I got a letter in the mail a couple of weeks ago with a picture of U’Kendra Johnson on it.

The letter wasn’t from U’Kendra Johnson’s family. It was on the cover of an "Urgent Message" from State Senator Don Perata and Oakland Vice Mayor Larry Reid, asking Oakland citizens to write the governor in support of SB 1489, Perata’s sideshow car confiscation bill. The letter also had a picture of the car in which U’Kendra Johnson died last February.

Perata’s bill, which is now being considered by the Assembly, woud reverse some 800 years of Anglo-American due process precedent going back to the Magna Carta. SB 1489 would allow the cars of alleged sideshow participants to be seized and impounded for 30 days, without a prior hearing, solely on the word of a police officer that wrongdoing had occurred. Perhaps I’m in a minority on this, but I’m a little bit disturbed about living in a society in which a police officer’s word is law. I’ve lived in places like that, and it’s not a pleasant experience, not when you happen to be one of the persons…or a member of a class or race of persons…that a particular police officer does not like.

There’s more. In their "Urgent Message" to Oakland citizens, Perata and Reid said that the confiscation law was needed because sideshow participants engage in "drunk driving, reckless driving, and assault and property crimes." Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that we’ve never had a public airing of the sideshows…what they are, who attends, and what actually goes on…so we’re generally only taking Perata and Reid’s word at this and what we’ve seen on the news. But even if all this is accurate, the State of California also has plenty of laws against drunk driving, reckless driving, and assault and property crimes. Before we pass new laws, shouldn’t we first get an answer to the obvious: why haven’t the old laws worked? Sounds awful Ashcroffian to me.

Back to the Perata/Reid mailing. This is the third time a picture of the Johnson accident car has been mailed out to Oakland citizens. The first two was during the March City Council campaigns, in support of Moses Mayne, who was defeated in District 6, and David Stein, who is in a runoff with School Board member Jean Quan for Dick Spees’ Council seat. All three of the mailings put the blame for U’Kendra Johnson’s death directly on Oakland’s late night sideshows. In fact, if you took a poll in Oakland today, my guess would be that most citizens share in that conclusion.

That belief comes largely from statements made by Oakland Police officials in the day or two after Johnson’s death, that the auto accident that killed Johnson was "definitely sideshow-related." Oakland resident Eric Crawford has been charged in her death.

In the three and a half months that have passed since then, I have tried to get the Oakland Police Department to do one simple thing: release evidence to back up that "sideshow-related" assertion. So far there’s been some back and forth with the City Attorney’s Office, but nothing has been released. So all we have is the police department’s word, nothing else.

Meanwhile, I have been gathering more and more evidence, from witnesses and other sources, that Johnson’s death was directly related to a high-speed auto pursuit by Oakland Police officers down residential streets, without sirens or warning lights, in direct violation of Oakland’s vehicle pursuit regulations.

OPD Information Officer George Phillips has denied that police conducted a vehicle chase that night. But they could clear this matter up pretty quickly by releasing the information and evidence requested.

The District Attorney’s office, after all, has already turned over evidence to Deputy Public Defender Jody Nuñez, Crawford’s attorney. The only people being kept in the dark is the Oakland public (Nuñez confirmed that she has received evidence from the DA, but would say nothing more). And, therefore, we are left with the question that if there is something in the Johnson/Crawford files which shows that there was no high-speed police chase that led directly to the death of U’Kendra Johnson, why haven’t the police simply released it?

Maybe the problem is, there aren’t enough Oaklanders publicly asking that question.

Originally Published June 12, 2002 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA