During Sunday’s service at the Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland, over 400 people stood up and held hands as the Rev. Jacqueline Thompson led them in prayer for the victims of shootings last week in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas.
“We pray for Alton Sterling and his family,” said Thompson. “We pray for the families of the five Dallas police officers killed, the other officers who were wounded and the two civil protesters who were shot.”
News of the largest attack on law enforcement since 9/11, and video images related to the close-range shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, have shaken the country and propelled race and police relations to the forefront of conversations nationwide. Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light in Minnesota and shot while his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter sat in the car, while Sterling was shot in Louisiana while pinned to the ground by officers outside a convenience store where he was selling CDs.
In the East Bay, vigils, protests, healing centers and places of worship aimed to offer residents a place to process the events and heal. At Allen Temple, a church with a long history of supporting social justice movements, references to the Rev. Martin Luther King and abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman abounded during the morning service. Church leaders urged the congregation — many in their 50s and older — to support the Black Lives Matter movement, squarely rejecting opinions that the activists incited violence against police.
Reginald Lyles, a deacon at the church, said from the pulpit that the tragic actions of a lone “mentally challenged terrorist” should not be pinned on activists or African-Americans as a whole.
‘One Sick Man’
“I love police officers, my heart is breaking,” said Lyles, a 30-year veteran of police departments in Berkeley and Novato. “But let’s be clear. One sick man, one. That doesn’t mean that you can wipe away our struggle for constitutional rights.”
Over the weekend, conservative figures, including Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, other Texas Republican officials and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, accused the Black Lives Matter movement of inciting violence against police.
“The reason there’s a target on police officers’ backs is because of groups like Black Lives Matter that make it seem like all police are against blacks. They are not,” said Giuliani during an interview with MSNBC.
Speaking in reference to violence in low-income African-American neighborhoods, Giuliani added, “Black Lives Matter is not saving any black lives. It’s the police officers that are doing it.”
But Lyles and other members of the faith community in Oakland strongly rejected those statements. Lyles reminded the congregation at Allen Temple of the long struggle for equality, which many young activists at movements like Black Lives Matter are standing up for.
‘Not Your Enemy’
“Black Lives Matter activists are not your enemy. They are your children,” said Lyles, who began his law enforcement career as a janitor and rose through the ranks to captain.
To stop the seemingly unjustified killings of black men by law enforcement, said Lyles, police must behave ethically and care about the communities they serve.
“I don’t want them to come in and see us like a war zone. We are members of this community,” he said.
Allen Temple is located in the area where most police traffic stops took place, out of 113 census tracts in Oakland, between 2013 and 2014, according to a recent report by Stanford academics.
The authors said Oakland Police Department officers were more likely to search, handcuff and arrest African-Americans than whites during traffic stops, evidence of “pervasive racial discrimination.”
Many members at Allen Temple, like East Oakland resident Maxine Reid, see that as old news. The Black Lives Matter movement, she said, is another piece in a long continuum for African-Americans’ struggle for equality since slavery days.
“It wasn’t guns at the time but it was still under the burdens of slave owners that they lost their lives,” said Reid, a 71-year-old grandmother originally from Tennessee. “We are hoping for a better day, even through all of this.”
Disparity by Race
Though a full statistical picture is hard to pin down, African-Americans are 2½ times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white Americans in the U.S., according to a Washington Post analysis. The paper estimates that, since 2015, over 1,500 people have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers.
While the majority of those who died were white, African-Americans accounted for 24 percent, despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population.
The Rev. Michael McBride, pastor at The Way Christian Center in Berkeley and an East Oakland resident, said it was his own experience more than 15 years ago with two San Jose police officers that propelled his career in social justice.
He remembers the exact date: March 9, 1999. He was driving home alone one night when two officers stopped him. He had a clear record, he said, and had not broken any laws, but the officers asked him to get out of the car. The incident quickly spiraled into the officers physically assaulting him.
An officer threw him to the ground, McBride said, while the other pointed a gun at the back of his neck. The whole time, McBride was asking what he’d done. He said they handcuffed and detained him. After what seemed like hours, he added, the officers finally let him go without charges.
“They released me that night, but my spirit was crushed and my body was bruised,” he said. “I was very much traumatized and deeply damaged by that incident.”
McBride now leads the Live Free campaign to reform the criminal justice system and “dismantle the mass criminalization of low-income people of color.” He has led trainings to reduce implicit racial bias among officers in several police departments, including Oakland’s, which has been rocked recently by a sex scandal and the departure of three chiefs in nine days.
“So we know that training alone is not the solution. You have to have accountability,” McBride said.
Pastor Urges More Citizen Oversight of OPD
McBride spoke passionately to a congregation of about 200 people at The Way on Sunday, sweat streaming down and his voice reaching every corner of the church. He urged parishioners — many in their 20s and 30s — to work with “everyone who loves peace and justice, even if they don’t look like us,” and to support a proposal to significantly strengthen citizen oversight of the Oakland Police Department.
The City Council is scheduled to vote July 19 on the measure, which aims to establish a citizen commission with the power to investigate cases of alleged police misconduct, and discipline and fire officers, including the chief of police. It would be the strongest model of civilian oversight of law enforcement in the country, according to the measure’s authors. If approved, the proposal would head to the November ballot.
“There is no better moment for the elected officials of Oakland to move on something like this,” said McBride. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime moment for people to rein in militarized police agencies that have no accountability.”