But it’s been invaded by forces like soaring rent prices and legalized marijuana, which have already led to the closures of other prominent shared workspaces in Oakland.

“This is the last big one. If no one is there to help, it’s going to have to shut down,” Cates said. “I know somewhere there is some vacant building that the city is hiding, and they don’t want to give it up.”

When January rolls around, NIMBY will be slapped with a 300 percent rental increase, translating into an additional $40,000 per month.

Michael Snook founded the collective in 2004 so he’d have a place to work. Now, he said it’s turned into a way of life.

Snook called this latest hurdle survivable, though he’s yet to envision a fundraising strategy that can ward off the eviction of more than 80 tenant groups.

“We’ll figure it out,” Snook said with a nervous chuckle, rubbing his grease-stained hands together. “It’s going to hurt. We weren’t really making money before.”

It’s not the first time Snook has prepared for battle, with the acronym “Not in My Backyard” alluding to the tumultuous dichotomy in which a municipality claims to appreciate artists — until the glass blowing, welding and sawing begins.

“They want them, but as soon as property values go up, they kick them out,” Snook said.

Sitting in a school bus retrofitted with LED lights and “time travel technologies,” Tim Johnson said people are selfish to disregard the inherent worth of NIMBY. There’s a certain camaraderie, Johnson said, that comes from sharing random tools and creative expression among fellow artists in the warehouse.

“You can’t put a price on it,” said Johnson, the co-founder of a Burning Man theme camp. “They don’t recognize they have something till it’s gone.”

The Lower 48, a nonprofit headquartered at NIMBY that teaches woodworking to build self-esteem, could soon be in jeopardy. Founder Jolie Karno said she’s begun paying expenses out of pocket and can’t withstand another rental hike.

“I was all pro-legalization of marijuana, but I didn’t see this coming,” Karno said. “It’s causing our rents to triple or quadruple. No one can keep up with pot dealers financially, except for tech people.”

In Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, property values soared when dispensaries sprung up within a 0.1-mile radius. For Denver homes, the average increase was $27,000, according to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Snook explained it, cannabis developers latched onto Oakland when “no one was looking.” They’ve pushed out American Steel.

Mirthworks is gone, too — and so are many of the underground collectives, the secret warehouses the NIMBY artists recalled in only hushed, reverent tones.

“Even our janitor just called me and said I have to double your charge because all my customers are gone. Every business,” Snook said.

Later this month, City Council will vote on new cannabis regulations, making grow permits only available to spaces that have been vacant for at least one year, as of June 1.

“We’re taking away the incentive to put cannabis places in places like NIMBY… and giving negotiating leverage to NIMBY,” Oakland city planner Kelly Kahn said in an interview.

Nearly one year before California turned green, NIMBY grappled with the Ghost Ship fire. The December 2016 blaze claimed 36 lives inside a converted Oakland warehouse.

Gaige Qualmann witnessed the wide-reaching damage from afar, his leather skulls and purses safe inside the NIMBY container he’s learned to call home.

Within just eight months, 10 eviction notices were delivered to local workspaces. Inspections and lapsed zoning permits uprooted the lives of at least 45 artists.

Mayor Libby Schaaf later issued an executive order aimed at easing eviction anxieties — and spurring compliance. Artists weren’t fooled.

Oakland can’t catch a break, Qualmann said, his voice tinged with resignation.

“I feel like the unofficial motto of Oakland is struggle,” Qualmann, a Seattle native, said. “That’s just how it is here: struggle, struggle, struggle.”

Still, he’s not too concerned about the future of the city. After all, Qualmann said he’s not a fan of California — he’d rather be a hippie again in southern Oregon.

Cates, his partner, agreed that it might be time to leave NIMBY. They can strike out on their own, but Cates is more attached to this place. She’s lived here for eight years, twice as long as Qualmann.

Before NIMBY, she used to spend hours scavenging Craigslist for cheap apartments until she called it quits. Then, she bought a camper truck and a container for an art studio.

“If I had all the money in the world, I’d have my own studio in the middle of San Francisco,” Cates said with a smile.

Meanwhile, Sophia Constance just moved into NIMBY, situated within a five-minute drive to the Oakland Alameda Coliseum and Oracle Arena. After close to a decade of renting in tough neighborhoods, she views this as a somewhat safer haven to evolve her craft.

Constance, with translucent eagle wings tattooed down the length of her arms, said she knew of NIMBY’s precarious financial situation.

She settled down anyway.

“You can’t stop doing something you love,” she said.

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