Community outraged by brutal arrest of former Oakland City Councilmember
Oakland, California City Hall

OAKLAND, Calif. – Community outrage is growing here after last week’s brutal arrest of former City Council member and longtime community leader Wilson Riles Jr., 73, by Oakland police as he left City Hall after meeting with city staff about a years-long zoning issue involving his property.

The issue was front-and-center at the City Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting Oct. 22, as dozens of residents linked the incident to the need to strengthen the city’s Police Commission and focused directly on the arrest during a public comment period.

Besides serving on the City Council from 1979 to 1992, Riles, who is African American, was for a decade Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Pacific Mountain Regional Office, in San Francisco.

He described his arrest in an Oct. 22 interview on radio station KPFA.

For over four years, Riles said, he and his family have been engaged in a dispute with City of Oakland staff over complaints by a small group of neighbors about the sweat lodge, temporary structures and vegetable garden the family uses for Native American spiritual practices on their property. After much discussion, the Planning Commission had approved – and the City Council had confirmed – their right to conduct these activities.

But when neighbors again complained earlier this month, city staff demanded the family obtain a permit for the structures. When Riles went to the Zoning Department Oct. 17 and after discussion the matter was still not resolved, he entered the staff office, demanding to see a supervisor. As he was leaving after talking with the supervisor, he was confronted by several armed police officers who tripped him, knocking him to the floor and bruising him, before handcuffing him and transporting him to Santa Rita Jail in a nearby suburb. He was released later in the day after posting $20,000 bail.

“They knew why I was irate,” Riles said. “I was irate because they weren’t doing their jobs, and I knew they weren’t doing their jobs, and I was complaining about it. To call the police, after not responding directly to what I was requesting, was outrageous.”

Addressing the Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday evening, Riles called on the committee and the City Council as a whole to consider how city employees, as well as police, can be held accountable for mistreatment and racist actions against Oakland residents.

Before Riles spoke, Council President and committee member Rebecca Kaplan cited his arrest as illustrating why independent oversight of Oakland police is urgently needed and noted the long history of targeting African Americans and other people of color.

As the committee turned to discussing ways to improve a proposed ballot measure strengthening the work of Oakland’s independent Police Commission, speaker after speaker cited Riles’ arrest as an example of why the commission’s ability to work effectively needed to be strengthened.

In a later public comment period, the arrest itself – along with a statement released by the City that tried to justify the action – became the central topic.

Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and executive director of the Justice Teams Network, told the crowd, “It definitely shouldn’t happen to Wilson Riles at all. It shouldn’t happen to anybody. And it does, in this city, every single day.” Calling the Oakland Police Department’s use-of-force policy “one of the most progressive in the country,” Brooks pointed out that it is not implemented. “There’s no demand that it be implemented, and there’s no accountability when it’s not implemented. So they get to rape and kill and maim and terrorize and kill with impunity.

“We need a conversation about why police were called on an unarmed man having a disagreement with someone in City Planning,” Brooks said, “and if it doesn’t require a badge and a gun we shouldn’t send one.”

Another speaker, who described herself as a “native-born Oaklander,” declared that she, too, doesn’t feel safe, because the Oakland Police Department, city staff and society as a whole are “still operating under a centuries-old stereotype that all black males are super-strong and dangerous and must be treated unfairly, demonized, racially profiled, arrested and in many cases killed, be they 10 years or 73 year old. I say to everyone, change the narrative: they are sons, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins – treat us with the dignity that you would treat your own family members, because we deserve it!”

The Reverend Debra Avery, of Justice House Oakland, told the Councilmembers, “You’re the ones who can make the change. We can come to your offices, we can try to get your attention. But you’re the ones who have to do it … we need to get busy replacing our terrible, abusive system that has our seniors and our youth being taken down by police at any moment.”

Riles’ life partner, Patricia St. Onge, said in recent years the couple have invested “thousands of hours and thousands of dollars to have what was already ours, the right to have ceremony in our yard, and to bring people and share that ceremony with them.” The family thought the matter was settled, she said, “so imagine our shock and frustration” when a city worker came to tell them neighbors were again complaining.

“This feels unacceptable on so many levels,” St. Onge said. “The police should not have been there. Somebody saw Wilson as a threat and called police. City staff did that.”

Riles and his attorney, Walter Riley, say they are filing a complaint with the Police Commission, while Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick has told them she has ordered an internal investigation into the incident, and that all charges against Riles are being dropped.

But Tuesday night’s discussion at the Public Safety Committee made clear this attack and the ongoing abuses against so many Oakland residents – particularly people of color – are ratcheting up the pressure for effective community oversight of police and other city employees.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.