Bay Area public defenders held demonstrations outside county courthouses today decrying police brutality and lack of prosecutions for racially charged police killings around the country.
Public defenders in San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Solano counties protested in support of national outrage over decisions not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men.
“We are here to say that our criminal justice system has no credibility when it fails to hold police officers accountable for the killing of black and brown people,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said of Thursday's protest outside the city's Hall of Justice.
Alameda County public defenders stood outside the René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland this morning wearing T-shirts displaying the words "Black Lives Matter" and "Alameda County Public Defender." They wore black gloves and observed 4½ minutes of silence in honor of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, by police Officer Darren Wilson, who resigned from his job at the end of November.
Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods led the action in Oakland. Upon his 2012 appointment, he became the first African-American to hold the office in the county. He said that’s given him a unique perspective on racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
"I've had my fair share of interactions with the police and they've not all been positive," Woods said. "When you think of driving while black, yes, I've been a victim of that. I've been stopped countless times for no apparent reason. I've had family members who've gone to the criminal justice system."
He added: "So I've seen the system from that side in addition to what we see every day in court."
Black people accounted for more than a third of state and federal inmates last year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and more than half of those in Alameda County's largest jail in Santa Rita, even though they account for only 12 percent of the county's population.
Woods said it's his personal perspective, coupled with those stark statistics on the disproportionate numbers of blacks in custody, that inspire him to fight for his clients.
"That's why we're here. We're here to make sure that the system doesn't simply chew them up and spit them out and destroy their lives," Woods said.
The public defenders are calling for police body cameras, third-party investigations into officer-involved shootings and public hearings instead of the closed grand jury process that did not indict officers involved in the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner on Staten Island.
"I will give our give our DA credit because when we've had police officer-involved cases here, I think they've done the right thing," Woods said. "We may not always be happy with the outcome, but they did not go by way of grand jury indictment."
Woods recalled the trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, who was initially charged with murder for the shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009 by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. Mehserle was convicted by a Los Angeles jury of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
"They had their hearings in public and, more importantly, they had a trial," Woods said. "In some ways it could be a model for California and the rest of the nation."
Woods said he hopes the "Black Lives Matter" movement will grow to eventually address some of the root causes of inequality in the criminal justice system, including poverty and health disparities.
Timothy Smith, of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, agreed. He passed by the site of the courthouse rally with a young man he's mentoring through the nonprofit's prison re-entry program. Smith said he hopes to see "Black Lives Matter" turn into "Black Jobs."
"This one time that we do have human shields in history, we should have a broader message that speaks to the genesis of some of these societal causes," Smith said, adding that allies of the movement should push their workplaces to hire more black people.