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Uncle of Oscar Grant comments on the California movement for police accountability

Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson shares his experience on the importance of unity and collective organizing amongst families impacted by police violence

· News

Header photo: California families impacted by police homicide unite in Sacramento to lobby for SB 1421, 2018. Photo courtesy of Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson

Reporting: Nissa Tzun

Images & Media: Nissa Tzun, archival images and media courtesy of Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson, and California Black Media

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An illustrated portrait of Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, Co-Founder of the Love Not Blood Campaign and Co-Founder of Families United 4 Justice, featuring a quote during his interview for this article about the California families' organizing efforts pushing for legislation on policing issues. Illustrated by Nissa Tzun

California - It's been a long road for Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson, the uncle of police homicide victim, Oscar Grant, whose murder on January 1, 2009, caused nationwide protests and international awareness of the police brutality issue in America. The case of Oscar Grant is historic for many reasons: Grant's murder was captured from several different angles on video, and then uploaded onto YouTube - one of the first police killings ever to be recorded on camera and go viral on the internet. The case also galvanized the Bay Area and California community to unite and organize - on a Forced Trajectory Panel hosted at UNLV in December of 2016, Johnson shared that it was the coalition effort between labor unions, progressive politicians and the community, angered by the deep pain felt and expressed by Grant's family, that sparked the Oscar Grant Movement, assisting in the applied pressure needed to indict BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, and persisted throughout the criminal trial, shutting down the Oakland and San Francisco ports with demands, ultimately leading to the first conviction of a police officer for taking a civilian's life in California history. The story of Oscar Grant was also turned into the Hollywood feature-length film, Fruitvale Station, directed by Black Panther's Ryan Coogler, starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant. Johnson served as an advisor to the film. As the Co-Founder of the Love Not Blood Campaign and Co-Founder of Families United 4 Justice, Johnson's schedule is typically full of organizing, regionally and nationally, and speaking engagements, in addition to work and family life.

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Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson meets Congressman John Conyers at the Congressional Black Caucus 2010 hearing for the Criminal Justice Reform Committee in Washington, D.C., September 2010. Johnson attended as a speaker pushing for police reform. Photo courtesy of Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson

On August 31th, 2018, Governor Brown signed SB 1421, a legislation titled, "The Right to Know," that mandates all California police departments to release records related to use-of-force incidents, crimes committed by police and other forms of police misconduct. The passing of SB 1421 is historic in that it ends a 40-year reign of police secrecy that has caused statewide distrust in police departments. Championing this bill took months of collective organizing, lobbying, and negotiations between public officials, community organizers, and those most directly impacted by police violence, families who have lost loved ones in a police interaction.

I interviewed Johnson on October 26th to discuss the California movement for police accountability, knowing that in the last few years several legislations pushing for transparency and accountability have successfully passed. While several media outlets have been following this ongoing story, none that I read came from an impacted families' perspective. Considering there are families groups all over the nation, how California families are organizing and impacting legislation could be useful for others to know.

After the conviction of Mehserle, Johnson learned that the BART police department did not have an oversight committee, and neighboring departments that had them weren't necessarily operating in an effective way. So he began attending meetings to discuss different models and identified a model that might work for BART, utilizing a citizen review board with an independent auditor. The entire board and auditor are made up of 10 citizens (9 on the board, 1 auditor) who are not affiliated with police, and the auditor is permitted to listen to Internal Affairs investigations and then reports back to the board their findings.

Johnson and his sister, Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, began going back and forth to Sacramento to push for a citizen review board for the BART police department, and not yet being so experienced with politics, Johnson was talked into lessening the demands of the bill with false promises, assured that they could strengthen the bill after it is passed. He learned later that was a much more difficult process, and the integrity of the bill should always be preserved. If it doesn't pass, another try is required.

There are at least 5 steps Johnson identified for the collective organizing of impacted families in regards to impacting legislation.

1. Identify, Unify, and Rally - Identifying and unifying families is critical in this movement for police accountability because a collective voice will always be more powerful than just one. Johnson emphasizes the urgency to bring impacted families together no matter what walk of life they come from. Every case is important and adds to the overall collective knowledge of the group. When families begin to share their stories they may find a lot of similarities and also many differences that can provide more information. Families also begin to bond, share resources and experiences with each other which is an important part of the healing process - families who are now connected have expressed feeling less depressed and alone than when they did not know other impacted families. As families unify, it's also critical to rally. The community has to hear the families' pain, especially elected officials. As the pain is expressed, the power of empathy has a chance to unlock, and hopefully that will prompt elected officials to act in the interest of human rights.

Families who are looking to meet other families can join the Families United 4 Justice network, which is a growing nationwide collective of families impacted by police homicide co-founded by Johnson.

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A graphic featuring Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson, who was a keynote speaker for the ACLU Rise Up! Conference & Lobby Day 2016. Courtesy of ACLU of California

"Leave No Stone Unturned . . ." Johnson adheres to a multi-pronged strategy for fighting for police accountability. "Some of us is gonna to have to be on the street, some of us is gonna have to be involved in the legislation process, some of us feel like [we] can go on the inside . . . Whatever we can do to make this place a better place."

