Like many cities across the country, San Jose starts 2015 on the heels of a march and rally that echoed the national call for police accountability. We belted chants and held up signs with the names of Mike Brown and Eric Garner.
But calling this event an act of solidarity is not quite accurate. Rather, the march was an act of “familiarity” and a morbid binding of reality that we, too, can speak the names of the deceased who once walked our streets, went to our schools, attended our churches and whose lives were unjustly cut short by a bullet fired from an officer’s gun.
While our event – the “Protect Your People March” – ended at the police department as others across the country have, we started at the district attorney’s office. We made it a point to march within earshot of the windows of our county jail because police are not isolated agents of the state. Rather, they are part of a “criminal justice system” that includes prosecutors, jails, judges and courts.
We picked our march route to make a physical connection showing how the same system that time and again refuses to hold officers accountable for the killing of innocents, is the same one that incarcerates more than 2 million Americans. People of color are disproportionately represented in that number.
The same injustice that allowed the officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner to not be prosecuted, is the same bias that is being used to over prosecute communities of color at a dizzying clip. It is why our march focused on two words that will hopefully become part of this movement’s lexicon moving forward – prosecutorial discretion.
The idea is a tangible handle that communities can leverage. It intertwines the efforts to end police violence and reduce incarceration rates.
The game-changing, historic movement for police accountability that has shut down cities from Ferguson to Oakland also carries the unprecedented possibility of challenging the injustice of over-incarceration. The movement only needs to continue to expand and challenge the system as a whole, rather than only the first point of contact of the system – officers on the street.
Police officers who shoot unarmed residents, who arrest and harass people in the streets, certainly need to be confronted, called out and held to account. But they are only the first part of an assembly line of actors that enables this system every day.
Just as numerous cities in America have an Eric Garner story, they also have thousands of people facing criminal charges for no other reason than their skin color.
Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson is a telling illustration of how these seemingly independent issues are very much one in the same. A report conducted by the ArchCity Defenders notes that in 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations. Black residents overwhelmingly made up those arrest warrant numbers.
It is not only the stops that are the injury, but what happens after the police interaction. Clients of ArchCity Defenders reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines. They also lost jobs and housing. As a result of the incarceration, they were even refused access to the courts.
The decision of whether criminal charges were to be pursued against the officer who killed Mike Brown, as well as the thousands of residents who are merely Black in Ferguson but were sought by police for nonviolent offenses, rested with the double-sided sword of prosecutorial discretion.
It is true with the case of Eric Garner and those whose freedoms were taken due to highly controversial stop-and-frisk practices in New York. For those who say the grand jury delivered the outcome, absolving prosecutors of responsibility, the response is a simple one.
Prosecutors did not have to use a grand jury. They could have directly filed criminal charges against the involved officers. The call was theirs to make.
Our San Jose march was led by two courageous community leaders who represent what can be taken when prosecutorial discretion is exercised without public scrutiny and can lead to more injustice – the loss of life and the loss of liberty. Both Laurie Valdez, whose life partner was killed by police, and Lamar Noble, who was wrongfully charged with a crime he did not commit, are challenging prosecutorial discretion to bend toward fairness and justice.
Laurie’s partner, Antonio Guzman Lopez, was killed by San Jose State University police officers who shot him in the back in February of 2014. Though body cameras were used by the involved officers, the police department and the district attorney have refused to release the video footage. The DA is reviewing the case to determine whether they’ll file criminal charges against the officers.
Laurie has met with the DA’s office, even identified new witnesses based on her own investigation and is demanding that charges be filed. Of course, the history of direct filing of charges against officers is rare, locally and nationally. Santa Clara County, under the former district attorney, was one of the few counties in the country which held an “open grand jury” for an officer involved shooting a decade ago.
It was for a case in which San Jose resident Rudy Cardenas was gunned down by state drug agent Michael Walker in 2004. Walker thought he was chasing and killing a different person. The open grand jury resulted in an indictment. The public was able to see directly, rather than through media leaks or post game transcripts, the validity of the prosecutor’s effort.
Walker was later found not guilty for murder at trial. While the process was better than a closed grand jury, the county has refused to hold open grand juries ever since and has yet to directly file charges against an officer who has killed a civilian.
Laurie is hoping her efforts and this elevated public understanding that it is up to the prosecutors to decide can lead to a new precedent of charges being filed in the death of Antonio.
Lamar Noble, a 44-year-old African American father and San Jose resident, was very nearly a Mike Brown-style fatality in January 2013 – a seemingly innocuous law enforcement interaction that escalated to gun play by officers. Lamar was driving in a neighborhood and was unexpectedly pulled over by Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
They initially claimed they pulled him over because he ran a stop sign. Lamar said he did not. Then, sheriffs shifted their explanation by saying Lamar’s brake lights weren’t working. He tested the lights for the deputies. They flashed on. Lamar started becoming suspicious and concerned by the stop and started calling his mother.
The deputies pulled their guns on Lamar and pepper-sprayed him. They then pulled him out of the car, threw him on the ground and hit him closed fist on the back of the head, according to reports. They detained him for resisting arrest. Lamar pled not guilty and requested the vehicle dash cam footage from the sheriff vehicles.
The district attorney’s office said the footage did not exist. Then, after a year and a half, the DA produced them, piecemeal, in a discovery request by his attorney. The footage sits at the center of a motion to dismiss and a judge will consider on Jan. 16. It shows the brake lights flashing, the beating and also a period where, as Lamar’s attorney argues, one deputy purposefully covers the dash cam.
At the march, we projected the dash cam video footage on the county building where the district attorney’s office is located, while Lamar narrated the incident.
Immediately after the surprise public movie showing, the district attorney came out to hear the communities’ collective demand that Lamar’s charges be dropped. Laurie called on charges to be filed against the officers who killed the father of her five-year-old son.
Our call is one that any community across the country can do. The community organizing call for justice can be profoundly uncomplicated – file charges against officers who kill, drop charges against those who should not have been arrested.
As this new national inflection point regarding police accountability has led to calls for diversifying police forces, equipping officers with body cameras and reforming departments, it is also an opening to examine and transform the system in its totality.
There is a natural invitation to make this bridge for those who took to the streets for Mike Brown and Eric Garner. For the protesters across the country who got arrested for expressing their First Amendment rights, a police officer might have locked them up, but it is a prosecutor who will determine whether charges will be maintained.
If those who were courageous to stand up against police violence look around the courtroom at their court dates, they will see the future growth of this movement to end police violence and an unjust incarceration system.