San Diego demands justice for Olango

October 5, 2016

His sister called 911 to get help for Alfred Olango, but instead what he received was lethal police violence, writes Claire Douglas.

DAILY PROTESTS against the police killing of Alfred Olango, an unarmed 38-year-old Black man, continued throughout the weekend, stretching from the San Diego suburb of El Cajon to the city's center.

Olango, a Ugandan refugee suffering from a mental health crisis, was killed by El Cajon Police officer Richard Gonsalves on September 27. It happened a week after Charlotte, North Carolina, police killed Keith Lamont Scott, a disabled man who was waiting for his son to return from school on the bus.

While the protests in San Diego have remained peaceful, the police haven't. Clad in riot gear, officers have used tear gas and beanbag shots directed at protesters.

The political establishment of El Cajon has attempted to contain community outrage. While Mayor Bill Wells promised "transparency" as he called for calm, he also ordered City Hall closed for "security" reasons the day after Olango's murder. The announcement seemed more designed to generate fear than ensure safety, much less facilitate transparency.

Protesters confront riot police after the murder of Alfred Olango in El Cajon
Protesters confront riot police after the murder of Alfred Olango in El Cajon

City officials also dragged their feet in releasing video footage of the shooting--and once they did, it was immediately clear why they hesitated. The video showed two police officers trying to corner Olango in a parking lot. They get closer and closer--and then suddenly shoot him dead.

The police claim that Olango refused to take his hands out of his pockets after being ordered to put his hands up--and that when he did, he brandished what appeared to be a gun and assumed a "shooting stance," leading one officer to fire a Taser at him and another to shoot him dead. The object in Olango's turned out to be a vaping device.

But the video shows that Olango did not assume a shooting stance--and that the police made no attempt to deescalate the situation. The police account likewise doesn't explain why the cop who killed Olango fired four shots when the other officer was already firing his Taser.

ACCORDING TO his family, Olango had been suffering from acute depression, grieving the loss of a close friend.

On the afternoon of September 27, Olango had become emotionally distressed. After his sister made three calls to 911 to ask for help in dealing with Olango's state of crisis, she waited 50 minutes until someone finally arrived. But it wasn't help. In a matter of two minutes, three police officers surrounded Olango--and then Tased and shot him.

Workers at a restaurant directly adjacent to the parking lot where Olango was shot reported that police officers confiscated their cell phones. For several days, the cops released none of the video evidence, except for one still frame that conveniently appeared to corroborate their story.

Olango's case is no outlier. Black people are two and a half times more likely to be killed by the police than white people. And more than half of people murdered by police either have a mental health or cognitive disability or are suffering from an acute mental health crisis, according to a recent report.

In San Diego County, the number of emergency calls reporting a mental health crisis has increased 84 percent since 2009. The county has 41 Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams (PERT), but according to PERT Director Mark Marvin, no team was available to intervene in Olango's case because they were busy on other calls.

The tragic fact is that in this post-recession era of broken municipal budgets and tough-on-crime policies, the first response for those suffering a crisis is not health care, but deadly force by police officers.

IN A bygone era, city officials may have had the ability to throw a wet blanket on expressions of community outrage, but not at a time when inspiration can be drawn from the struggles across the country for Black lives. Instead, the noxious refrain of "we thought it was a gun" has become tired and unbelievable, with the capacity to inflame rather than pacify protesters.

Olango had fled violence in Uganda with his mother at the age of 13, but the U.S. proved to be no escape. U.S. authorities twice tried to deport him, and the irony was not lost on his family.

At a press conference three days after her son's murder, Olango's mother Pamela Benge described her horror this way:

We have come from a war zone. We wanted protection. That's why we're here. I wanted the children not to be running around, being in fear every night, sleeping in the bush...Being a refugee, I know there are millions of refugees that are here, just seeking a better place, a safety place. That's all--safety. We wanted just to be safe. But now, I ask the question: Where should we go? I don't know.

At a speak-out the following day, Richard Olango Abuka, Alfred's father, called on the crowd to organize for justice for Olango and to see his son's death as a "turning point" for the movement:

I would like to say that when Officer Gonsalves pulled the trigger on my son, he had declared war on humanity...He must be fired and prosecuted...

We are going to fight like one people, like brothers and sisters in the streets. We must be united in this fight, until we meet our goals...The chief of police has kept a criminal on duty. Instead of firing him...[he should] step down.

THE PROTESTS on the first and second day after Olango's murder continued practically around the clock, with a near-constant presence around the community memorial at the site of Olango's murder.

During an evening demonstration, one El Cajon resident spoke about her fears for her own son. "I am the mother of a 26-year-old Black man," she said, "and I can't help but ask myself every day, will he be next? Most days, you try your hardest not to think about it, to live your life. But it's always there. And that's no way to live."

At sunset on September 28, more than 300 people took to the streets, blocking intersections, chanting "Alfred Olango! Say his name!" and "Whose streets? Our streets!" Some protesters confronted the cops who lined the front and back of the march with questions that on an ordinary day they would keep to themselves: "Why are you killing us?" "What do I have to do to prove that I am a human to you?"

As the protest stopped at a freeway entrance, three young men wearing Kaepernick jerseys joined in the new protest tradition by taking a knee in front of a row of cops.

As marches continued on the following night, police turned violent against peaceful protesters, shooting tear gas and beanbags at the crowds and making several arrests. On October 1, police surrounded a small peaceful gathering of 35 mourners and arrested at least 15, trampling the memorial's candles, pictures and messages of love and mourning.

In one video, a young woman explained how police fired a beanbag that hit her in the face, leaving her with swelling that practically closed one of her eyes.

While the protests continued in the face of police violence, the mayor and liberal leaders urged protesters to be peaceful. Yet these same officials and public figures failed to condemn police provocation and violence. Speaking at a demonstration near downtown San Diego, a member of Pillars of the Community said:

It's a crazy circumstance that we are living in that when we stand up and say this is not okay, that when we say "Black Lives Matter," that when we say it's not okay when the police kill an unarmed Black man, we are called crazy. It's a crazy society you're living in that, when you're acting normal, people are calling you crazy.

They are going to continue to do that until we stand up, until we let people know we are done living under this crazy narrative. We are done living under this nonsense where people think they can get away with the killing of our people every day.

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