News Story from Interview
Police brutality cases to get another chance for court appearance
A bay area attorney will ask the state’s chief legal advisor to consider the cases of two men fatally shot by police after the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office announced it would not file charges against the officers.
Prominent civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents the victims families, announced he would send the case to the state attorney general on May 29 at a rally outside the Hall of Justice and reiterated those intentions a week later at a press conference.
Burris said he was disappointed District Attorney George Gascon didn’t consider more options beyond first or second-degree murder. He believes state Attorney General Xavier Becerra is more open to exploring those options, including manslaughter.
“In talking with him, he has certainly gave an indication that he is willing to look at these cases,” Burris said. “That’s not to say he’ll do it, but he said he’s willing to take an objective look.”
District Attorney Gascon announced May 24 that despite his personal feelings, he did not believe there was substantial evidence to prove the shootings were unjust.
“I am extremely disturbed by the state of the law today, and yet I am duty bound to adhere to the law,” Gascon said then.
Burris said the district attorney’s decision showed a lack of courage.
“Law is a matter of interpretation,” Burris said. “You can interpret a situation the way you want and the [district attorney’s] view was, ‘I need a clear roadmap that suggests there’s no way possible I would lose a case.’ While much of life is not that way. And very few criminal cases are that way.”
Burris is still going forward with civil cases surrounding the deaths of Mario Woods, 26, and Gongora Pat, 45, but he said those cases can’t provide the justice his clients, or others in the community, want.
Woods was killed on Dec. 2, 2015 near Keith Street and Fitzgerald Avenue. Officers were looking for a stabbing suspect and said Woods matched the description. Ten officers surrounded him and after Woods allegedly refused to drop a knife, five of them opened fire.
Police shot and killed Gongora, a homeless Mayan immigrant, four months later. Police said Gongora was armed with a knife and refused to drop it. After being shot with a beanbag gun he chased officers, they said, at which point they fired seven bullets toward him.
A subsequent six-month Department of Justice investigation found that San Francisco faily to adequately track and investigate its police officers’ use of force, train them against bias or discipline them in the public eye.
Burris hopes by putting the officers on trial, it can bring some justice to the family and hold the San Francisco Police Department accountable to those shortcomings highlighted in the federal report. Those aren’t possible outcomes if it stops as a civil case.
“It’s what I can do,” he said. “But people want more than that.”
A litigator’s legacy
The light of mid-day sun beats down on the children as they bend beneath shady rows of northern California fruit trees. Stooping to pick prunes from the grass, they gather them together while their father goes branch by branch, knocking them down.
Again and again. Row by row. From sunrise to sunset.
It’s a summer routine the oldest child has come to expect in a family defined by hard work. His parents mismatched shift schedules mean one is often out the door as the other comes home. Mostly everyone in his neighborhood in Vallejo, California are working class. Few, if any, have been to college.
But a lot is happening beyond the north bay town.
A baptist minister leads boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama. College students protest segregated seating in Wichita, Kansas. In some places, black and white children attend school together for the first time.
To young John Burris, now 71, these are little more than curiosities, but soon they will mean much more.
Soon he will realize their significance to a greater narrative, that of his parents and grandparents generations. He will weigh his role in that years later as he tries cases of police brutality in front of national audiences as a prominent civil rights attorney. And he will think, in the twilight of his career, about battles to come. About issues that will long outlast him.
“I refer to it as a relay,” Burris said. “I’ve got the baton now, but I’m doing this—I’m putting it back. And my guys are running up beside me and I’m going to pass it to them.”
Burris was born May 8, 1945 in a working class town to a working class family. He occupied his time with after-school pick-up sports games, mountains of books and summers in the prune fields.
“We had a mother and father who worked very hard,” said his younger brother Ronald Burris. “My father experienced the depression and so he always had to have food and money in his pocket.”
