Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Bicycle Advocates Decry Arrest of Najari “Naj” Smith

After the arrest of the popular Richmond bicycle advocate at Oakland’s First Friday, supporters organize ‘Biking While Black.’

by John Geluardi
Wed, Aug 15, 2018 at 12:29 PM

Najari “Naj” Smith was leading a group of about 40 young riders when he was arrested by Oakland police.
  • Najari “Naj” Smith was leading a group of about 40 young riders when he was arrested by Oakland police.

When a popular youth organizer and bicycle advocate was arrested by an Oakland police officer during the group’s regular First Friday bicycle ride, news spread rapidly through Richmond, causing at first concern and then outrage.

Najari “Naj” Smith spent the first weekend in August in jail after being arrested during a regular group bicycle ride in Oakland that included three bicycle organizations that have primarily African American members. The arresting officer charged Smith with creating excessive noise.

Smith is a member of the Richmond Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the founder and executive director of Rich City Rides, a nonprofit bicycle organization that teaches young people bicycle mechanics, gives them opportunities to work for their own bicycles, and offers guidance on healthy lifestyles and positive social interactions through group bike rides, public path maintenance, and civic advocacy on transportation issues.

“Naj is a well-known and well-respected person in Richmond,” said Mayor Tom Butt, who plans to contact Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf about the arrest once he learns more about the circumstances. “It looks like this is a case of ‘Bicycling While Black.’”

Rich City Rides has organized an event on Aug. 31 in support of Smith called “Biking While Black.” Smith is scheduled for a court appearance on the same day. There is also a petition being circulated calling for the charges against him to be dropped.

Richmond Councilmember Melvin Willis said he intends to participate in the Aug. 31 event to call for justice. “This is something the entire Oakland City Council needs to take a stand on,” he said.

At the Aug. 3 bicycle ride, participants formed a “bonding and healing circle,” a tradition started by the bicycle organization Red, Bike and Green in 2008.

Smith said that during the circle ritual, an Oakland police officer broke through the line and stopped Smith, without any warning, by grabbing the handlebars of his bicycle. The officer said he was being detained for excessive noise coming from the stereo trailing on a small cart behind Smith’s bicycle. Smith said he immediately complied with the officer’s request and turned off the stereo. The officer then ordered Smith to stay put and momentarily walked away.

Smith, who was leading a group of about 40 young riders, thought the officer was going to write a citation, but when he returned, he put Smith in handcuffs, confiscated his bicycle and stereo equipment, and took Smith away to spend the weekend at Santa Rita Jail. Smith made the $5,000 bail two days later and has a court date set for Aug. 31 on charges of creating excessive noise.

“I cooperated with the officer as much as possible,” Smith said. “Everyone in the group was upset and I was trying to put the best example forward. There is a lot of tension with the Oakland Police Department and I didn’t want the arrest to turn into a mess.”

Oakland Police Department spokesperson Felicia Aisthrope said Smith was detained for interfering with traffic and playing music too loudly, and that he did not have proper identification. Aisthrope added that the department has reached out to East Bay bicycle organizations in order to start a constructive conversation about the circumstances of Smith’s arrest. “It is important that our community concerns be heard, and that discussions and future solutions be shared,” she wrote in an email.

Oakland attorney Walter Riley is representing Smith pro bono. Riley said the police department’s claims are insufficient. He said the Oakland Police Department is well aware of these bicycle organizations and their emphasis on creating positive interactions with the community. Furthermore, Riley said the police showed poor judgment in arresting Smith, who was leading a large group of young people.

He added that Smith, 39, has never had any contact with police or the justice system before this incident and that Smith has devoted his life to making healthy changes in the lives of young people. He also pointed out that Oakland police officers disproportionally stop African Americans.

“This is not a case of an individual racist officer,” Riley said. “This is the police department as a whole. No matter how well intended you are there’s something in this system that wants to bring you down.”

Friday, August 10, 2018

Oakland's BayTech Charter School Violated Multiple State Laws

School administrators forced students to buy uniforms, graduation caps and gowns, and made parents buy tickets to attend ceremonies. BayTech's board also repeatedly violated the Brown Act.

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Aug 10, 2018 at 12:51 PM

BAY AREA TECHNOLOGY SCHOOL
  • Bay Area Technology School

The Bay Area Technology School violated state education laws when it required students and their families to purchase uniforms, graduation tickets, and caps and gowns, according to the Oakland Unified School District. All students were made to purchase uniforms from the Oakland charter school only, a violation of the education code.

Graduating 8th and 12th graders were made to purchase caps and gowns from the school, and their family members were required to buy $10 tickets to attend the ceremony.

These practices went on for several years, according to school staff who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. BayTech even warned parents on its website that students would only be allowed to wear BayTech branded jackets, sweaters, and shirts, and that students could face discipline if they didn't don the clothing.

