News Story from Interview
Families of Mario Woods, Luis Góngora Pat plan to bring case before state attorney general
After the district attorney declined to charge police officers May 24 for two high-profile shooting deaths, attorney John Burris said Monday the best chance for justice is to bring the cases before the state attorney general.
Burris, representing the families of Mario Woods and Luis Góngora Pat, rebuked District Attorney George Gascón decision not to charge, saying it lacked “courage.”
“He could have charged,” Burris said. “Law is a matter of interpretation.”
Woods died in December 2015 after five officers fired more than 20 shots when he allegedly refused to put down a knife. Góngora Pat died in April 2016 after two police officers shot him, also for allegedly refusing to drop a knife.
Gascon said last week in a press conference he couldn’t bring charges because the officers had done nothing wrong under the law. He is bound to follow the law, he said, even though he is happy with the results.
Burris called this explanation “disingenuous,” believing the officers could have been charged with a lesser crime, such as manslaughter, if Gascón felt he couldn’t make a case for murder.
“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. “Well, much of life isn’t that way, and very few criminal cases are that way.”
Burris said he chose to keep the cases in-state rather than taking them to federal officials because California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has shown interest in investigating cases like these.
Becerra’s staff also includes a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Burris said is “mindful” of the issues at hand in the cases.
Burris said his law office is currently working on drafting the letter to the attorney general asking for an investigation, but as for whether that will change the case’s outcome, he said he doesn’t know.
However, Burris said he isn’t in the business of taking cases he knows he can’t win, in large part to avoid traumatizing the families by forcing them to make public statements, only for them lose.
Burris is also simultaneously representing the families in a separate civil suit, but he said it doesn’t bring the same satisfaction to families as criminal charges.
“People want more than that,” he said. “The objective is at least to get another law enforcement agency to take a look at it.”
John Burris builds life, practice around mother’s ideals
When attorney John Burris is going to be on TV, he always tells his family the channel and time.
For decades, his mother watched dutifully, assigning him a letter grade for his appearance, knocking off points for clashing socks or crooked ties. He averaged a B, and she refused to give him an A because he needed something to strive for.
Imogene Burris was one of her son’s most trusted advisers, the person he often called when deciding whether to take a case, even though she never graduated from college.
She was smart, well-read and the kind of person habitually supporting the underdog — all things Burris would grow up to be. They’re traits that helped him build his law practice, where he’s known for defending the vulnerable from powerful institutions.
His legacy of service representing everyone from those wrong in the infamous Oakland Riders case to Tupac Shakur can be traced back to her, a woman with a motto.
If I can be helpful, I will.
After first investigating a wrongful police killing about 40 years ago, Burris has spent his career in the courtroom crusading against police brutality and racial discrimination.
When Burris takes a case, his wife, Cheryl Amana-Burris, said he always looks beyond its “four corners.” Practicing law isn’t just about the clients, it’s about creating larger changes in society.
Burris used a case against the the City of Oakland to induce reform in its crowd control policy. Another case made Seaside police change their methods for dealing with the mentally ill. Another caused the City of Livermore to provide sensitivity training to all departmental officers.
For decades, these cases existed mostly at the margins of the public consciousness, but then came something Amana-Burris said changed everything: video.
Burris represented Rodney King in one of the most famous police brutality cases in American history. Because of video footage, people could see for themselves for the first time the incident at the center of a police brutality lawsuit.
Public awareness of issues related to race and policing has only grown since, especially thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and social media, and today, the American Civil Liberties Union reports only one in three Americans think black people are treated fairly by the criminal justice system.
Police brutality and racial discrimination cases, the work of Burris’s life, are finally becoming mainstream news.
But the work isn’t over.
There’s always another case waiting, another family vying for his help, another person profiled or killed in an interaction with police.
Amana-Burris said her husband never gets tired or distressed, though, and even when he winds up on the losing side, he just picks up the next case and keeps going.
His mother always taught her children to never stop serving.
“We know what we’re up against,” Amana-Burris said. “We’re never deterred because the work has to be done.”
Imogene Burris’s home had a “revolving door” policy — there were usually cousins or neighbors around, stopping by or hiding out after a fight at home. The mother always supported friends and families, particularly at funerals, and she’d drag her kids along, famous peach cobbler in tow.
Now, Amana-Burris said her husband truly is a family man. He doesn’t take phone calls after 8 p.m. and he sees his grandkids in the Bay Area nearly every week, attending their basketball games and piano recitals.
As Burris and his wife enter what she calls the fourth-quarter of their lives, they have a plan to allow them to spend even more time with their blended family of nine kids and many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
By 2020, Amana-Burris will teach her last semester at North Carolina Central University School of Law, and Burris will reduce his caseload.
But neither Amana-Burris nor his sister, Faye Anderson, think Burris can ever really slow down.
While men his age are hitting the golf course or lounging on their porches, Burris is still following the path of his mother, who worked lifelong, opening homes for the developmentally disabled in “retirement.”
When people ask Burris when’s going to quit, he has an answer.
“Quit?” he says. “To do what?”
After following the example of his mother for so long, Burris is now learning to live without her.
When she died two years ago, she left a giant void not just in her children’s lives but in the entire family. She had been the one to wrangle everyone together for Thanksgiving or Memorial Day, even as the family grew and grew.
