SAN JOSE, CA—More than one hundred people from San Jose and surrounding areas of Northern California gathered at a community center here late last month to mark the anniversaries of the deaths of two people killed by police.
Antonio Guzman Lopez was a 38-year-old undocumented Mexican national who was shot and killed on Feb. 21, 2014. Phillip Watkins, a 23-year-old black father, was fatally shot on Feb. 11, 2015.
During the vigil, held at the African American Community Services Agency Center on Feb. 20, a panel comprised of parents, daughters, local activists and others directly impacted by police shootings called for accountability and transparency from law enforcement agencies, and discussed community-based solutions to public safety.
"What's the answer? We have to find ways to begin to teach our communities to divest from the system and invest in ourselves,” said Oakland community organizer Cat Brooks. “We can't just go to our neighbors and say get rid of the police, unless of course we are doing the work to put people-powered systems in place that can actually keep us safe.”
At the end of the evening, each family who had lost a loved one was given a balloon or lantern. Some shouted, “We love you!” as they released the glowing globes into the night sky.
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There were 12 officer-involved shootings, 6 of them fatal, in San Jose in 2015—the most in that city in a decade, according to a recent news report by the San Jose Mercury News.
Fusion spoke to the family members of Lopez and Watkins, as well as others at the vigil who have lost family members to police violence in recent years, and asked what would bring them closure in the wake of these tragedies.
Laurie Valdez, common-law partner of Antonio Guzman Lopez
Lopez was shot twice in the back by a San Jose State University police officer after he allegedly ran toward another officer while holding a special saw used for cutting drywall. Valdez subsequently filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against the two campus police officers at the scene, on behalf of her and Lopez’s child, Josiah Lopez.
Last May, the Santa Clara County District Attorney announced that no charges would be filed against the two officers, Mike Santos and Fritz Van Der Hoek, following an investigation that included a private review of video footage captured by one of the officer’s body cameras. Valdez and other family members of Lopez, who were given an opportunity to view the footage, have disputed the county’s claim that reasonable force was used. Valdez told Fusion she is currently waiting to see if a judge will allow the footage to be made public.
"Time does not heal without accountability," said Valdez, "and [authorities] have justified [the killing], yet they have the body camera footage on a gag order."
City authorities, she added, have shown little concern for the wellbeing of her family in the aftermath of the shooting.
“It’s been two years of a living hell for my children," she said. "My family has not gotten any kind of support, not even counseling; no help whatsoever with the emotional wellbeing of my son to prevent him from being re-traumatized. There’s a lot that needs to be done. And if the mayor really wants to fix it, or the police department, they need to start reaching out to the people affected by it.”
Sharon Anthony, mother of Phillip Watkins
Watkins was fatally shot by San Jose police officers after they responded to a 911 call from Watkins’ own cell phone. According to news reports, family members and friends of Watkins said he was emotionally unstable and had expressed suicidal thoughts immediately prior to his death, and suggested his 911 call may have been a cry for help. When officers arrived at the residence of Watkins’ fiancé, they encountered Watkins who allegedly charged at them with a knife. He was then shot and killed by officers in front of his fiancé and her mother, as they implored the officers to stop.
“I think that what people should strive for, what our struggle and our fight is for, is accountability," said Anthony. "We don’t have accountability when the policemen make a mistake. They don’t admit they made a mistake… and many of the times you have families who are hurting, who have been wounded, and there’s no healing. They shoot more and they kill more than one person—they kill entire families—when this type of thing happens."
Chandra Jacqeuz, daughter of Richard “Harpo” Jacquez
Forty-year-old Richard “Harpo” Jacquez died on Aug. 17, 2015 after San Jose police, pursuing Jacquez as a homicide suspect, shot him in the back. A police spokesman originally said that Jacquez was shot after he reached for his waistband, but it was later discovered that he was unarmed. At the time, Jacquez was the fourth person to be killed by San Jose police in eight days.
Family members, including his daughter Chandra Jacquez, say they are still waiting for authorities to give them a clear accounting of the events that led to his death.
“We haven’t heard anything from the city, from the cops, anyone. We don’t even know exactly how many times…he [was] shot," said Jacquez.
"We planned to go to school together. And maybe 3 weeks after he died, he got his [tuition] grant in the mail. He got accepted. The classes I’m taking now, I should’ve taken with him.”
Her mother, Chandra Rivera, said the family's suffering has been eased by an outpouring of support from community members.
“For all the families that obviously are going to go through this in the future, you are not alone. Had not De-Bug (a local org), Oscar Grant’s family, and Laurie (Valdez) and her family reached out to us, we would have been left in the dark," said Rivera. "So, if there’s an important message out there besides dealing with the pain and the heartache, (it's that) you are not alone.”
Vickie and Jim Showman, parents of Diana Showman
On Aug. 14, 2014, 19-year-old Diana Showman was fatally shot by San Jose police responding to a 911 call placed by Showman, who told a dispatcher that she had an Uzi and was going to harm her family. When the police arrived, Showman was alone at the house. Surveillance footage depicted Showman approaching officers holding a black cordless drill, prior to being shot.
Showman suffered from a severe bipolar disorder. Her parents have rejected suggestions that her death amounted to “suicide by police,” and have questioned whether the use of force by police officers was necessary.
“I don’t want any other family to go through this again," said Vickie Showman. "It’s too late with us for Diana, but we feel a duty to her and to our community to help in any way that we can to change [the] police mindset.”
“Our family is shattered," added Jim Showman. "and eventually we want her true story to be out there… People on Facebook say all of these negative things, and that wasn’t her, you know. She made a mistake, and she shouldn’t have paid for it with her life.”
Corina Cardenas, daughter of Rudy Cardenas
On Feb. 17, 2004, Rudy Cardenas, a father of five, was fatally shot in the back by a narcotics officer in downtown San Jose, in a case of mistaken identity. The officer was later acquitted by a grand jury.
“[One thing] that is really hard for us, is that there was no closure," said Corina Cardenas. "I feel like in the whole process, [the cops] pretty much…tried to, you know, tried to make my father’s life [out] to be lesser than the officer’s, and that was what the justification was to why the officer was let go. We just want closure and I’m not sure at this point, because the trial’s over, what the next step would be… My main thing is, if an officer really did fear for their life when they weren’t being attacked, then they shouldn’t be in the line of duty anymore.”
Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant III
Twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on Jan. 1, 2009—an incident that has given birth to street protests, innumerable articles, and a feature film. Mehserle, who claimed he didn’t mean to shoot Grant with his gun, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and released after serving 11 months in jail.
“As Oscar Grant’s uncle, I would say that what the world needs to know, is that when the community embraced us, stood with us, loved us, prayed for us, went back and forth to court with us, but most importantly utilized their first amendment rights—because of that embrace, it empowered us as a family to continue to speak on behalf of Oscar," said Johnson. "It is the responsibility of the living to speak on behalf of the dead, and as Cornell West has said, if you want to hear the truth, you must let the suffering speak.”
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellows.
All photos via Symone Jackson
Symone Jackson is a community organizer in San Jose, California who graduated from Santa Clara University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Her involvement in grassroots organizing and work experience as a public health research assistant has provided her with a unique lens for analyzing community health issues. As a local organizer, she primarily works with families who have lost loved ones to police violence, serving as a consultant, conducting legal research, and performing PR and communications duties. As a fellow, she hopes to further develop her writing skills while shedding light on some important community health issues in the South Bay such as housing insecurity and the impact of police violence on children and families.