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‘We Need Justice’: Mourners Demand Alameda Police Provide Answers in Death of Mario Gonzalez

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A woman places a candle at a memorial for Mario Gonzalez during a vigil on April 21, 2021. Gonzalez died in Alameda police custody Monday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

During a vigil Wednesday evening in Alameda, community members and activists demanded answers in the death this week of a 26-year-old Oakland man.

Mario Gonzalez died in Alameda police custody on Monday after what police termed a "scuffle" with officers in a small park near the city's Park Street corridor, the Alameda Police Department said in a statement Tuesday. Gonzalez, who police claimed "appeared to be under the influence and a suspect in a possible theft," suffered an unspecified "medical emergency" after officers tried to place his hands behind his back, according to the police statement. Gonzalez was transported by Alameda Fire Department personnel to a hospital where he later died.

"We need justice because we lost someone who was indispensable to our family," Gonzalez's mother, Edith Arenales, said in a statement in Spanish. The police, she said, have not provided any clear information about what happened to her son.

"Mario was a noble and decent man who didn't deserve to have his life ended in this way," she said.

Gonzalez, she added, has a 4-year-old son and was the devoted caretaker of his 22-year-old autistic brother.

A memorial for Mario Gonzalez during a vigil in his honor in Alameda on April 21, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"His brother can't eat. He can't sleep. He keeps asking where Mario is," Arenales told the crowd that gathered Wednesday evening, just a day after the nation reacted to the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

Speaking near a large memorial crowded with photos of Gonzalez, flowers and candles, George Galvis of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice told attendees that the police report for Gonzalez looks "almost identical" to the one for George Floyd.

"How do you take a healthy person in custody who has no health problems and then they mysteriously die? There's not an uncanny correlation. It's obvious he was murdered by Alameda police," he said. "The city of Alameda has a pattern of not holding police officers accountable. And so we're saying, 'Ya basta,' we're saying, 'That's enough, that's not happening today. That's not happening in this case.' "

Galvis accused police of already trying to craft a negative image of Gonzalez by saying he was a suspect in a "possible" theft, part of a pattern, he said, of trying to criminalize people killed in custody to limit public support and empathy for them.

"We know that if they could drag up an old incident report from middle school [of him] smoking weed when he was 12 years old, they'd bring it up. If he had any outstanding traffic tickets, they would have brought it up," he said. "The best thing that they can do is say that he was a suspect, as a way of trying to somehow lend credibility to once again rationalize the irrational."

Edith Arenales, the mother of Mario Gonzalez, and her son Gerardo Gonzalez speak during a vigil on April 21, 2021, demanding answers from Alameda police about Mario's death. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Addressing the crowd, Gerardo Gonzalez, Mario's youngest brother, demanded that authorities release his brother's body so the family can arrange for an independent autopsy and properly lay him to rest. He also demanded all available footage of the incident – including video from police body-worn cameras – as well as the names of the three officers involved, and said an independent investigation was necessary.

"They have not explained to our family why they killed Mario," he said. "The Alameda Police Department needs to explain why a perfectly healthy man who was never charged with a crime was killed in their custody. ... We need answers, and we cannot trust their version of the story."

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The Alameda County Sheriff's Office and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office have both begun investigations into the incident, and the city of Alameda will contract with an outside investigator "to conduct a separate, parallel investigation," according to Tuesday's statement from the Alameda Police Department. The department also anticipates releasing the body-worn camera video to the public by the end of next week after all parties involved have been interviewed by the investigating agencies.

The three officers involved in the incident have been placed on paid administrative leave, per standard procedure, the department said.

"The protection of human life is our primary duty as police officers," interim Police Chief Randy Fenn said in the statement. "The loss of Mr. Gonzalez is a terrible tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to his loved ones."

Civil rights attorney Melissa Nold said police should be transparent and release any footage of the incident as soon as possible.

“If nobody did anything wrong, then releasing footage isn’t problematic,” she said. "If they release it, and we see a man with his face down on the ground, and there are people on top of him, obviously struggling, then there are concerns about whether those things were within policies.”

Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft underscored the importance of due process in the investigation, and said the family should have a chance to view the footage before the public does.

“I’m very much holding them in my heart, and we will move forward as best as we can to do the right thing,” she said.

Amanda Majail-Blanco, sister of Erik Salgado, places her hand on the shoulder of Gerardo Gonzalez during a vigil for his brother Mario Gonzalez in Alameda on April 21, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Alameda Police Department came under fire last May for use of heavy-handed tactics following the release of a video showing officers pinning a middle-aged Black man to the ground and handcuffing him, after he had been seen dancing in the street near his house. The police chief, who was sharply criticized for his response to the incident, announced his retirement several months later.

Among the speakers at Wednesday's vigil was Amanda Majail-Blanco, whose brother Erik Salgado was shot and killed in Oakland last June by California Highway Patrol officers.

"We want justice. We are tired. I am tired," she said. "I am tired of continuously having to go through stuff like this at the hands of police and police are still not held accountable."

"And here we are again with another mourning family," she added. "We're here sharing the same story."

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In a passionate and exasperated address, Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project told attendees she was "fed up" with needing to consistently have these vigils.

"This is the only time we see each other, is when the state terrorizes our communities," she said. "They just keep killing us, they just keep raping us, they just keep tormenting us, they just keep profiling us, they just keep incarcerating us. It's an avalanche."

Maria Ortiz lights a candle in honor of Mario Gonzalez during a vigil in Alameda on April 21, 2021. Gonzalez died in police custody on Monday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Prior to the rally, Brooks told reporters that this latest incident is yet another indication that America's law enforcement system is broken. She said to hear about this on the heels of the Chauvin verdict and the killing of 16-year-old Ma'Kiah Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, "shows us once again that the institution of policing in this country cannot be reformed. It's time to end policing as we know it and it's beyond time to hold people accountable who callously harm our communities."

A GoFundMe fundraising campaign set up Wednesday by Gerardo Gonzalez had already raised nearly than $36,000 as of Thursday afternoon toward a $180,000 goal. Money raised will go primarily to funeral costs and supporting Gonzalez's family, according to the campaign site.

This story includes additional reporting from KQED's Beth LaBerge and Bay City News.

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