For the first holiday season after she died in 2016, Amana-Burris said her husband was too upset to do much of anything.
But last year, Burris was the one to wrangle the sprawling family to celebrate the holidays at his home. He also frequently organizes gatherings somewhat like his mother’s Memorial Day celebrations, doing something she always did: barbecuing.
And when he goes on TV, he still makes sure the entire family knows, even though Imogene Burris can no longer watch.
Now, every once in a while, his sister, Faye Anderson will tune in and give him a grade.
In her eyes, he has an earned an A.
San Francisco’s rising costs threaten drag performance, queer bars
VivvyAnne ForeverMORE shines on stage at the Stud, one of the oldest queer bars in San Francisco.
“I suggest you come a little bit closer to the stage,” the drag queen says. A crowd of sweating people squeezes together around a platform a little bigger than a hotel bathroom.
It’s Sunday night, but the bar is packed for a special celebration.
“The Stud is 52 years old,” ForeverMORE tells the crowd to loud applause and cheers.
For 52 years, the Stud has been home to queer performance and nightlife in the South of Market or SoMa neighborhood of the city. It incubated the artform of drag and stood tall through flashpoints in LGBTQ history, from the Stonewall Inn riots to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
But this is the last year the Stud will be in its longtime home at 399 9th Street. Its owner sold the business two years ago after rent prices more than doubled, and although the bar has managed to hang on since, it needs to find a new building by the end of the year.
Tonight, though, is a birthday party, not a funeral, and the crowd celebrates the bar’s ability to stay open against the odds.
“Queer people can do stuff,” ForeverMORE says into the microphone. “Even if we don’t have the money to do everything we want.”
When the Stud opened in 1966, bars and nightclubs were just about the only place queer people didn’t have to hide. Since about the 1950s, these venues have played a key role in LGBTQ culture, giving queer people a safe place to gather, organize and perform.
Drag, ForeverMORE said, is a traditional artform for queer people. Ethnic communities across the world have their own traditional styles of dance. Queer people have drag.
Much like other indigenous artforms, drag is taught and passed down through lineages, from drag mother to drag daughter or drag sister to sister. ForeverMORE said this creates distinct regional forms of the performance.
San Francisco, one of the most historically queer friendly places in the United States, has a long tradition of drag, largely thanks to spaces like the Stud.
But high cost of living is pushing young creatives out of San Francisco, thinning the pool of new performers able to enter the drag scene, and rent prices are threatening the sheer existence of queer bars, including the Stud.
After its owner sold the Stud in 2016, the bar managed to survive thanks only to employees organizing to make the business a worker-owned cooperative that was able to negotiate a two-year extension of the building’s lease.
But that lease is up in December, so the Stud needs to find a new home.
Basking in stage light, ForeverMORE prepares to start her performance.
She came to San Francisco from Long Island about 10 years ago. She had long been in love with drag — watching, though, not performing.
The artform was almost sacred to her and she didn’t want to soil it by making a poor attempt. But then she met her drag mother, Glamamore, and started training.
Tonight, she’s performing to “Say Liza (Liza with a ‘Z’),” a humorous song riffing on the common mispronunciations of Liza Minnelli’s name. Minnelli is a longtime queer icon.
In the crowd, Tom Kern dances and sings along as ForeverMORE sheds her gold gown for a translucent white dress and her giant black wig for a cropped one. By the end of the song, she transforms into Minnelli’s look-alike.
“This is old school drag,” he says.
Kern, an older man with a white beard and baseball cap, has been coming to the Stud for 24 years. He performed drag for a little while but not anymore. He doesn’t think he makes a particularly pretty girl.
He’s been a regular, though, through the drag scene’s ups and downs, watching as most queer bars in the city went under for different reasons.
But the Stud has stuck it out, and he’s grateful.
As new populations of techies and yuppies inundate San Francisco, replacing the people who made SoMa known for its BDSM “leather” community, Kern feels that places like the Stud keep the old, eccentric soul of the city alive.
“It’s this bubble of San Francisco,” he said.
The last drag performer of the night leaves the stage and another drag queen named Honey Mahogany takes over as emcee.
A couple of the bar’s co-owners emerge with a frosted cake covered in candles.
“We are going to do something,” Honey says. “We are going to sing happy birthday to the Stud.”
As they search for the bar’s new location, the co-owners are committed to keeping the bar in SoMa, a historical home to queer people now officially recognized as a leather and LGBTQ cultural district.
But the Stud is competing with tech companies and everyone else for any open space, and ForeverMORE, a co-owner, was blunt about the difficulty of the search.
“It’s harder than you imagine,” she said.
ForeverMORE thinks it’s important to keep homes for drag performance alive because unlike ballet or theater, which require some amount of literacy and money to attend, drag is cheap to watch and easy to understand.
But a place like the Stud is about more than just performance. The Stud was born out of the need to escape discrimination and it has witnessed all the queer struggles of the last 50 years from the riots of the 70s to the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s to today’s push for greater visibility and acceptance.
ForeverMORE worries without places like the Stud, younger queer generations will not only lose a place to safely perform and gather — they might forget their history.
The co-owners wade through the crowd, and clamber onto a platform to light the cake’s candles. The candles are finicky, though, so the co-owners settle on holding the lighter up instead, over the crowd’s shining faces.
Then they begin to sing.