The proceeds BayTech collected from these illegal activities amounted to thousands of dollars, said several sources. It's unclear what the school's administration did with the money.

OUSD authorities ordered BayTech to put a stop to these practices on June 8, according to a notice of concern sent to the charter school's board and interim co-principals by Leslie Jimenez, OUSD's charter school coordinator.

In a separate notice of concern sent a week earlier, OUSD officials warned BayTech leaders that they repeatedly violated California's Brown Act, which requires that charter schools provide public access to meetings because they receive public funding.

According to OUSD, BayTech's board convened meetings in February that were essentially secret because no notices or agendas were posted to inform the public.

The school board also convened meetings via email without notifying the public. The purpose of one of these online meetings was to recruit a new board member. The potential replacement was a Richmond resident originally from Turkey.

In March, BayTech's school board failed to post agendas for two separate board meetings on BayTech's website. And in May, the board posted an incorrect date for a board meeting and then issued an agenda after a mandatory deadline, thereby hampering the public's ability to participate.

Furthermore, OUSD found that three of the school's board members withheld documents from two board members. The recent notice of concern sent by OUSD to BayTech didn't identify which board members were prevented from accessing the records, or what specifically the records pertained to.

The numerous financial and transparency violations came to light after OUSD announced that it was investigating BayTech for mismanagement.

The district's investigation was initiated after BayTech's principal, Hayri Hatipolgu, suddenly resigned at the end of the past school year. Several other senior staff also quit the school, and two board members, Alretta Tolbert and Gina Miller resigned, as well. The sudden departure of the board members and staff have thrown the school into chaos.

The three remaining board members, Fatih Dagdelen, Kairat Sabyrov, and Volkan Ulukoylu, are now accusing Hatipoglu of defrauding the school by surreptitiously changing his employment contract to give himself a three-year payout worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if he resigned, instead of a six-month payout worth much less.

Hatipoglu has fired back at the three remaining board members by accusing them of being part of a "shady network" that is trying to "take over" BayTech. But since he resigned, the Express has been unable to contact Hatipoglu.

Looming over the school's management crisis is its relationship to a larger network of charter schools that were established by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who has been accused of plotting the 2016 coup against the Turkish government. Gulen resides in Pennsylvania.

BayTech's three current board members are all Turkish. When asked at the school's board meeting earlier this week if the school is linked to the Gulen movement, both Dagdelen and Ulukoylu declined to answer.

According to OUSD records, the district is reviewing BayTech's finances to see if any money was misappropriated. Hatipoglu's employment contract is also being examined to determine if the allegations against him are true.

BayTech's first day of school is August 13 and the school has hired an interim CEO to assist with reconstituting the board and getting the organization's affairs in order. OUSD is also considering appointing a board member to BayTech.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Proposal to Build a Vast BART Surveillance System to Be Decided at Suburban 'East of the Hills' Board Meeting Next Month

by Darwin BondGraham
Thu, Aug 9, 2018 at 5:00 PM

img_1084.jpg

At a lengthy and sometimes confusing board meeting in Oakland today, BART's board of directors decided to delay approval of various security measures while allowing several others to move forward.

The most controversial proposal that was delayed involves building a powerful surveillance system that will use video analytic software to review digital footage from thousands of cameras on trains, in stations, and around parking lots. If approved, the multi-million dollar project would be one of the largest surveillance systems of its kind in the Bay Area, watching over several hundred thousand people who move about BART each week.

Most directors wanted to delay voting on the surveillance system in order to first bring forward a privacy policy that's been in the works for over two years. The privacy policy will create a framework for evaluating potential surveillance technologies and establish rules to protect people's civil liberties.

But other board members were more concerned about giving suburban communities a greater voice about whether to move ahead with the project, especially since most members of the public who spoke at today's Oakland meeting were strongly opposed.

The district already has over 4,500 cameras, most of which are old analog models that don't easily lend themselves to being incorporated into a surveillance system that uses computer programs to automatically analyze footage.

Directors gave the go-ahead today for staff to work on a plan to replace many of these old cameras with new digital types, but the board must vote again on whether to allow spending money on the replacement project.

At the Lake Merritt Station, BART is already testing software that can, without any human assistance, identify suspicious packages or alert police when someone jumps a turnstile without paying. The district's police and administration insisted at today's meeting that they do not intend to pursue controversial capabilities like facial recognition or audio collection at this point in time, but so far they've declined to provide specific details about the capabilities of the technology being considered.

A letter sent to the BART board by several civil liberties groups yesterday criticized the proposed surveillance system as a "sweeping expansion" based on little information. The groups, including the ACLU of Northern California, Oakland Privacy, Council on American-Islamic Relations California, and Anti Police-Terror Project wrote that BART should first approve the surveillance ordinance and privacy policy before starting a debate about whether or not to move ahead with the surveillance system.

