"Balancing the Scales of Justice," Feature, 7/10
Looking Forward to Being Proud
I was stirred and heartened by your cover story about new Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods. I proudly served in that office under three administrations and looked forward to doing so for the rest of my working years. However, after years of unsuccessful efforts to persuade Mr. Woods' reticent predecessor to permit a public role for the office and to confront its ballooning caseload and dwindling resources, I was persuaded I could not continue to provide the kind of representation I believed my clients deserved.
I have watched our criminal justice system devolve into a plea bargaining machine, where overcharging, excessive bail schedules, and outlandish potential sentences squeeze pleas from people desperate to get out of custody. Once the accused have given up their rights in return for release on probation, they can be handled expeditiously, without the cumbersome and costly due process protections the Constitution provides. Alameda County helped lead that de-evolution, pioneering the imposition in each case of five years of felony probation and "four-way" search clauses (person, property, car, and residence) that dispense with the Fourth Amendment altogether.
People always asked me how I can represent guilty people. I was much more troubled by my many clients who should have fought the charges against them but could not afford to spend three or more months in jail — "presumed innocent," of course — waiting for their chance to do so.
There will always be a tension between law and order. Both values deserve equally equipped champions in the public arena as well as the criminal courts. I hope the board of supervisors can realize that their constituents' interests are best served by a vigorous and truly adversarial Public Defender's Office. I look forward to being proud of my old office again under Brendon Woods' leadership.
William Locke, former assistant public defender, Oakland
"No Accountability," Seven Days, 7/10
Where is Governor Jerry Brown when we need him to clean up the Caltrans mess? And where is the legislature in Sacramento? The silence is deafening and an indictment of state government. The Bay Bridge scandal is nauseating as Caltrans weakly defends its lapses and inadequate oversight. When the new Bay Bridge falls down in a small temblor, under what rock will the Caltrans leadership be hiding? It's time to clean house with new leadership and a system of accountability. And are we to trust this same agency in building a new high-speed rail system? I think not.
As for the Alameda County DA, if the people find she is not performing up to snuff, she is only an election away from being kicked out of office and having to make a living in the private sector.
Steve Redmond, Berkeley
Trust government? In Richmond, the assistant city manager misappropriated thousands of dollars and ran a private business out of City Hall using city employees. So what happened when the scandal broke? She got a laudatory letter of appreciation for her services to the City of Richmond and a fat retirement. Then the Contra Costa County DA refused to prosecute her. Meanwhile, the contentious Richmond City Council magically found peace and love and acted as if it never happened. Hey, it's the double standard, get used to it. One rule for the rich and connected and another for the rest of us.
Charles T. Smith, Richmond
"BART's Lead Negotiator Has a History of Illegal Behavior," News, 7/10
Shame on BART General Manager Grace Crunican and her BART management for hiring [Thomas P.] Hock to represent BART in these negotiations when he has no intention of doing so. BART has already wasted lots of money that could have been used to help out the negotiations and a strike would not have been necessary. Not a smart move, BART Management. In fact, it's a stupid move!
Adriaan Tgilde, Woodland, California
"It Happened in Oakland," Movie Review, 7/10
The Cultural Gap
Thank you for adding a little more behind-the-scenes perspective to your review of Fruitvale Station. Personally, I found it to be a modest yet charming and true-to-life depiction of a day in one man's life.
I appreciate that Ryan Coogler is giving a voice and a heart to a lifestyle and a person who is usually invisible to Hollywood. There are who knows how many Oscar Grants out there trying to make ends meet and live up to a potential that they don't even know they have.
The climactic scene of Fruitvale Station is harrowing as it depicts the brutality that Oscar and his friends faced. I'm assuming the over-the-top aggressive officer was meant to be Anthony Pirone. It's easy to see why he was disciplined and terminated from his job. Ideally, a cop should try to diffuse a tense situation, not inflame passions further. If the incident is handled more diplomatically, maybe everyone goes home safe.
I was surprised that Johannes Mehserle was portrayed in a relatively humane manner. The officer appears genuinely shocked when he sees Oscar gasping for breath as his internal organs fill with blood. It makes you think that Mehserle probably was sorry for what happened, and you just lament the cultural gap that makes understanding between the people and the police so hard to reach.
