CONNECTING

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 told me:

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.


Originally Published February 27, 2002 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA