2018 Writing Finalist

Kenny Jacoby

University of Oregon
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

John Burris has held hundreds of press conferences as California’s preeminent civil rights attorney, but he remains cautious about becoming the news.

“For me, it’s important that I always represent an interest and that the story not be me,” he said during a press conference Monday. “I’ve restricted the type of activities I involve myself in, the places that I go, to make sure I’m not caught in an environment that could look negatively on me.”

That’s why he never has more than two drinks at dinner — because of how it may impact those who look up to him if he was arrested for driving under the influence.

In the past 40 years, Burris, 73, has represented dozens of clients who’ve been wrongfully stopped, beaten or arrested by police. In the past five years, however, Burris has embarked on a campaign aimed at empowering young black men. The idea is to connect them with leaders in the African-American community.

Once a year since 2014, he and his wife, Cheryl Amana-Burris invite 30 to 50 black boys to their home in Oakland’s Caballo Hills. Most of them he’s met before, but some come as referrals from other young men, family and friends.

Once at his house, they are greeted by about two dozen black male adults selected by Burris to serve as positive role models. Then they are split into groups of three or four, and, like a speed-dating session, the adults speak to them and offer life advice.

The adults come from all walks of life, Amana-Burris said. They include lawyers, artists, academics, tradesmen and many more.

“The idea is to let them know there are lots of career paths they can follow,” Amana-Burris said. “Many of them think they’re going to be basketball player and football players, but that’s not a realistic possibility most of the time.”

A landmark 2018 study led by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau found rich black boys are far more likely than rich white boys to become poor, and poor black boys have a much harder time than poor white boys escaping poverty.

But the study’s silver lining was the key finding that the black boys who bucked that trend were those who grew up with mentors and role models in their life. Their presence in a community indicated lower incarceration rates and better job opportunities.

Amana-Burris said the boys in her and her husband’s mentorship program often stay in touch and come back to apprise them of well-being.

Philip Harris, a classical musician Burris asked to be a mentor in 2014, said the mentorship program also had a profound impact on him, as a speaker.

“Most of the time I’d always thought I was the one who needed a mentor,” Harris said. “But him just asking me let me know he had faith in me — that with all the things he’s accomplished and done, he thinks I might have something to offer.”

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Long before he became California’s go-to attorney for victims of police brutality, John Burris had a penchant for assisting others.

When Stan Hall, Burris’ fraternity brother in college, lost his teeth and needed help paying for dental work, Hall turned to Burris, the chapter’s treasurer. Burris moved some money around and helped Hall get dentures.

“Unfortunately he used some of the funds from the fraternity,” said Robert Harris, the chapter’s advisor at the time.

Was that allowed? Absolutely not, said Elihu Harris, who was fraternity president at the time.

“I told John, every time you see that man smile, just remember who paid for it,” Elihu Harris said.

Fifty years later, Burris, 73, still finds a way to help those in need. He works long hours as sole partner of his law firm, which handles about 700 police misconduct cases per year. He personally tries about half the cases that go to trial and has no plans of retiring.

His wife, Cheryl Amana-Burris, said Burris aims to go part-time by 2020. His friends aren’t sure his work will ever be complete.

“I don’t think it’s in John’s nature to retire,” Robert Harris said. “He has an insatiable desire to do this kind of work.”

Burris and Amana-Burris live in a 4,000-square-foot home that backs up to a regional park in Oakland’s Caballo Hills. With a swimming pool, floor-to-ceiling windows and Porsche Carrera in the driveway, it’s the product of a career built on suing law enforcement hundreds of times. Burris has litigated some of America’s highest-profile police brutality cases, including the killings of Oscar Grant and Mario Woods.

Yet by almost every account, what drives Burris is not fortune but an appetite for social progress. His proudest work is on cases that spurred empirical reforms in police practices, he said. Even those with whom he’s butted heads acknowledge his impact in the community and are grateful someone is holding police accountable when they cross the line.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone that’s had a more positive impact in the community, other than police agencies acknowledging they need to implement some changes,” said Terry Wiley, assistant district attorney for Alameda County, who has gone against Burris in cases. “Police agencies are the only organizations allowed to engage in the use of force. Should a mistake occur, you hope it’s in an area with an attorney like John Burris.”

Burris grew up in Vallejo, California, a Navy town about 25 miles north of his current home. His mother, Imogene, raised him and his five younger siblings at home while his father, Dewitt, worked blue-collar jobs nearby on Mare Island, where naval vessels were repaired during World War II. His parents never had the luxury to think “about life other than existing” and supporting the family, Burris said.

A child of the civil rights movement, Burris loved to read the news, and there was plenty of it. When he was in fourth grade, Rosa Parks set the Montgomery bus boycott in motion. Sit-ins became regular during his teenage years. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when he was 22, a moment Burris said profoundly impacted his life.

At Berkeley law school, Burris met Henry Ramsey, a former prosecutor and one of 60 people jailed in the 1950s for demonstrating in the white neighborhoods of Selma, Alabama. Ramsey inspired Burris to pursue a career in civil rights. As president of the Black Law Students Association, Burris led several protests on campus, including a weeklong strike in support of affirmative action.

Upon graduation, Burris moved to Chicago, where he worked on a commission investigating police abuse and interviewed hundreds of African-Americans who said they had been wrongfully assaulted and arrested. After two-year stints as a prosecutor in Illinois in California, Burris and two fraternity brothers, Elihu Harris and David Alexander, set up a private practice in Oakland.

