Spying on the sideshow-crashers: It was an Oakland urban legend -- a mysterious, Rodney King-type videotape by an unnamed amateur photographer that was rumored to document the events leading up to the car crash that killed U'Kendra Johnson on an Oakland street last February.
For weeks, while Oakland police and public officials blamed her death on an out-of-control sideshow, local news agencies tried to determine whether such a videotape actually existed. Eventually, they gave up. Meanwhile, based partly on OPD assertions that sideshow activities killed Johnson, the state legislature passed the U'Kendra Johnson Memorial Act last summer, legislation that lets police confiscate the cars of alleged sideshow drivers for thirty days without a prior hearing, based solely on the word of a police officer that a crime has been committed.
This week, the mythical videotape and its photographer, Dallas Lopes, turned up unexpectedly in Alameda County Superior Court at the preliminary hearing of Eric Crawford, the Oakland man accused of driving the car that killed the 22-year-old woman. The tape told a story vastly different from what the police had claimed.
OPD Officer D'Afour Thurston, who helped arrest Crawford, testified to a wild scene on the night that Johnson died, with as many as two hundred people and fifty cars blocking the street on Foothill Boulevard a few blocks from Seminary, with traffic backed up for blocks, loud music, people dancing on the tops of cars, and Crawford spinning his car so violently in the intersection that smoke from his tires partially blocked the view and people had to jump out of the way to avoid getting hit.
But the Lopes videotape, played in court by Crawford's public defender, shows a quiet, virtually empty Foothill Boulevard, with Crawford doing a slow circle in the middle of an intersection, then racing away as a police cruiser takes off after him. The videotape also shows a high-speed chase in which a cruiser -- without warning lights or siren -- follows Crawford's vehicle from between a quarter-block and a half-block behind. The videotaped portion, which covers at least four residential blocks, shows the cars disappearing in the direction of the intersection where Crawford slammed into the car in which Johnson was a passenger. Lopes, a Laney College film student who has regularly taped sideshow activities for a documentary he is preparing, was a high-school classmate of Johnson.
In court testimony, Officer Thurston at first denied that the patrol car in the video was that of him and his partner, Ingo Mayer, but later admitted under cross-examination that "it could have been me in the car," though possibly at another time. Thurston also denied that he and his partner conducted a "chase" of Crawford that night. "We were only trying to catch up with the vehicle in order to initiate a traffic stop," he testified.
The videotape may not help Crawford, who was held over by Judge Jeffrey Horner to face charges of second- degree murder and vehicular manslaughter. However, it could be a potentially damaging piece of evidence in a claim against the city and the OPD by U'Kendra Johnson's family. That claim, filed last summer by Oakland attorney John Burris -- the go-to guy in many a police brutality lawsuit -- alleges that Johnson died "as a direct ... result of [the officers'] failure to drive at a speed safe for bystanders and wrongful failure to use their siren or red light while in pursuit of ... Crawford." The office of Oakland City Attorney John Russo is currently considering the claim. -- J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
She told you so: Although just four people showed up on a recent Monday night at the Fremont library to learn about a new organization called Justice for New Americans, founder and Fremont busybody Cecilia Chang presided as if the room was packed, exhorting her audience with dramatic hand motions and exclamation points at the end of her sentences.
The frizzy-haired Chang is best known for spearheading the campaign to clear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who spent nine months in solitary confinement on suspicion that he had passed nuclear weapons secrets to China before he was finally cleared of espionage. Chang, a family friend, started the no-frills Web site Wenholee.org and successfully rallied for her friend online, raising $600,000 for his defense.
Now that Lee has returned to his New Mexico home and is quietly fishing and avoiding the spotlight, Chang wasn't about to return to her former life. Her short-term goal is to make sure the world doesn't forget about Lee. She's lobbying for a presidential pardon, raising funds for a documentary, and making sure libraries carry copies of Lee's book My Country Versus Me as well as A Convenient Spy, by San Jose Mercury News reporter Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman of the Oakland Tribune.
Chang believes Lee wouldn't have been singled out if it weren't for the perception that Asians, Latinos, and many other ethnic groups are perpetual foreigners, no matter how long they've been in America. "If you're not white or black, you're a foreigner," she says. "During crisis you become the enemy."
