Why the Movements to End Police Violence and Mass Incarceration Are One in the Same

While 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.

Lamar Noble addresses the crowd at the start of the Protect Your People March.

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 too held signs and belted chants holding up the names of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. And like these thousands of communities some thousands of miles away, to call it an act of solidarity is not quite accurate. Rather, the march was an act of “familiarity,” the morbid binding reality that we too can speak the names of the deceased who also once walked our streets, went to our schools, attended our churches, and whose lives were unjustly cut short from an officer’s gun.

And while our march (called the Protect Your People March) ended at the police department as others nationally have, we started at the District Attorney’s Office, and made a point to march earshot of the windows of our county jail. Because of course, police are not isolated agents of the state, but rather are part of a “criminal justice system” that includes prosecutors, jails, judges, courts. We picked our march route to make a physical connecting of the dots to show how the same system that time and time again refuses to hold officers accountable for the killing of innocents, is also the same one that simultaneously incarcerates over 2 million Americans, disproportionately people of color.

That 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 everyday simultaneously. It is why we marched focusing on two words that will hopefully become part of this movement’s lexicon moving forward: prosecutorial discretion. It is the common phrase, a tangible handle communities can focus on and leverage on a local level that intertwines the efforts to end police violence as well as reduce incarceration rates.

And if so, 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 need only to continue to expand and challenge the system as a whole, rather than only the first point of contact of the system: the officers on the street. Police officers who shoot unarmed residents, who arrest and harass in the streets, for sure need to be confronted, called out, held to account. But they are only the first part of an assembly line of actors who also enable this system everyday.

Just as every city in America currently has its own Eric Garner story – an unarmed person of color killed while the officer walks away without even having to step into a courtroom – it also has thousands of people who are facing criminal charges for no other reason than their skin color. Mike Brown’s killing in the backdrop of Ferguson is a telling illustration of how these seemingly independent issues are very much one in the same. In a report conducted by the ArchCity Defenders, they note 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, overwhelmingly of Black residents. It is not only the stops that are the injury, but what happens after the police interaction. ArchCity Defender clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration, even being refused access to the Courts.

The decision-point of whether criminal charges were pursued or not for both the officers who killed Mike Brown, as well as the thousands of residents who were merely Black in Ferguson, rested within the double-sided sword of prosecutorial discretion. So is true with the case of Eric Garner and those whose freedoms were taken due to stop and frisk practices in New York. Prosecutorial discretion. And for those who say the grand jury delivered the outcome, absolving prosecutors of responsibility, the response is a simple one. The prosecutors did not have to use a grand jury. They could have directly filed criminal charges on the involved officers. The call was theirs to make.

It is why our march was led by two courageous local leaders who represent what can be taken when prosecutorial discretion is exercised without public scrutiny: 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 towards fairness and justice.

Laurie’s partner, Antonio Guzman Lopez, was killed by San Jose State Police officers who shot him in the back in February of 2014. And though body cameras were used by the involved officers, the police department and the District Attorney office have refused to reveal the recordings. The District Attorney’s Office is currently reviewing the case to determine if they will file criminal charges on 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 on officers is rare, locally and nationally. Santa Clara County, under the former District Attorney, was one of the only 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 all together. The open grand jury resulted in an indictment, and 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 on 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 new precedent of charges being filed in the shooting death of Antonio.

Laurie addresses the crowd with her son Josiah, who's father was killed by San Jose State Police officers in February of 2014.

Corina Cardenas is the daughter of Rudy Cardenas, who was killed by the state drug agent in 2004. She came to the march to support the efforts to stop police killings.

Lamar Noble, a San Jose 44-year-old African American father, was very nearly a Mike Brown style fatality in January 2013 – a seemingly innocuous law enforcement interaction that quickly escalated to gun play by officers. Lamar was driving in a residential neighborhood and was unexpectedly pulled over by Santa Clara County Sheriffs. They initially claimed they pulled him over because he ran a stop sign. Lamar said he did not, and then sheriffs shifted their reasoning by saying Lamar’s brake lights weren’t working. He tested the lights for the sheriffs, and they flashed on. Lamar started become suspicious and concerned by the stop and started calling his mother. The sheriffs quickly 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. They charged him with resisting arrest. Lamar pled not guilty and requested the vehicle dash cam footage from the sheriff’s vehicles. The District Attorney’s office said the footage did not exist, then after a year and a half, produced them, piecemeal, in a discovery request by his attorney. The footage, the center of a motion to dismiss to be ruled on by a judge on January 16th, shows the brake lights flashing, the beating, and also a period where Lamar’s attorney argues one sheriff purposefully covers the dash cam.

At the march, we projected the dash cam footage on the County Building where the District Attorney 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, and Laurie called on charges to be filed on the officers who killed the father of her five year old son.

Our call is one that any community across the country can do on a local level. The community organizing call for justice can be profoundly uncomplicated – file charges on 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. And there is a natural invitation to make this bridge for those who took the streets for Mike Brown and Eric Garner. For the protesters across the country who got arrested for expressing their first amendment rights, a cop may have locked them up, but it is a prosecutor who will determine of charges will be maintained.

If those who had the courage 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.

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