It wasn’t long before Burris worked his first high-profile case investigating the death of Melvin Black, a 14-year-old African-American shot eight times in the back by Oakland police. Burris conducted a five-month investigation culminating with a 700-page report finding the killing was unjustified, which contradicted federal and state attorneys and the department itself.

“People weren’t used to that,” said Elihu Harris, who went on to become mayor of Oakland in the 1990s. “People were used to things like that being swept under the rug and not being fully or fairly addressed.”

The Melvin Black case cemented Burris’ reputation as a staunch defender of civil rights. He served as co-counsel in Rodney King’s civil suit against the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991. During the 1990s, he helped uncover dozens of cases of Oakland police dogs biting and severely injuring civilians, which led to several policy reforms.

In 2000, he and local attorney Jim Chanin litigated what Burris called the “most important” case of his career against four Oakland police officers known as the “Riders,” who had planted evidence, made false arrests and assaulted dozens of citizens. Burris and Chanin won a $10.9 million settlement for the 119 plaintiffs, which included an agreement outlining 55 policy changes for the department.

But the change hasn’t come naturally. Oakland police failed to follow many tenets of the agreement until 2009. Since then, Oakland police has had a significant drop in the number of complaints, uses of forces and African-Americans stopped by police.

“John understands these things are not going to happen overnight,” Chanin said. “You have to be down for the count to make any impact at all, and he has been down for the count for nearly 40 years.”

Amana-Burris said her husband never gets frustrated at the gradual pace of change.

“He knows what he’s up against,” she said. “Oakland police are now trained on how to avoid situations where they might end up dealing with John Burris. Community members know they have a voice.”

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

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For three years, Manny Fabregas, a painter living in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, rented studio space at The Farm art studio along with about 10 other artists. He loved The Farm, he said, because it was a communal, open atmosphere that bred creativity.

Last year, however, their landlord told them they’d have to vacate the studio. The Farm was going to be closed down because of a building code violation — the ceiling was too low.

The code concerns, Fabregas said, arose in the wake of December 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship art warehouse, in which 36 people died and two building proprietors were charged with felony manslaughter for allegedly neglecting electrical problems.

The Farm’s landlord, Fabregas said, initially told the artists they had a year to leave but then told them they’d have to leave sooner, that the building may be rezoned and changed into an office space. Fabregas has since moved out.

“It’s really a hustle,” Fabregas said.

The move is familiar territory for hundreds of artists in San Francisco. As the cost of rent has skyrocketed for everyone, dozens of spaces previously reserved for artists were sold to the highest bidders, who were almost never artists.

The result is an increasing number of artists being pushed to the outskirts of the city and a diminishing local art scene. There are fewer art shows and fewer artists living in the city because spaces for artists aren’t as profitable for property owners, Fabregas said.

“The art scene is still here,” Fabregas said. “It’s just not as accessible.”

Fabregas now rents a more expensive studio he likes far less. It is further away from his home, which means more gas money and time out of his already limited schedule. On top of painting professionally, he has a daughter and works 30 hours a week as a server at an Italian restaurant in the Mission District.

America’s technology industry, which is centered in the Bay Area, plays a big role, Fabregas said. The space he rented prior to The Farm cost him and three other artists $1,400 total. That was until a tech startup offered to pay $3,500 and bought it from under them.

Brion Nuda Rosch, another San Francisco artist, said although far bigger issues exist in the world, this issue is a microcosm of a deeper problem. The discrepancy is too wide, he said, “between an industry that makes billions and trillions and one in which everyone else struggles.”

“Art and culture is a necessity in a city no matter the size,” Rosch said. “If you want to keep pushing that out, it doesn’t create a picture of what I imagine when I think of a city like San Francisco.

Rosch now works as director of the studio program at the Minnesota Street Project, a business that aims to the fill the void for young artists who are priced out of places in the city. The idea is it rents out commercial gallery space in its three warehouses and uses the revenue to rent out studio space to artists at a modest price.

More than 300 artists applied for 30 studio rentals last year, Nuda Rosch said, emphasizing that these artists are willing to pay a fair rate and not looking for a handout. But the business model only works because two multimillionaire investors and art collectors, Deborah and Andy Rappoport, started the project with the specific goal of support the San Francisco arts scene.

Other projects with similar goals have emerged in the city, such as Alter Space in the South of Market neighborhood and R/SF projects in the Tenderloin. But they all have one thing in common — a sustained commitment to subsidizing arts and culture at the expense of more profitable ventures.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact President Donald Trump proposed largescale cuts to the federal government’s funding for arts and humanities, which means the burden to support local artists will weigh even more heavily on the private sector.

Fabregas has had to spend more time working from home on projects he otherwise may have worked on at his studio. Sometimes that’s impossible, though. A local bar recently hired him to paint a 14-by-18-foot wall piece, which he can’t fit in his apartment.

Although the Minnesota Street Project reserves 150,000 square feet for artists, Nuda Rosch called it a drop in the bucket relative to the overall need for studio space. He said he’s had a lot of productive conversations with local artists and organizations about potential solutions but remains fearful that none can sustain the art scene long term.

“I’m still optimistic that the art scene will always thrive here,” Nuda Rosch said. “I’m just not optimistic that the solution is as easily obtainable as many believe it to be.”

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