2. Look at the Data - While focusing on legislation, Johnson came to realize that in terms of accountability and transparency, California is considered one of the deadliest states in the nation. Due to the Peace Officer's Bill of Rights, that was passed in 1976 with the intention of protecting officers' jobs from their higher ups, officers' records are sealed from the public and officers have special protections when they've participated in misconduct. The legislation - which has expanded and strengthened over time with the support of California police unions - has created a hard wedge between the community's trust and the police. With understanding this legislation and its history, California families and supporters were able to outline their next plan of action. Families and supporters organizing in other states should comb through what data and records are available to the public, and what legislation looks like to inform themselves of the next step.

3. Coalition Build and Network - While unifying and organizing families is critical, in order to effectively impact legislation, the families network must expand beyond its inner circle. Building with organizations who are sympathetic to the cause can help things move along faster, as different organizations can offer various support, connections, and platforms. All the legislations California families have helped to pass were fueled by coalition efforts. Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, ACLU of California, Anti Police-Terror Project, Black Lives Matter-California, California Faculty Association, California News Publishers Association, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, PICO California, PolicyLink, and Youth Justice Coalition LA all sponsored the passing of SB 1421.

"AB 953 (Racial Identity Profiling Act) was a serious effort led not just by families but all types of different agencies within the state of California, [we] became a coalition. People stayed up at the capitol for days, and took turns sleeping there." - Johnson.

In 2015, California families helped pass two critical pieces of legislation that address police transparency. AB 953, the Racial Identity Profiling Act, requires police departments to record and share various data on police interactions like why an individual is stopped, and the individual's demographic information. This bill addresses police transparency, providing the public the data of who is being apprehended and why. AB 71 provides data on officer-involved shootings (OIS) including the quantity of OIS's and details of each shooting. For the first data collection year, 2016, 1729 incidents were reported, and of those incidents, 327 civilian deaths were a result. In 2017, 1687 incidents were reported, resulting in 391 deaths.

"What we can get to see is that, there were people dying and why were they dying? The question came up 'How many [victims] actually had a firearm?' [The data shows that] the officers perceived 474 times that the so-called suspect was armed, 262 [suspects] were perceived to have a firearm, so police discharged their firearm 353 times. Out of those perceived, only 187 had an actual firearm, which really means that close to 50% of the time the officer perceives you've got a weapon, you will get shot and killed, and you don't even have a weapon. So this perception is so high that they're telling us that the officers are really acting under the guise of fear, cause they wanna go home, so they perceive anything in your hand or any move that you make is threatening to their life and they just shoot you and they get away with it. That is one thing that consistently happens." - Johnson

4. Lobby and Connect with Sympathetic Elected Officials - Each one of these legislation campaigns also requires identifying elected officials who could be sympathetic to the cause, as they will be the ones writing and signing the bill. Passing legislation is a long and arduous process. While SB 1421 passed this year, it had failed to pass previously, and the coalition had the help of Senator Nancy Skinner to rework the bill and try again.

Video: Impacted families unite and attend a "Lobby Day" at the California state capitol, and comment on the importance of SB 1421. May 24, 2018, Sacramento, CA. Video courtesy of Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson

5. Place Impacted Families at the Forefront - Johnson emphasizes the importance of strategically placing impacted families where their voices can make the most impact. While pushing for SB 1421, 20-30 families were continuously involved in "Lobby Days," where they, along with other organizations, traveled to the capitol to talk to various senators and share their experiences. The coalition made sure to prioritize families at the forefront so that the heart of the legislation could be understood.

"The priority in the room that spoke were the families impacted, because we wanted to be upfront and in their face so that they can actually have firsthand knowledge and witness the emotional pain that families struggle through when their loved ones are killed. And I think that was so effective, that many began to turn our way. Then we began to hear particular politicians like Senator Bradford, Senator Mitchell, begin to admonish police agencies when they were trying to water down what we were saying is pain. So we knew then we had something going on where we began to hear politicians now expressing the pain that we had expressed to them and so we just rolled with that." - Johnson

Video: A summarizing clip discussing the data of AB 953 and the ongoing conversation SB 1421 and the testimonies of Cephus "Uncle Bobby X" Johnson and Theresa Smith, mother of Caesar Cruz. Courtesy of California Black Media

A second bill passed along with SB 1421 was AB 748 which mandates California police departments to release the audio and video recorded during the incident within 60 days. Previously, the public didn't have a right to anything, and many families have experienced not knowing what had happened to their loved ones because police departments refused to release the media, sometimes denying any existed. With these series of legislations passed, the public now has a lot more to look at and analyze in regards to policing and police misconduct. Also, some of the laws work retroactively, meaning that attorneys now have access to officers' personal records which would be new evidence in certain cases. Johnson expresses that he and the families anticipate a lot of cases being overturned for this reason.

From November 16-18, California families will be gathering in Bakersfield, CA, for a statewide conference on police violence issues. Some families who have never met other impacted families will do so for the first time and participate in the discussion on fighting for police accountability collectively while addressing the longterm trauma families experience due to losing their loved one in a most violent way. The conference will feature multiple workshops, including organizing, media, unity building, and health and wellness. Next year, the coalition plans to champion SB 931, the Use of Force Bill which will scrutinize the police's judgment when using force and implement de-escalation tactics and policies for all California police departments.