Burris graduated high school, worked his way through college by cleaning apartments and graduated with an accounting degree from Golden Gate University. Burris’ family encouraged him to follow his talent in numbers, but it became apparent a career wouldn’t materialize.
“It was clear that accountants were to be seen and not heard,” Burris said. “And that did not sit well with me at that young age.”
People were tearing apart the social fabric of America and stitching it back together. Burris wanted in.
He left accounting, got his masters in business and then graduated from University of California at Berkeley’s School of Law. He spent time jumping from private law to prosecution in Chicago before returning to the bay as a prosecutor in Alameda County and later as criminal defense lawyer.
But like he so often did, Burris grew tired.
“Certainly you could win cases and people can walk out of there,” he later said. “But that wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t control my destiny.”
Though Burris’ destiny pulled him through precarious twists and turns, the guiding force remained the same: social justice.
In 1979, he got his first police brutality case in the Alameda District Attorney’s Office—the death of Melvin Black, a black 14-year-old shot and killed by police officers in Oakland. He started his own practice in 1985 and later defended Rodney King. That got him some publicity as well as more cases and eventually he was known as “Oakland’s Johnnie Cochran,” fighting to end public strip searches, going after police who excessively used canine units and suing his way across the bay area.
But in each case, the courtroom was only an access point.
“He has always, even as a young lawyer, looked beyond the four corners of the case to areas of reform,” said his wife Cheryl Amana-Burris, a lawyer and professor at North Carolina Central University School.
Years of pushing and pioneering came to a head in 2000 when news trickled out from the Oakland Police Department that four officers known as the “Riders” were running a racket of kidnapping, beating and planting cocaine on citizens.
After settling the case, 119 plaintiffs received a collective $10.3 million, federal monitors loomed over the Oakland Police Department and Burris and his co-counsel delivered a plan to overhaul the department though 52 reform items over five years.
But things got complicated.
“They may not have appreciated how dug in the police department was,” said Amana-Burris.
Friction between the police department, lawyers and federal monitors, compounded with the ebb and flow of political leaders, meant five years have turned to 15 while costs to the city have stacked higher and higher.
Burris says they’re getting close to finishing the process and have made serious progress in addressing racial profiling, but the case serves as a reminder of the slow crawl toward progress in this work.
It doesn’t help the mothers walking through his door, telling him stories of dead children and police officers just as they have for years.
But Burris doesn’t think in immediate solutions.
His timetable stretches generations. It includes civil rights attorneys and abolitionists that came before him. It includes shady prune trees in northern California and a father who never marched or picketed but was as much a hero to Burris. Because he and Burris’ mother provided, sacrificed and pushed their children toward a future to make change.
I also includes the lawyers who will come after him. The ones he trains in his practice, shepherding toward understanding the importance of following a strong social compass. Because ultimately, they’re his legacy.
“They will go forward in their careers with a real commitment,” he said. “And I will feel like I have planted trees. Planted trees that will provide shade for people in the future.”
‘We draw the devil so we can have power over him’: Artists in San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood fight for a path forward amid gentrification
The artist crosses his arms over a faded green crewneck splotched with paint and turns his attention toward somewhere far-off inside the art shop. Outside it’s a breezy Sunday in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, but the atmosphere inside Precita Eyes Muralists just turned tense.
“Hey, they’re buffing out your mural,” he recalls a friend saying over the phone in June of 2017.
Max Martilla, 29, rushed up 24th street and saw people ready to cover up the mural designed in 2015 by kids in his Urban Youth Arts Program at Precita Eyes.
He told them to stop, that the mural was copyrighted. When he returned, they’d covered half of it. The plan, he later learned, was to replace its “scary” Dia De Los Muertos skull with a bright slogan.
Be A Good Person.
The community protested and the event ignited a flame fueled by years of mounting tension.
Tension that exists when a family pupuseria is turned into a sheik eatery. When a cacophony of Spanish from an open-air grocery shares the street with contemporary music coming from a cafe jammed with people on MacBooks.