Many speakers at today's meeting accused the BART police and management of trying to "exploit" the Nia Wilson tragedy to push through the controversial surveillance project. They said increasing surveillance and policing will likely lead to the further criminalizing of people of color and the homeless.

But BART directors from suburban areas in Contra Costa and Alameda County were very supportive of the surveillance proposal and other measures to increase police presence.

"Unless I'm mistaken, there is no expectation of privacy in a public conveyance," said BART Director Joel Keller, who represents North Concord, Antioch, Pittsburg, and Bay Point. Keller said he wants action fast on the surveillance system and is frustrated at delays.

Keller said the attendees at today's board meeting were only presenting half the story. He insisted that BART should hold an evening board meeting in a suburban city to gather input from riders who will support the surveillance plan, in addition to hiring more police, cracking down on fare evasion, and banning panhandling.

"We haven't heard from the frightened riders who are reluctant to use our system," he said. "We have heard the concerns of people who live in the urban core."

Director John McPartland, who represents Castro Valley, Dublin, Pleasanton, and Hayward, echoed Keller, saying he has constituents who "don't feel safe," and that he's heard from mothers who won't let their kids right BART at anytime.

"Nia's killer wouldn't have been caught if he wasn't caught on camera," said McPartland as he pushed for an immediate approval of the surveillance system.

Debora Allen, who represents Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Pleasant Hill, and Concord, said she supports the surveillance system also, but felt it could be delayed until a privacy policy is in place. She voiced strong support for other controversial measures though, like a ban on panhandling inside the paid areas of stations. She said she's always approached by people begging for money in Oakland when she leaves board meetings for her home in suburban Contra Costa.

Allen also took opportunity to defend the BART police. "The whole attacking of the police force saddens me," she said.

The board voted to convene a special evening meeting next month somewhere "east of the hills" in a suburb where the surveillance system can be discussed further and possibly voted on.

The board plans to receive and vote on a final draft of the surveillance technology and privacy ordinance at its next regular board meeting, likely after the suburban forum.

Monday, August 6, 2018

BART Is Planning a System-Wide Surveillance Network

The technology will use 'video analytics' to pinpoint crime and alert cops.

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Aug 6, 2018 at 4:12 PM

ALPR cameras the BART police installed in the MacArthur Station Parking Garage. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • ALPR cameras the BART police installed in the MacArthur Station Parking Garage.

Following several high-profile crimes in recent weeks, including the horrific killing of Nia Wilson, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district is under intense pressure to ensure passenger safety.

In response, BART officials have revealed preexisting plans to build out a massive surveillance system that would closely monitor all of the district's stations, trains, and other property.

The district's general manager and police want to upgrade BART's 1,500 existing analog video cameras to a digital format, which would then be linked to computers that analyze video feeds in real time to detect possible criminal activity. The computers would then automatically notify officers to respond to the scenes of crimes and other disturbances.

The proposal is mentioned in a report that will be heard at this Thursday's meeting of the BART board of directors. But the proposal isn't really new. BART officials said they've been testing various powerful surveillance technologies since long before Wilson's death and other recent violent incidents.

According to an "Executive Decision Document" prepared by BART General Manager Grace Crunican in advance of this Thursday's board meeting, the district's Physical Security Information System, or PSIM, was "originally designed to monitor physical alarms and fixed sensors," but it can be "enhanced to include cutting edge video analytics to generate automated alerts based on defined criteria and BART Police Response Plans."

The cost of rolling out the system-wide PSIM network would be about $4.9 million, plus an additional $1.3 million for personnel to operate it. But first, BART would need to spend $15 million to upgrade all of its security cameras to digital format.

BART records show that a test project of the PSIM is already "in process" at the Lake Merritt Station. Lake Merritt was chosen due to its proximity to BART's existing data center and police station.

The test project at Lake Merritt doesn't require approval by the BART board, but an expansion of the surveillance system throughout the rest of BART's stations would require board hearings and a vote, according to BART records.

Surveillance video analytics are computer programs that review footage without human assistance and automatically flag incidents and create alerts. Thousands of hours of recordings can also be searched using queries through a search engine interface. For example, police can search videos for people wearing certain colors of clothing and other visible features. Some video analytics software can include highly controversial features like facial recognition, in which computers use biometrics to identify and track people.

BART spokesperson Jim Allison told the Express that the technologies being tested at Lake Merritt Station do not include facial recognition. "We are not currently considering any audio or phone tracking technology," he added.

BART is testing a feature that can automatically flag fare evasion and alert police officers, however.

"The testing began at Lake Merritt Station well before the Nia Wilson murder," Allison wrote in an email. He said BART can't provide details on how many cameras are in use and what specific types of video analytics are being tested.

