News Story from Interview
Attorney John Burris talks life, law and legacy with champion journalism students
Famed civil right attorney John Burris discussed many aspects of his storied career while fielding questions from seven student journalists competing in the Heart Journalism Awards national championship Monday.
The interview panel, which ran from 10:00 to 11:15 a.m. at the Hearst Foundation office in downtown San Francisco, was the central component of the competition’s writing contest.
Gripping the back of a chair at the end of a long table inside the office’s conference room, Burris spoke for the first 15 minutes about his work, the notoriety he earned during the Oakland Riders case, representing clients including Rodney King, Barry Bonds, Latrell Sprewell, Gary Payton and the families of Melvin Black, Oscar Grant.
“Part of being a lawyer, and a certain lawyer that represents people in some cases, and being in the news, I’ve been very careful that I wasn’t the story, which is important to me,” he said. “For me, it’s always important that I represent an interest and the story, but not me.”
Burris spoke of his daughters, three of whom are following in his litigious footsteps, as well as questions of whether he intended to retire. His answer: as long as he feels he’s contributing to the cause, he’s not going anywhere.
“Mr. Burris, when are you going to quit?” he said. “Quit to do what?”
Recently, Burris made the news while representing the families of Mario Woods and Luis Góngora Pat. On Dec. 2, 2015, Woods, 26, was shot 20 times by five officers when he refused to drop a knife while in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. Pat, a 46-year-old homeless man, was killed under similar circumstances on April 7, 2016.
Last week, San Francisco District Attorney George Gaston opted to not pursue criminal charges against the officers involved. Burris said the Gaston’s decision lacked courage.
“Unfortunately, the judicial system that we have…doesn’t always lend an opportunity to satisfactory results,” he said, adding that his office was drafting a letter to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose staffing choices were encouraging.
“He has a person on his staff who was a former ACLU lawyer that was very mindful of understanding these issues,” he said. “I thought maybe the best look that they’re going to get is this particular AG’s office.
Also attending the interview were Hearst Foundation Eastern Director George Irish, his wife Jeannie Irish, Hearst Foundations Executive Director Dino Dinovitz, Hearst Journalism Awards Program Director Jan Watten, Pennsylvania State University Journalism Department Head Russ Eshleman, University of Mississippi Dean of Journalism Will Norton, Hearst Journalism Awards Deputy Director Yasi Haerizadeh and University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Joe Strita.
Burris, who was the only black boy to attend an all-white elementary school, concluded the interview with an anecdote about how his school’s sixth-grade football team defeated an all-black team, The Do Nothings, to win the city championship.
“They had a history that, if they didn’t win, they’d win the fight,” he said. “So we won this game—we won the championship—and we had to run home. We won, but we had to run.”
John Burris: The Bay Area marathon man
John Burris used to jog the 3.4-mile perimeter of Lake Merritt every morning. At 73, he still makes his daily trip to the lagoon, located almost precisely in the center of Oakland, California, where he lives and works, but these days he mostly walks.
Next March marks the 40th anniversary of Burris’ first prominent civil rights case: the fatal police shooting of Melvin Black, a 14-year-old African American boy. Black was fleeing police, so they shot him eight times in the back.
Burris, then working at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, was appointed independent investigator. After five months, he turned in a 700-page report of his findings: the shooting was unwarranted and the officers should be held liable.
He expected full public disclosure. Instead, he got silence and suppression.
“Even in Oakland, the initial assault was shocking,” he said. “But the result I came up with, that the police were wrong, was blasphemous.”
In the following years, Burris pursued work in civil rights law. He’s now arguably America’s most renowned living civil rights attorney. He built his name on famous cases—Rodney King, Oakland Riders, Oscar Grant, Barry Bonds, Tupac Shakur, Latrell Sprewell, Gary Payton. But it’s the smaller ones that he most cherishes, according to best friend, George Woods.
“The cases that really count are the tiny cases—the cases he doesn’t get paid for,” said Woods, a psychiatrist and professor who used to work cases with Burris. “They’re not necessarily the kind of cases that they make movies about, but they’re important, and he believes it’s the right thing to do.”
