'Walk the Walk': Oakland Community Members Say Not Enough Has Been Done a Year After George Floyd’s Death

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Barbara Doss, mother of Dujuan Armstrong, speaks to a crowd in Oakland.
Barbara Doss, mother of Dujuan Armstrong, speaks during an event in downtown Oakland organized by the Anti Police-Terror Project and the Defund Police Coalition on May 25, 2021 to honor George Floyd one year after his murder. Armstrong died of asphyxiation while being restrained in custody at Santa Rita Jail in 2018. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

George Floyd's presence can still be felt in downtown Oakland, where murals bearing his likeness remain, along with numerous signs saying his name in large yellow letters, covering some business windows along Broadway.

Exactly one year ago, Floyd went out to buy cigarettes at a grocery store in Minneapolis. A store employee called the police, thinking Floyd had used counterfeit currency. The officers confronted Floyd and one of them, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes even as the 46-year-old Black man pleaded that he couldn't breathe.

Floyd’s murder, for which Chauvin was convicted in April, sparked hundreds of protests across the country led by organizers who demanded accountability for Floyd’s death, an end to police brutality and major structural reform in the nation’s policing systems.

James Burch from Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP) speaks to a crowd in Oakland on May 25, 2021.
James Burch from Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) speaks during an event organized by the Anti Police-Terror Project and the Defund Police Coalition on May 25, 2021 to honor George Floyd one year after his murder. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Not too far from Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland – the site of dozens of such demonstrations – organizers from the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) and the Defund Police Coalition on Tuesday held a press conference to honor George Floyd on the anniversary of his murder. Despite pressure put on city officials and a promise to reinvest dollars spent on policing into communities, advocates said change still hasn't come.

"At the height of the George Floyd uprising, there was an intense political pressure put on the City Council and the mayor," said James Burch, APTP policy director. "They committed to a pathway to reimagine public safety, and [to] reinvest 50% of the dollars spent on policing ... That's where we were last summer. And between then and now, some members of city government have retreated and retrenched themselves into the status quo."

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Among those attending the event was Barbara Doss, the mother of Dujuan Armstrong, who lost his life in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on June 23, 2018. According to the coroner’s report, officers in the jail immobilized Armstrong using a full-body restraining device called a WRAP and covered his head with a hood, making it extremely difficult for him to breathe and resulting in his death by asphyxiation.

Doss still bears the pain of the death of both her son, and of Floyd.

“I’m here to demand justice for my son ... and not just for Dejuan but we got more people out here that no one even hears about,” she said. “I’m not going to let it lie down. I’m not letting it die down.”

At the end of 2019, Armstrong’s family sued Alameda County. And while Doss continues to demand accountability from the county, she questions what more this will give her family.

“There is no justice," she said. "If I do get justice, what is the justice?”

Addie Kitchen, whose grandson Steven Taylor was shot and killed by a police officer in a San Leandro Walmart last year while experiencing a mental health crisis, also indicated the magnitude of change that's needed.

Addie Kitchen, the grandmother of Steven Taylor, speaks to a crowd in Oakland.
Addie Kitchen, the grandmother of Steven Taylor, speaks during an event organized by the Anti Police-Terror Project and the Defund Police Coalition on May 25, 2021 to honor George Floyd one year after his murder. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“People have asked me how I feel about the conviction of Chauvin for Floyd's murder,” Kitchen said at the press conference. “And I keep telling them it's a pebble in the ocean. It doesn't even make a ripple. There is so much more that needs to be done.”

She pointed out that Mario Gonzalez died in the hands of the Alameda city police on April 19, 2021, one year and one day after her grandson’s death. That incident spurred police reform proposals such as requiring a non-police response to certain types of 911 calls, including those related to potential mental health issues.

“Things are still the same. We need changes. We need the politicians and leaders to do their job. We're asking for protection from law enforcement,” Kitchen said.

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APTP and its coalition members have been critical of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed budget for the 2021-2023 budget cycle, which would increase total police spending from about $317 million to $341 million starting in July — or roughly 41% of the city's general fund.

For some organizers, that move felt like a contradiction of what Schaaf had promised last year: to invest more in community-driven public safety mechanisms like mental health and gender-based violence services.

“Libby Schaaf continues to fund more police,” said Marlene Sanchez of the Ella Baker Center, a civil rights and organizing group. “If you're going to talk the talk, then walk the walk. We want to see a budget that really reflects our values.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the Oakland NAACP and other groups hosted a separate George Floyd remembrance event in East Oakland, where speakers included Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and newly minted California Attorney General Rob Bonta.

A person dances wearing a facemask.
High school senior Zoei Brown dances during a community remembrance event held by the Oakland NAACP at Youth UpRising in Oakland on May 25, 2021to pay tribute to George Floyd. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"The doors to accountability, well they've been cracked open," Lee said. "But until we realize a world in which Mr. Floyd and so many others were never ever killed in the first place, our fight must continue ... We're here to do just that today, once again to demand justice, to demand respect and to demand Black lives matter in these United States of America."

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, also one of the speakers, said law enforcement reform is possible.

“When I took on this job, I promised that we would reform this department,” Armstrong said. “It has to be centered around getting rid of those that should no longer wear badges. So holding people accountable is critical.”

Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong speaks during a remembrance event to pay tribute to George Floyd.
Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong speaks during a remembrance event held by the Oakland NAACP at Youth UpRising in Oakland on May 25, 2021 to pay tribute to George Floyd. 'When I took on this job, I promised that we would reform this department,' Armstrong said. He became chief on February 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For 29-year-old Leo Mercer, an Oakland-based activist who attended the East Oakland remembrance event, what the past year has taught him is how important care – for others and for himself – is for organizing work.

“I have to move with a little more strategy ... to think about my own public safety," he said.

He grew up in Oakland but now lives in Hayward because of how high his rent became. But Oakland is still his home and his hope is that anyone, regardless of their color, can live in the city without having to fear for their lives. He also wants to remind people that Black people are not the enemy.

"If I could say anything to the community it would be, ‘look up," he said. "I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to be hurt. It ain’t us doing it to each other."

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