BART has long sought to use technologies to secure its trains and stations, but this hasn't necessarily made the system safer, and many worry about the loss of privacy and civil liberties, or fear surveillance tools could be used in harmful ways.

For example, in 2011 BART turned off cell phone services at a downtown San Francisco station in order to thwart a planned protest against its police department. Earlier that year, a BART officer shot and killed Charles Blair Hill in the same station.

In 2014, BART started urging passengers to download and use a security reporting app, but many passengers used the cell phone app to report Black people and homeless people.

Two years ago, BART quietly installed automated license plate reader cameras at its stations, and according to records obtained by the researcher Mike Katz-Lacabe, the cameras have been sending license plate data to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center since January 2017. Federal immigration agents have access to NCRIC data.

BART's growing surveillance system has been likened by some to the Domain Awareness Center, a now defunct proposal from the city of Oakland that would have tied together cameras and other sensors throughout the city and fed this information into a central police monitoring station.

Brian Hofer, the chair of the city of Oakland's privacy commission and a member of the group Oakland Privacy, said there are many ways to make BART safer that don't necessarily involve mass surveillance.

"Hastily made decisions often have negative consequences," said Hofer. "BART has in the past ran trials with video analytics, and discontinued such trials because the benefits didn't outweigh the costs. BART's Board should not approve the PSIM proposal or the Lake Merritt analytics trial without a careful vetting of the impact of such projects."

Hofer said Oakland Privacy and other civil liberties groups have been working with BART to draft rules that would govern the acquisition and use of powerful surveillance technologies, but the board hasn't voted on the ordinance yet.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Oakland Mayor Schaaf Sitting on $315,000 in Campaign Cash Heading Into November Elections

D6 candidate Loren Taylor raised 3.5 times more than incumbent Desley Brooks.

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Aug 1, 2018 at 9:48 AM

FILE PHOTO BY D. ROSS CAMERON
  • File Photo by D. Ross Cameron
Last night was the deadline for candidates running for Oakland mayor, city council, and other offices to file disclosure statements showing how much money they've raised in the past six months. Here are the candidates by the numbers.

Mayor

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was able to raise $116,739 so far this year and she has about $315,000 in cash in her committee account to pay for her re-election campaign. No other candidate has close to that amount of funds, and the mayor is also benefitting from her high-profile feud with the Trump administration.

Cat Brooks is considered a top contender in the mayor's race. Brooks was able to raise $49,932 over the same span of time.

But it was actually Saied Karamooz who raised the most money. His $181,000 came in the form of a self-loan, however. Karamooz reported no contributions from any other source.

Marchon Tatmon was the only other candidate in the field of 16 who are running for mayor who reported raising money. He received $7,409 in contributions.

District 4

In the city's hotly contested District 4 race, one of the frontrunners dropped out. Chris Young was fast outpacing his rivals in terms of fundraising, with $113,207 contributed to his campaign this year. But he cited personal reasons when he declared the end to his campaign last week.

The Express previously reported that Young claimed to be the in-house attorney for GoFundMe even though his status with the state bar was "ineligible" to practice law due to a failure to pay his bar fees and complete mandatory legal education. Schaaf and outgoing D4 Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington both endorsed Young before he quit the race.

Among the candidates still in the race (there are 11), only five others reported raising money. Charlie Michelson led the group with $47,330, followed by Nayeli Maxson, Joseph Tanios, Sheng Thao, and Joseph Simmons.

District 6

In District 6, several candidates are trying to unseat Councilmember Desley Brooks.

Brooks raised $33,497 so far this year and has $57,353 in cash in her account.

Loren Taylor, who has Schaaf's endorsement, outpaced Brooks in fundraising. He reported receiving $119,476, or three and a half times more than Brooks. Some of his contributors include Schaaf's longtime supporters.

Natasha Middleton and Marlo Rodriguez reported raising $28,900 and $20,630, respectively.

District 2

Abel Guillen is facing two opponents this November. The incumbent councilmember reported $97,342 in contributions since January 1, including support from Schaaf and several real estate developers who are building large housing and hotel projects in his district.

Nikki Bas raised $36,934. Many of her contributions are from nonprofit staffers, activists, and others who have been critical of Oakland's development politics and gentrification.

Carlos "Kenzie" Smith, who was the target of the woman known as BBQ Becky, did not report raising money in the past six months. He launched his campaign after being approached by many in the community who are concerned about rising anti-Black racism and gentrification.

While money isn't everything, it's also virtually impossible for a candidate without considerable funds to successfully run in Oakland.

But at the same time, the candidate with the most money doesn't always win. Incumbency counts for a lot. In 2016, At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan beat challenger Peggy Moore (who had Schaaf's support), even though Moore raised $316,000 to Kaplan's $169,000.

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