Like most public personalities, Burris’ reputation precedes him. But in private, on their runs that have since turned into walks over decades of marriage, children, grandchildren and careers, he’s contemplative, warm and outgoing, with a sharp wit and an appetite for learning.
“John is an insatiably curious person,” he said. “He wants to know everything. He wants to know about art, music. He wants to know about you, and I mean he really wants to know about you. John is constantly stopped on our walks. They used to take 45 minutes. Now they take an hour and a half. He doesn’t have to come down here, but he does, and he chooses to talk with everyone.”
Burris, 73, grew up in Vallejo, California, the eldest of six children. His father, a former member of the United States Colored Troops, worked at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard 25 miles northeast of San Francisco. His mother, a homemaker, looked after him and his siblings. They were poor, he wrote in his 1999 book, “Blue vs. Black,” “but not dirt poor.”
He tested well and was sent to an all-white public school where he and his sister were the only black people on campus. Teachers pushed him toward mechanical classes and sports while directing his white classmates to take college preparatory courses.
“When a teacher I liked casually mentioned that I probably wouldn’t be going to college, I took it as a challenge,” he wrote. “I decided to show him how wrong he was.”
Burris’ first career was in accounting, but he hated the work. The 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Junior and Robert F. Kennedy further helped convince him a desk job was not for him. He wanted to make a difference.
“One of the pieces of advice John always gives me was to always do the right thing—to have the courage to make the hard calls and make the right decisions,” said Brenda Harbin-Forte, Alameda County Superior Court judge.
Harbin-Forte worked as an attorney at Harris, Alexander and Burris from1982 to 1984. By that time, he’d been an associate attorney at Jenner and Block, an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, and a deputy district attorney in Alameda County.
He was a shrewd litigator in the courtroom, she said, especially in cross examination. Outside, on their lakeside walks with his wife, North Carolina Central University law professor Cheryl Amana-Burris, he was like a big brother.
“Whenever I was going through anything—the loss of a parent, a grandchild, any of those kinds of traumas—John was just always there,” she said. “As a friend, he’s just very loyal and committed, and he’s a dedicated. He cares about people, especially speaking up for people who don’t otherwise have a voice, who could easily be written off—people of color, particularly African Americans and young people who have gotten on the wrong side of the law.”
Burris knows his fame is a useful tool, but he doesn’t relish the spotlight, said Adante Pointer, a lawyer at Burris’ firm. Instead, he’d rather focus on issues—how to approach each case and its unique problems in a fashion that brings justice to those who deserve it and restores balance to the affected communities.
Pointer worked with Burris representing the mother and daughter of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer while lying prone on Oakland’s Fruitvale Station platform in 2009. Two years later, after the civil trial concluded, BART agreed to pay his family $2.8 million.
But for every big case in which there’s a victory, there are setbacks, Pointer said, and the frustrating fact that what happened to Melvin Black in 1979 and Rodney King in 1991 could just as easily happen today.
“That’s the essence of our practice, that, even with all the work—the videos, the witnesses, the proverbial 100 bullets, all the deaths, all the carnage and broken evidence—we still have to convince too many people that the police are human and humans do bad things sometimes,” he said. “There’s still too many people who are just unwilling to accept that’s the reality.”
So Burris keeps moving forward, maybe walking now more than running, with a secondary purpose: to encourage young black men to become better than their surroundings and prepare the next generation of lawyers to carry on his work after he’s gone.
“Each generation has a responsibility to move the social agenda toward a more perfect union,” Burris said. “I’ve come to appreciate that I’m just moving the thing along. I refer to it’s a relay. I’ve got the baton now, but I’m pulling it back and my guys are running up beside me. I’m going to pass it to them and turn left at some point.”
Braving the waves: How some mission artists stay afloat amid a cultural sea change
David Quinby pulled at a section of wall and it swung outward, revealing a secret path behind it. Neither the bar’s piano player nor the half-dozen daytime patrons tapping their feet to his creaky ragtime rendition of “Love Me Do” paid much notice.
