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We’ve lived this cycle for over a decade: a Black American is killed by a police officer, much of the country reacts in horror, mass protests arise along with rumblings of reform, only to quiet. Then, it all happens again.
Many trace the cycle’s start to the killing of Oscar Grant at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station in 2009, the first time a bystander’s cellphone video went viral in such a case. But there’s a much longer history of police violence against Black, brown, and other communities in Oakland and the East Bay—along with an incredibly powerful history of local movements challenging that violence and the wider pillars of structural racism.
The Oaklandside teamed up with local history podcast East Bay Yesterday and its creator, Liam O’Donoghue, to bring you that story. We start with lessons learned by Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale after their 1967 campaign for justice for a North Richmond man shot by sheriff’s deputies. We unpack the 1976 killing of Jose Barlow Benavidez by an Oakland police officer, and how Barlow’s family worked with young lawyers at Oakland’s Centro Legal de la Raza to fight for change. We look at the unexpected results of an independent investigation into the police killing of an Oakland teenager in 1979, and how a terrifying childhood encounter with racist police shaped the rest of one local civil rights attorney’s life.
We preserve these histories because, whether we realize it or not, they helped seed the protest movements attempting to heal and reshape our communities today.
This episode features interviews with:
- Xavier Buck, deputy director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation
- Andrea Benavidez and Veronica Salazar, sisters of Jose Barlow Benavidez
- Tony Valladolid, attorney formerly with Centro Legal de la Raza
- Brenda Payton, former Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Examiner reporter
- John Burris, civil rights attorney
Below, you’ll find archival materials that helped inform this episode, and photos of some interviewees.
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1967: Black Panthers organize around a police shooting in North Richmond
Before the Black Panther Party made national headlines for carrying guns into the state Capitol in Sacramento, they gained attention in the East Bay by challenging police brutality. The first issue of The Black Panther newspaper focused on the controversial killing of Denzil Dowell, who was shot by Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputies in the predominantly Black neighborhood of North Richmond.
Xavier Buck, deputy director of The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, summed up the Panthers’ strategy as “policing the police.”
1976: A police shooting in Fruitvale
An Oakland police officer killed Jose Barlow Benavidez with a shotgun blast to the head in 1976. During marches from Fruitvale to City Hall, his sister Andrea Benavidez recalls, people would come out of their homes to join the procession.
“The family was on the front lines, but the community supported us with every event, every fundraiser,” she said.
Benavidez family alleges campaign of harassment by Oakland police
This 1976 Oakland Tribune article references alleged “continuing police harassment of eyewitnesses to the Benavidez slayings.” According to several family members and lawyers connected with this case, this alleged harassment was violent and terrifying.
In one incident, an OPD officer allegedly put an unloaded gun to the head of a witness and pulled the trigger in order to discourage the young man from testifying as part of a grand jury investigation.
Andrea Benavidez holds a photo of herself wearing a t-shirt she designed to raise awareness about her brother’s killing by an Oakland police officer. Once Andrea became the face of the Barlow Benavidez Committee Against Police Crimes, she says, she personally faced harassment from police officers. In our episode, she recalls one particularly galling encounter.
“I would have nightmares, especially if I spoke at a park, at a rally… I’d be scared there were undercover cops out there, [and that] somebody’s gonna shoot me,” she said.
A suspicious ransacking of Centro Legal’s offices
Centro Legal de la Raza’s offices in Fruitvale, out of which the Barlow Benavidez Committee Against Police Crimes worked, were broken into and ransacked in 1977.
Nothing valuable was stolen other than files related to the Benavidez case.
Black and brown communities unite to address police violence
By creating a multi-racial coalition against police violence, the Barlow Benavidez Committee Against Police Crimes helped a movement grow. The impact of that work continues to ripple through Oakland, especially on the many local murals that celebrate Black and brown Solidarity.
A 15-year-old boy shot dead by Oakland police
Oakland teenager Melvin Black’s 1979 killing by two Oakland police officers sparked a controversy that resulted in Mayor Lionel Wilson appointing local attorney John Burris to lead an independent investigation into the case.
In his memoir Blue vs. Black, Burris wrote, “In the end, we were left with the troubling realization that the physical evidence did not match the officers’ statements. The events simply could not have happened the way they had been reported.”
Black’s family was eventually awarded $693,000 following a civil suit.
In a 1981 report titled “Police Use of Deadly Force in Oakland,” journalist Brenda Payton wrote, “The moral attitude of the police and city administration is crucial. As long as the shootings are tolerated and justified they will continue.”
Seeing the recent wave of massive Black Lives Matter protests has given Payton cautious optimism that change may be on the horizon. “Now, maybe, it feels like something has shifted in terms of general consciousness,” she said.
55 years after the Watts uprising, another wave of civil unrest
Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Oakland was one of dozens of American cities that saw civil unrest, including widespread looting and arson. This wave of riots was similar to the 1965 Watts uprising, one of the key events that inspired the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland the following year.