Larry Oliver, Richmond
A Great Disservice
If Fruitvale Station is a defense for Oscar Grant, and if this movie review is a defense of the movie, then both defenses fail utterly. If you're going to humanize Oscar Grant, that's fine. But Coogler's commentary on Johannes Mehserle completely undermines his moral persuasiveness in humanizing Grant.
Although desperately sought I'm sure, not any single anecdote about Mehserle ever emerged that showed him to be anything less than human, even though he was "from Germany" and "lived in Sonoma." He also was a young man, finding his way. Much of the take home from the trial was that BART training in the use of a Taser, and in handling both a Taser and a gun, was grossly inadequate.
There was not a single iota of evidence supporting the contention that Mehserle's actions were murderous. Nothing contradicted his version in which discharging of his weapon was accidental, and that he had intended to pull the Taser instead. These are the reasons that the jury acquitted him.
As for young toughs of any color "skylarking" on BART and then (surprise!) fighting, this is an assault on the public that cannot be tolerated. I cannot imagine a single person who would not want the police to wade into this situation and settle it. Mistakes are always made in battle. These consequences of the battle remain attached to those who created the situation.
David Cohen, Oakland
Selling the Film Short
This review does a gross disservice to a great film! Before seeing the film — after reading the review — I emailed a set of friends as follows:
"Without question, Mehserle was an asshole, if not a monster; he obviously had no viable reason to shoot Oscar Grant. Nonetheless, given this review's description of Grant (whether in real life, or as the film portrays him), I take issue with those who view him as a sympathetic character: an edgy guy who gets into fights, did time in San Quentin, and fathered a child he couldn't afford to support, among other endearing attributes .... Grant was obviously a victim of injustice, but he was not a martyr, and he was certainly no paragon or hero. To me, at least, the review inadvertently makes the point that whatever it means to be "underclass," it certainly doesn't mean being a good or decent person. Unlike (ostensibly) Mehserle, I've known numerous African-Americans (to whom, as an overall grouping, this review does a gross disservice); the ones who are like Oscar Grant (at least as he's described) aren't the sort of people that I'm inclined to like, let alone admire."
Then I saw the film — a full house for a 10:30 p.m. show at the Grand Lake, about 60 percent black and 40 percent white, with a sizable proportion of Latinos among the latter.
All of my above objections prove to be irrelevant to the film, which doesn't ask us to like Grant (let alone see him as some sort of iconic figure or representative of an "underclass), after all — but which is a sure-fire tear-jerker that doesn't allow one to leave the theater without feeling deep compassion.
I have two problems with the review. One of my problems is that the review misses two crucial items. The first of these is that the best-performed character — a real sleeper, arguably even better than Grant himself — is his mother, who plays an incredible (and incredibly tough and tricky) supporting role in terms of understanding the African-American family. Secondly, there's a real villain in the film, and it isn't Mehserle! I'll avoid risking a spoiler, and merely note that this involves the fact that one needn't be black to belong to an "underclass," as the film makes abundantly clear.
My other problem is clear and simple, and (ironically enough) it derives from this last point: Whether from a sleazy underclass, or from do-goody preachers like the reviewer, I'm sick of hearing from white people who have a stake in believing that "race matters."
The reviewer's own "construction of everyday social reality" evidently demands that he view the film as "essentially a crime story about racial misunderstanding." Such a construction sells the film pitifully short; the story is far more human than that.
Mitchell Halberstadt, Oakland
In our July 17 Best of the East Bay 2013 issue, our award for "Best Yoga Studio" incorrectly stated that Heather Haxo Phillips is among the highest certified Iyengar yoga teachers in the Bay Area. She's one of the highest certified Iyengar yoga teachers in the East Bay.
And our July 17 news story "Proposed Minimum Wage Hike Sparks Conflict" misstated the name of an organization that works to unify restaurant workers and advocate for workers' rights. It is Restaurant Opportunities Center of the Bay — not Bay Area Restaurant Opportunities Center.