“There’s a staircase here, so watch your step,” Quinby said, walking down toward a speakeasy-style basement with wall-to-wall wood paneling and a raised stage for live performances.
Two years have passed since Quinby opened Amado’s on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. But its business model remains in flux. Its upper level, which features a corner bar reminiscent of a western saloon and open floor space, was once a clothing store. Then it was a record shop.
Maybe a decade ago, Amado’s—described on Facebook as a live music venue “available for private rental and rotating pop-ups”—could have gotten by solely as a watering hole, Quinby says, but not anymore.
It used to be, Saturday night at 2 a.m., you couldn’t get a cab there were so many people,” he said. “Now, nobody’s out.”
The Mission, like many neighborhoods in the Bay Area, is awash in new money. Artists and arts-supportive businesses, Quinby said, are being forced out by rising rent and housing costs and replaced by techies with swollen salaries and a desire for hip housing.
Apple, Facebook and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, all headquartered within a 40-mile radius of downtown San Francisco, account for a combined estimated $2 trillion, according to recent market valuation. Smaller companies within the city limits, like Airbnb, Dropbox, Pinterest, Eventbrite and Uber, are now worth between $5 billion and $68 billion. As their valuations inflated, the housing market has kept pace, and many artists have fled elsewhere.
“One of the reasons I initially moved to the Bay Area years and years ago was the residual ‘70s culture that was out here—the freaks and geeks and the crazy artistic types of people,” said Oakland painter Paul Lewin. “Now, there are tons of people out there, but it’s not the same people. It’s not the same counterculture out there.”
Today, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2017 report, the six most expensive rental counties in the country are in the Bay Area: San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa. Real estate prices in the Mission have
The city’s minimum wage, which rises next month to $15 an hour, is the highest in the nation. But according to the NLIHC’s housing wage—the hourly wage full-time workers must earn to afford housing while spending 30% or less of their income on rent and utilities—it would take four full-time minimum wage earners to pay for a modest apartment in the city. Artists, many of whom make less than minimum wage, are even worse off.
“When you have established artists who have been in a unit for 15 to 20 years, it’s a matter of survival now,” says Nagi Chami, artist and president of Rosso Real Estate. “You cannot compete with someone making $300,000 a year when you’re working day-to-day trying to sell your art.”
But it’s not just the tech sector driving up prices, he says. It’s outside investors buying property, artificially driving up prices and, in some cases, not even bothering to find tenants. And it’s the city’s fault for not making room for smaller developers to build affordable housing when it invited high-rise developers like Goettsch Partners and Millennium Partners, whose 43-story tower is set to be completed next year, to give the city’s skyline a makeover.
“The average person can’t live in high-rises,” he said. “The city allocated money for smaller housing but didn’t disperse it or have an agreement with any small or mid-sized developers. Year by year, the population is going up and housing is going down. It’s our main problem.”
For residents like Breezy Culbertson, who lived in San Francisco during the 1990s dot-com boom and its aftermath, the current housing crisis feels like bad Hollywood sequel that hasn’t yet finished its third act.
“The first dot-com was like the wild west; people came here to cash in on that gold rush, nobody knew what was going on and it jacked up the rents,” she said. “The city changed a lot, and when it crashed the city kind of resurfaced and came back again. There was a resurgence of the arts and it was a regrowth of a magical time.”
Culbertson co-owns Needles & Pens, a boutique selling handcrafted jewelry, clothing, original artwork and home-made magazines known more commonly as “zines” or fanzines.” Most of the inventory comes from local artists and is sold either wholesale or on consignment.
She and a partner opened the shop in 2002, working side jobs to keep the lights on. She bartended. She still does.
“This second tech wave has just blown this place up,” she said. “It’s so expensive. But it’s not just tech, and it’s not just here. It’s happening everywhere. Population growth, division of rich and poor—it’s a global situation, but it’s just more accelerated here because there’s way more money, and it’s definitely not trickling down.”