To battle that perception, Chang wants to launch an education campaign to inform minority groups of their constitutional rights, urge them to participate in communities outside of their ethnic groups, and also to market positive images of minorities to the general public. "Why can't you just advertise diversity like anything else?" she says, thinking out loud. She imagines billboards, public service announcements at the movie theater, even TV ads. (Didn't Benetton try this once?)
She can see it now: A blank screen comes up on the screen. Slowly, text fades in: "Are you sure you're watching color TV? Think twice," or another variation: "This is color TV? Don't fool yourself."
At 52, Chang wasn't always a rabble-rouser. As head of a startup computer company, she was well known in the Asian-American community but didn't touch the heavy issues. "If you had asked me what constitutional rights and civil liberties were, I would have stared at you and said, 'That's too serious.'"
Lee's arrest is what made Chang an activist. She now sits on Fremont's Human Relations Commission (which drafted a resolution denouncing the PATRIOT Act) and was called on to run for school board, an offer she declined. Her husband has a hard time recognizing her these days, she jokes. "Why do I act like this? I think the shock. It shocked me to where I am today. I got to the point where I realized it could happen to me or my husband or children the next day."
As if to prove Chang's point, a thin, middle-aged Caucasian man appears in the doorway of her library meeting, and asks for a few words with her in the next room. Snippets of the man's grumbling and Chang's accented English are clearly audible. He doesn't think a group called "Justice for New Americans" should be having meetings at the library, he complains. The man's voice grows louder. "If you're not getting justice, then go back where you came from!" he says. Chang returns to the room a minute later. "See what I mean?" she asks. Go back to where you came from? That's not very American, she says. "Speaking out and making change," adds Chang. "That's the American way." -- Melissa Hung
Fire walker: Oakland Fire Lieutenant Delmont Waqia, charged in July with molesting his granddaughter, is heading back to work, according to OFD insiders. The Alameda County DA's office dropped its criminal case in September because of insufficient evidence. But until last week, Waqia was still on administrative leave with pay pending completion of the fire department's internal investigation. (OFD officials did not return calls seeking comment on their findings.)
Rumors of his reinstatement have some women in the department seething. Waqia -- who was initially hired by the OFD despite two felony convictions from the '70s -- was ousted from his leadership post in the early '90s after a number of female firefighters came forward accusing him of sexual harassment, verbal and physical (see "Don't Stand So Close to Me," August 28).
After Waqia fought back, his demotion was upheld by the city Civil Service Board. But the city stopped short of firing him. A few years later, Waqia retook and passed the lieutenant professional exam, and in 1997, over the objections of his accusers, was rehired as a lieutenant with twenty months' back pay.
At the time, the women claimed, OFD brass promised them "they wouldn't have to work under his supervision, ever," said Barbara Ellis of the East Bay chapter of the National Organization for Women, to which the female firefighters turned for support. "But 'ever' didn't last long."
Departmental superiors put forth a new edict, saying, in effect, that everyone would just have to learn to work together. The women were planning to fight the new policy, but when Waqia was arrested on molestation charges, they put it on the back burner.
Now they're restoking those coals. "Again, we're faced with the problem that the women may have to work under his supervision," says Ellis, who was not optimistic that the department will heed the women's complaints. "I don't know what else can be done," she says. "I know what they'll say: He wasn't found guilty and we don't have any new charges against him."
But the fact that Waqia was accused of additional inappropriate sexual behavior makes the female firefighters even more reticent to accept the new policy. "He does all these things that we've said he does," one of the women says, "but he gets away with it."
Waqia maintains his innocence. "I never did, and never would, sexually harass anyone. The accusations made against me were untrue," he said when contacted for a previous story. Waqia did acknowledge that "horseplay" between firefighters was common, but claims it was not actually sexual in nature. Much of it happened before he was made an officer, he said, and both he and his accusers engaged in the behavior. "Some women," said Waqia, "would play because that's what they liked to do, and some because they were trying to get along."
"If [Waqia] has been sexually harassing and sexually offending, he will continue to sexually harass and sexually offend." says Marcia Blackstock, executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Women Against Rape. If in fact he is guilty, she adds, the fact that he's gotten away with it validates his behavior. "I think we can count on him doing whatever it is he's been doing in the future."
Or maybe not. There's another rumor circulating around the firehouse that has made some women hopeful: The department, it is said, has offered Waqia a buyout. -- Helene Blatter
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