Rosalea Barker: 20 Feet from Reality: An eyewitness account
20 Feet from Reality: An eyewitness account
by Rosalea Barker
July 10, 2013
On Friday, July 12, the movie Fruitvale Station will open in Oakland and other “select” cities in the United States. If you follow their Twitter feed @fruitvalemovie you’ll get some idea of the buzz surrounding the film, which is based on the true story of the shooting of an unarmed young man while he was lying face down on the platform at Fruitvale BART station in the early hours of New Years Day, 2009. I wrote about the incident at the time, here. I can’t wait to see the movie.
Sadly, I no longer have to wait—as if I ever was waiting for such a thing—to see the reality of a transit cop beating up on a young man as he lays face down on the ground.
On July 4, at about 9pm, I was waiting for the #1 bus at the Uptown Transit Center in Oakland. The UTC is basically just a short stretch of 20th Street between Broadway and Telegraph Avenue with bus stops for several key routes. It was quiet now, but all week the media had been congregating on that city block because it is where long lines of commuters who needed to get across the Bay to their jobs in San Francisco were forming. Since midnight on June 30, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train operators and other union members had refused to go to work because their contracts had expired and BART management’s offers for the new contracts were a long way distant from what the unions wanted.
Although the transbay buses were the focus of media attention, the hundreds of thousands of workers who use BART to commute entirely on the East Bay lines were also forced to either take their car or hop on the AC Transit buses whose routes roughly parallel the BART corridor—the #1 line being one of them. Bus drivers—who also might have walked off the job on July 1 because their contracts also expired—were working long hours, dealing with jam-packed busloads of disgruntled former BART riders.
AC Transit is the commuter bus service that serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Unlike BART, it doesn’t employ its own police officers, but instead relies on sheriff’s deputies from the two counties to take care of any disturbances on the buses. And the deputies can call for backup from the police forces in the cities the line passes through.
The #1 is somewhat prone to disturbances of the kind I wrote about here in 2009 (but on a different bus route). A couple of weeks ago, for example, a passenger on the 1 kept yelling “Joe Frasier! Joe Frasier!” for the entire time I was on it, despite another passenger trying to engage him in a conversation in order to calm him down. If it weren’t for the underlying tragedy of California’s failed mental healthcare system, such incidents would be comical. In fact, some people do think it’s comical to egg other passengers on, as I was about to find out that July 4 evening.
::What I heard::
It’s a nice warm evening—the week of the BART strike coincided with a heat wave—and someone has lit a fizzy firework on the sidewalk diagonally opposite where I’m waiting for the bus. Two young women, dressed for a party, are singing in two-part harmony while they wait for the same bus as me. It feels festive, like an Independence Day should. A young man bludges a cigarette, and at first I give him my SternFace look—as I have been trained to do by my neighbors, who are concerned that I’m far too blasé in my interactions with strangers—and then cough up, so to speak, with a smile.
The bus arrives and isn’t too crowded, so I find my favorite seating spot is empty. It’s the last seat in the front half of the concertina double-length bus and faces the passengers who are sitting in the back half, facing forwards. The two young women sit in the seats at the front of the back section, still singing and laughing, which attracts the attention of two young men seated further back. A family, consisting of a father, mother, two young sons with their skateboards, and their even younger daughter still wearing her bicycle helmet, sit in the other seats surrounding the concertina part of the bus. They talk happily among themselves in what I guess to be a Scandinavian language.
The two young men, I notice before I turn my attention to playing Klondike on my phone, move forward so one of them is sitting directly behind the two young women (who stop their singing) and the other is sitting across the aisle from him and them. It’s a night out on the town, after all; time for young blades to try some chatting up. I tune it all out and get on with my card game.
At some point in the journey along Telegraph Avenue, I become aware that a person who has just boarded at the front of the bus is yelling. The bus driver is asking him to either calm down or get back off. The passenger replies that he’ll be quiet, but one of the two young blades eggs him on for his own amusement. Nonetheless, the unruly new entrant quiets down and I expect the bus to pull out from this stop and move on. It doesn’t.
I’m hungry, and the bus is stopped outside a burger joint. Not wanting to wait until a sheriff’s deputy turns up to deal with the situation—which seems like a non-situation to me—I decide to go and get some dinner and then catch the next bus.
::What I saw::
To my surprise, when I turn around and face the front of the bus in order to exit, I see that the cussing has not been coming from the mouth of a “Joe Frasier!” or “Open my meds for me!” older, destitute, and disturbed person, but a rather nattily dressed young man, somewhat disheveled as if he’d been drinking too much. He is sitting quietly—so quietly that I have second thoughts about getting off because surely the driver is going to drive on now that things have calmed down.
But I figure that once the driver has called in the authorities, he’s probably obliged to wait there until they come, so I saunter over to the burger bar, and eat my dinner seated inside watching the reflections of fireworks exploding on the diner windows. I can’t see what’s going on outside, so when I exit the restaurant and see all the people waiting there at the bus stop I’m flummoxed. It’s the same bus still sitting there, only now all the passengers except the loudmouth are out on the lawn in front of the burger joint.
Young loudmouth wants to get off, but the bus driver tells him to stay inside. It seems like the driver has picked up that one of the two young blades is deliberately annoying the “troublemaker” and he is keeping them apart. I sigh, and go and stand about 20 feet away to have a smoke and look at email. Surely another bus will arrive soon, so we can all get on with our journey, but it is a holiday, after all, so the buses are running less frequently.
As the sheriff’s deputy pulls up behind the #1 bus and further out from the curb than the bus is, I look up and see that Loudmouth has gotten off the bus and Young Blade has approached him and is getting in his face. What the sheriff’s deputy sees when he exits the patrol car and rounds the back of the bus is a young black man with dreadlocks fighting with a young Asian guy. The deputy races up and grabs Loudmouth, spins him round and slams him down on the ground, putting his knee on his back. Loudmouth struggles. Perhaps he says something. The deputy punches him in the face, and Loudmouth manages to twist around and punch the deputy back.
The deputy knees him in the side and puts his full weight, via his left knee in Loudmouth’s back, on him. Loudmouth’s left leg begins to jerk uncontrollably as if he’s having an epileptic fit, but still he struggles. Young Blade is yelling at the deputy, “Just cuff him! Just cuff him!” and other passengers are yelling at the deputy to stop being so violent. This continues for some time and is still going on when the next bus finally arrives at approximately the same time as several Oakland Police Department squad cars and an AC Transit supervisor.
We are hustled onto the other bus, but there’s a delay getting going because we’re blocked in by an OPD patrol car and because the bike rack on this second bus is already full and the Scandinavian family also has bikes, which have to be taken off our original bus and brought inside the second one. So we hear the pop of the deputy’s taser as he still struggles with Loudmouth, before we are hurried from the scene.
Until he assaulted the deputy in response to his initial rough handling, Loudmouth was just that—an intoxicated loudmouth on a bus. No big deal, especially not since he had calmed down as requested by the driver, and seemed more bewildered than belligerent when he was asking if he could get off the bus like all the other passengers.
But consider this: the bus operator calls in a disturbance on his bus, the sheriff’s deputy and the OPD respond, and all the witnesses to what transpired beforehand are sent from the scene. There is no public record of this incident, as far as I can see from searching for crime reports on the AC Transit, OPD, and Alameda County Sheriff’s websites.
Just another unreported incident involving a young black male caught up in a web of assumptions. What can you do?
I’m asking: What can you do?