Making sense out of the news is sometimes
like doing one of those connect-the-dots puzzles that used to be on the backs of
cereal boxes. Sure, you can have all the facts scattered about the story. But if
you donít connect all the lines in between, you end up not seeing the whole picture.
What I couldnít connect was the line between the corner of 61st
Avenue and Foothill and the corner of Avenal and Seminary.
The original Tribune story about the death of 22 year old
Uíkendra Johnson said that Oakland resident Eric Crawford was spinning his car in
the intersection of 61st and Foothill in the early hours of February 16th. Sometime
later, Crawford blew threw the stopsign at Avenal and Seminary, running into the
side of the car in which Uíkendra Johnson was riding, killing her almost instantly.
What I did not understand was, how did Crawford get from 61st and
Foothill to Avenal and Seminary, and why was he running at such a high rate of speed,
and what did the accident have to do with Crawfordís participation in a sideshow?
Sideshows, after all, have been associated with such activities as "spinning"
and "burning rubber," but Iíd never heard them connected with racing.
The question was more than just an academic exercise. Oakland has
all-but-officially blamed the death of Uíkendra Johnson on the sideshows, and public
officials from Police Chief Richard Word to Mayor Jerry Brown to State Senator Don
Perata have all noted her death as a reason for a heightened police crackdown on
these late night gatherings. And the crackdown itself has been part of the problem.
On Monday of last week, I thought that my questions had been answered.
Channel 2 reported that Crawford was being chased by Oakland police officers when
he ran the stop sign at Seminary. The television report also stated that the officers
involved said that they had followed proper automobile chase procedures.
However, a couple of days later when I called OPD Information Officer
George Phillips to ask him exactly what were OPD automobile chase procedures,
he told me that I was mistaken. The police did not chase Crawford, he said. He also
said that the story came from rumors spread by friends of Uíkendra Johnsonís family.
So I spent the rest of the week trying to find someone whoíd been
at the sideshow and could give an eyewitness account. I did, and this is what they
The gathering just after 2 a.m. began with the closing of a nightclub
near Seminary and Bancroft. At the time Crawford did a couple of spins in the intersection
of 60th and Foothill, there was only a small crowd of people standing nearby. As
Crawford was finishing his second spin, someone shouted that the police were coming,
and Crawford sped away up 60th towards MacArthur Boulevard.
The witnesses I spoke with say that as Crawford went up 60th, a
police car came west on Foothill, made the turn on 60th, and accelerated up the street
after Crawfordís car in hot pursuit, without turning on either flashing lights or
sirens. A minute or so later, Crawford apparently made the block, came back down
61st, ran the stop sign at Foothill, and continued racing toward Bancroft. According
to the witnesses, the police car came a few seconds behind, also running the Foothill
stop sign and disappearing down 61st, still without flashing lights or sirens.
Two blocks from Foothill, 61st Avenue dead ends on Avenal. The
corner of Avenal and Seminary, where Uíkendra Johnson died, is a block away.
None of this brings Uíkendra Johnson back. Nor does any of it absolve
Eric Crawford of his responsibility. But Crawford has already been arrested, and
his time in court is coming.
Meanwhile we must ask, how much did Oakland police officers contribute
to the events that led to the death of Uíkendra Johnson? Does our public thrashing
of the sideshows and the people who attend them lead Oakland police to believe that
it is allright to conduct high speed chases of sideshow participants in residential
areas? And, finally, if Oakland police policy says it is allright to conduct a residential
area high speed chase for what began only as a traffic violation, then something
is wrong with Oakland police policy.
There has got to be a better way to resolve this situation.