A memorial to Mario Gonzalez set up in the park in Alameda where he was killed by police.
A memorial to Mario Gonzalez set up in the park in Alameda where he was killed by police. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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The Oaklandside recently published an in-depth report on the life of Mario Gonzalez, a young East Oakland resident who was killed by Alameda police officers nearly two months ago.

We felt it was important to provide a space for people who loved Mario to share what they wanted others to know about him, the experiences that shaped him, and the impact he had during his too-short life. They portrayed a thoughtful young man who loved, cared for, and protected his family and community, sometimes while navigating serious challenges.

In keeping with our newsroom’s values regarding transparency, we also feel it’s important to share more about our reporting process and respond to concerns and questions our newsroom has received about this story, especially about our carefully considered decision to include information and perspectives shared by people close to Mario about dangers he faced as a teenager and his involvement with the juvenile justice system when he was 15.

We’ll share more about this decision below, and about a number of changes we have made to the story after publication after hearing from members of Mario’s family, but we’d like to address one major concern right away. Some have suggested that by including that information, The Oaklandside has damaged potential future litigation the Gonzalez family or others could bring against the Alameda police department. Based on our newsroom’s collective years of experience in criminal justice reporting, we strongly reject that assumption. No party to such a lawsuit would need to rely on a local news report to become aware of this incident in Mario’s past.

If such litigation were to materialize, it is likely that information about Mario’s youth involvement with the juvenile justice system would be publicized by other local news outlets. In our report, we included perspectives that contextualized the dangers Mario was facing and the lack of good options available to him at the time. These perspectives were shared with us, with the knowledge and intention they would appear in a published story, by people close to Mario. We felt it was important to get these perspectives on the record.

The Oaklandside based our retelling of hardships Mario experienced in his youth on conversations with his mother and a close high school mentor. Both were intimately familiar with the situation and were carefully informed that what they shared with us could appear in a published story (we’ll share more on that below). We did not access or share information from juvenile arrest records, as some have stated in reactions to our story. In fact, such youth records are off-limits to reporters and the general public. We did search the Alameda County Superior Court’s records to confirm that Mario was never again charged with any criminal offense as an adult.

We extend our deepest condolences to everyone who knew and loved Mario. We acknowledge and are saddened that our reporting has caused pain to a member of his family who we did not speak to for our story, but who got in touch with us after it was published to share their reactions and concerns. While we know this accounting of our reporting and editing choices is unlikely to alleviate that pain, we feel it is important to offer transparency.

Connecting with people who knew and loved Mario

When Oaklandside arts and community reporter Azucena Rasilla first learned about what happened to Mario Gonzalez, she immediately thought of her own family.

“I didn’t want to watch the video because it felt so close to home, growing up in East Oakland with my siblings and some of the things we experienced,” she said, referencing police body-worn-camera footage captured that day. She wanted to disengage from the story, knowing that initial reports were likely to focus entirely on the circumstances of Mario’s death, and not on his life.

Eventually, Oaklandside news editor Darwin BondGraham asked Azucena if she’d be willing to team up with local freelance reporter Zack Haber on a story that set out to do exactly that. 

Azucena agreed and connected with Edith Arenales, Mario’s mother, and explained what The Oaklandside was hoping to report. Ms. Arenales agreed to an interview at her home, which lasted several hours and was conducted in Spanish. All subsequent follow-up calls and messages to further report and fact-check the story were also in Spanish, and we published the final story in both Spanish and English.

At the outset of their first conversation, in keeping with her standard practice as a reporter, Azucena explained that Ms. Arenales could stop the interview at any time, for any reason, and how to go “off the record” if there was something she wanted to share with Azucena but not have it appear in the published story. Whenever Ms. Arenales indicated that she wanted to go “off the record,” Azucena respected her request.

“I learned that her family was even more similar to my own than I first realized,” said Azucena. “Like the Gonzalez family, my family includes members who were formerly undocumented. My mom, like Edith, moved to this country when she was really young. I remember what it was like for us as kids, needing to catch the bus somewhere in East Oakland and being fearful about walking down the wrong street.”

As a local newsroom, it’s part of our guiding values to hire and support journalists who represent communities, perspectives, and life experiences shared by people we speak to in the course of our reporting. We value and trust the insights and expertise they bring to their work, and believe that responsible journalism, especially in a city as diverse as ours, requires such a commitment. We certainly have a long way to go in fulfilling on this promise, and we’re proud of the small team we’ve built so far.

Much of what Ms. Arenales shared with Azucena was related to both joys and intensely painful challenges Mario experienced as a child and as a teenager. She stressed that Mario was a devoted son and protective and loving brother who took on far more responsibilities than most people his age. She shared the story of two incidents that occurred when Mario was 15, when he and his younger brother, Victor, were victims of assault and robbery by a group of older men during their walk home from school.

The incidents led to a confrontation and ended with Mario spending time in juvenile hall, Ms. Arenales explained. One of Mario’s high school teachers and mentors, Art Mola, later told us that he felt Mario needed to defend himself and his brother, and if he hadn’t responded as he did, they could have been targeted again.

Ms. Arenales shared names and phone numbers for people who could share more about Mario’s life, especially those involved with Elev8, a national program that sought to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in at-risk communities that Mario became deeply involved in at his high school, Coliseum College Prep Academy. Azucena and Zack Haber followed up on all of these suggestions and talked with Mola, who ran the Elev8 program and taught at CCPA, and others who got involved when Mario was detained, writing letters of support and showing up to his court hearing.

In the story, we detail several ways Mario volunteered for or was selected for leadership roles through Elev8 and the unique bonds he was able to build thanks to his own life experiences, including while mentoring younger members of the program. One Elev8 director described to us the gentleness and patience he offered those young students, and how he “knew how to connect and be real with them.” 

The Oaklandside based our retelling of hardships Mario experienced in his youth on conversations with his mother and his high school mentor. Both were intimately familiar with the situation and were informed that anything shared with us “on the record” could appear in a published story. We did not rely on juvenile arrest records, as some have claimed in reactions to our story. In fact, such youth records are off-limits to reporters and the general public. We did search the Alameda County Superior Court’s records to confirm that Mario was never again charged with any criminal offense as an adult.

Our reporters also attempted to interview Gerardo Gonzalez, one of Mario’s two living brothers. Zack introduced themself to Mr. Gonzalez, who goes by Jerry, at an April vigil for Mario, and Mr. Gonzalez instructed Zack to arrange an interview through a member of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, or CURYJ, who was handling media relations for the family. Zack shared their contact information with that staff member and requested an interview. The staff member said they would try to arrange an interview with Jerry, but did not follow up with us about this.

We regret that we did not follow up ourselves and continue to ask for an interview with Mr. Gonzalez, who has since informed us that he never received our request. We assumed that Mr. Gonzalez knew we were seeking an interview and had chosen not to speak with reporters about a family trauma. We should not have assumed that, and we have apologized to Mr. Gonzalez.

Responding to concerns

We understand that Mario’s brother Jerry feels deeply hurt and outraged by our article. After our story was published, Mr. Gonzalez reached out to us directly and in conjunction with members of the Anti-Police Terror Project and CURYJ, demanding that we take down the story or delete portions of it. We met with members of these organizations and listened to their concerns. 

We made several changes to the published story at Mr. Gonzalez’s request, including removal of a number of details related to the death of his brother Victor and a clarification regarding his mother’s immigration status.

Mr. Gonzalez has also asked us to remove all mentions of his brother’s youth involvement with the juvenile justice system. We feel it would be irresponsible to erase from the story information and perspectives people close to Mario shared with us about the danger Mario experienced as a teenager and the way those experiences impacted him, and that doing so would present an incomplete picture of his life. For instance, as we detail in the story, Mario’s experience defending himself and his younger brother intimately informed his participation in Elev8, the social justice-based high school program that was deeply important to him. 

The Oaklandside is equally committed to listening to community feedback and to protecting our editorial independence. We don’t believe these values are mutually exclusive. If changing a story after publication can prevent unnecessary pain without obfuscating painful but necessary truths, we are willing to consider all possibilities. We hope we’ve demonstrated that with this story, and we stand by the story as it appears today.

Correction: we mistakenly referred to Mr. Gonzalez’s involvement with the juvenile justice system when he was 15-years-old as involvement with the criminal justice system. The juvenile justice system and criminal system are different.

Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped build the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and daughter.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.

Jacob Simas is Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program at Fusion for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat, a graduate of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a former producer with KPFA's First Voice apprenticeship program.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.