Now thick white lines dragged over the once defiant message.
Our Culture Can’t Be Bought.
“It’s just a sign of the times,” Martilla said. “They really had no idea what was going on in the neighborhood. They didn’t respect the art or the culture or whatever. They came into a space with a lot of ignorance and didn’t know how to navigate themselves through it.”
Over the last 15 years gentrification has rocked the historically Latino Mission neighborhood. Rising housing costs have displaced longtime residents while young tech workers have moved in. If one city study’s projections are correct, the Mission will only be 31 percent Latino by 2025, nearly half of what it was in 2000.
For artists, it’s created a battlefield.
“We draw the devil so we can have power over him,” said Josué Rojas, a Mission artist who’s exhibit “¡Gentromancer!” used art and poetry to feature voices affected by gentrification ranging from the city’s poet laureate to kids in juvenile hall. “So the idea is there’s a symbolic power there. We can take our fears, take our boogiemen, draw them, put them down on paper or canvas and then we have power over them. Power to destroy them.”
Rojas came to the Mission at less than 2-years-old when his family fled violence in El Salvador. The culture—art, music, dancing, theater, food—made him feel rich. The people made him feel welcome—neighbors, like the woman who let his family sell street goods outside her pupuseria.
These are the people he wants to give power over the devil of gentrification.
But many are gone. The pupuseria owner. His friends. Even he doesn’t live here anymore.
The neighborhood’s gentrification started in the late ‘90s when the dot-com bubble brought the first wave of people looking for cheap housing in a cool neighborhood. When the bubble burst in the early 2000s, they left only to return with the rise of smartphones, social media and start-ups.
Paul F. Flores a playwright, activist and poet who lives in the Mission said not only have they lost artists, but community support too.
“When all of a sudden the people that you make your art for aren’t there, and you’re not there, you become very bitter,” he said.
In its place is a bizarre duality. Once, Flores said he was practicing a one-man show about gentrification in a gallery when a white truck hauling tourists stopped to watch. Zebra stripes lined the trucks sides with the words “Urban Safari” plastered overtop in neon yellow.
Mauricio Ramirez is a PhD student at the University of California at Santa Cruz studying the historic role of Central American in the bay area. While he’s doesn’t study gentrification he is curious what role these newcomers will play in the Mission’s murals and public artwork.
“What would happen, if let’s say the population drastically changes over time?” he asked. “Are these murals going to be preserved? And will they have the same meaning?”
It used to be that Central Americans like Rojas could walk down Balmy Alley and feel a sense of connection and pride with the artwork they saw.
“If you’re a recent immigrant and you’re seeing all these coffee shops popping off,” Ramirez asks, “Are you going to feel accepted?”
The one thing many have come to terms with is that gentrification is here to stay.
“In terms of turning the tide or stopping this, that was over a long time ago,” said Lydia Chavez, founder and editor of the online publication Mission Local. “That possibility was over a long time ago.”
Chavez said the goal now is adapting to this new environment, possibly finding patrons in the tech workers. Rojas agrees, but it’s hard not to feel resentful.
“All of the people that moved in [a gentrified development] the last two years are completely innocent of what the owner did,” Rojas said. “But at the same time I know the families, I know the parents, I know the widows who got pushed out and bullied by this landlord and had to make space for these new people that can afford that.”
It makes for a tricky path going forward. But if there is one solution to look to, it might be in Max Martilla and the 24th street mural.
After the crowds dissipated, Precita Eyes and the building’s owner had several meeting about what to do now. There was mistrust at first, but Martilla said they reached an agreement. Precita Eyes would put a new mural on the wall and the owner would pay them. Today they still have a working relationship. It’s not perfect, but for the art, Martilla’s willing to make it work.
“I think people just have to be able to have a conversation,” he said. “We can be angry and talk shit and demonize them, but at the end of the day that’s not going to help the murals.”