Whitewashing police murder

July 26, 2012

A new report by the San Joaquin County district attorney won't stop the ongoing campaign to win justice for James Earl Rivera Jr., reports Jeffrey Boyette.

AFTER NEARLY two years, authorities in San Joaquin County, Calif., have finally broken their silence surrounding the police murder of 16-year-old James Earl Rivera Jr., but predictably their 27-page report finds that police were "justified" in their use of lethal force against the African American teenager.

Rivera died in a hail of police gunfire on July 22, 2010, one day before his 17th birthday, but until July 11, Rivera's family had been denied access to all police reports, coroners' reports and "dash-cam" footage from the incident. If it wasn't for relentless public pressure organized by the family and their supporters--including weekly personal appeals to the city by Rivera's mother Dionne Smith-Downs--it's unlikely this report would have ever been produced.

Needless to say, the conclusions issued by San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett haven't satisfied Smith-Downs' demand for justice for her son's death.

On the morning of Rivera's death, he was seen driving a blue van at normal speeds though his hometown of Stockton, Calif., while being tailed by an unmarked vehicle. According to Smith-Downs, two witnesses saw a police car pull her son over within a block of their home and then release him. There was no mention of this occurrence in the DA report.

Speaking on the two-year anniversary of the police murder of James Earl Rivera Jr. in Stockton, Calif.
Speaking on the two-year anniversary of the police murder of James Earl Rivera Jr. in Stockton, Calif. (Jeff Boyette | SW)

Later, Rivera's vehicle was confronted by several police cars, which repeatedly rammed the vehicle and forced it to crash through the side of the garage of a multiunit residence, landing only a few feet away from the wall of a family's living room. The impact was so forceful that Rivera's vehicle crashed straight through a set of large metal mailboxes bolted to the sidewalk and then through both walls of the single-car garage, leaving only a fraction of the vehicle protruding onto the lawn outside.

According to the DA's report, the front of Rivera's vehicle was "inside the garage lifted off the ground by the community mailbox and some brushes it had ripped out of the ground." In a matter of seconds, Gregory Dunn and Eric Azarvand of the Stockton Police Department and John Nesbitt of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department had surrounded Rivera's crashed vehicle, exited their cars and opened fire with at least 30 rounds, ending Rivera's life.

One officer was wielding an AR-15 assault rifle, though he asserted that he didn't fire it due to a magazine failure. One witness reported seeing the officers drag Rivera's lifeless body out of the van, slap his face, then pat each other on the back as if to congratulate one another. Beyond seeming unjustified, this brutal assault bears a disturbing resemblance to a racist lynch mob.

What you can do

You can sign a petition calling for justice for James Earl Rivera Jr. at Change.org.

EVERY OFFICER on the scene repeated the claim that just before the shots were fired, the van's engine revved loudly as Rivera attempted to dislodge the vehicle from the garage. This "threat" was enough for the DA to declare Rivera's van "a weapon capable of serious injury or death," thus warranting the use of deadly force.

It's certainly reasonable to ask how three heavily armed officers could feel threatened by a vehicle that they had already immobilized and surrounded. Or to wonder why these officers did not protect themselves from the reversing van by means other than killing the 16-year-old driver.

On top of these questions, eyewitness accounts raise doubts as to whether the claims that Rivera was backing up are even true. Of the nine civilian witnesses cited in the report, only one mentions hearing an engine revving prior to the shooting, and none report seeing the van move after crashing into the garage. The "threat" posed by Rivera's crashed van would also be second-guessed by anyone who sees the video of the van's removal from the scene later that evening, which shows a large tow-truck struggling to dislodge the crippled vehicle. The driver side rear wheel is clearly flat.

The DA report also attempts to smear James' character in order to justify the initial pursuit. This description, however, is based on questionable allegations that the family has dismissed as shameful lies. One comes in the first footnote, which states that Rivera was 17 at the time of his incarceration and one day away from turning 18 at the time of his death. Rivera was, in fact, 16 at the time of his death, one day shy of his 17th birthday.

Rivera is also described as a "fleeing felon" who had escaped from a juvenile facility where he was incarcerated "for a variety of felonies." The report asserts that Rivera escaped on May 9, 2010, but there was never any attempt by law enforcement to contact Rivera's family or visit his home between that time and the day he was killed more than two months later.

In fact, the family made two attempts to return Rivera to the juvenile facility during that time, according to Smith-Downs, in order to be sure that he had served out his sentence. In both instances, they were told that James was free to go due to a medical condition. This fact also did not appear in the DA's report, yet it completely discredits the claim that Rivera was a "fleeing" criminal.

These obvious gaps in the report demonstrate the need for a truly independent investigation into Rivera's death. This report is also a disturbing reminder that the criminal justice system cannot be expected to hold itself accountable, especially in the case of a young Black men killed by white officers.

James Earl Rivera Jr. is yet one more name on a tragically long list of Black youth gunned down by police without justification and without consequences for the killers. Recently, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement shed light on the scale of the crisis facing Black communities in a study of what they call extrajudicial killings.

The study found that during the first six months of 2012, a Black person was killed without trial or due process by law enforcement, security guards or vigilantes once every 36 hours. A majority of victims was between 13 and 31 years olds and unarmed. In Stockton alone, there have been at least three such killings in the last six months.

THE ONLY reason Rivera's case stands out amid this parade of police killings is that the family and community have made the courageous decision to stand up and demand justice for their loved one and for an end to the continued police violence.

Since Rivera's death, his parents, Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs, have spoken at countless events around Stockton and the Bay Area and have organized numerous pickets and protests in Stockton alongside allies from the Oscar Grant Committee in Oakland, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Stockton. Crucially, they have connected with the families of other victims of police brutality in the Stockton area, encouraging them to speak out as well.

If DA Willett expected his report to put an end to the ongoing campaign around Rivera's case, then he has severely underestimated the courage and determination of Rivera's family and their community.

On July 22, the two-year anniversary of Rivera's death, the family raised its collective voice once again to demand justice. Dozens of activists and community members joined the family for a speak-out on the corner where Rivera was murdered. Smith-Downs directly challenged the DA's report for its disregard of eyewitness accounts:

We came back to the community to let the people know we're still fighting and that we're going to continue to fight. Because we're not going to let this go--to be swept under the rug. We as a community, we cannot let them tell us that we didn't see [what happened]. We know what we saw that day. Your children saw it. These kids are still walking around here saying, "No justice, no peace." They still tell me when I come in this neighborhood, "James was murdered by the police."

At the end of the speak-out, Smith-Downs released 19 balloons to commemorate what would have been Rivera's 19th birthday and then led a "justice caravan" through North Stockton. With horns blaring and picket signs poking through sunroofs, the caravan retraced the path Rivera took the morning of his death and then continued on to a nearby park where the group joined dozens more family members, friends and supporters for a community BBQ.

With the city of Stockton recently becoming the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, this sort of organizing gains even greater significance. A tighter city budget will mean greater economic pressures and increased racial scapegoating for a community that already suffers from high foreclosure rates and high unemployment. The more people are able to come together and raise their voices in unity, the harder it will be for the city to look the other way as injustice rolls on. In the words of Rivera's father:

We have to speak up and voice our opinions and let them know that we're not going to stand for killing our kids in the street. We're not going to stand for them taking our property, our jobs, and not say nothing about it...James was our child, and we need to speak up before it happens to somebody else.

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