2020: A Difficult Year in Review

2020: A Difficult Year in Review

The year 2020 will be remembered as one of the most challenging in Alameda and world history. Events that gripped the nation also had a lasting impact on the Island City as well. From the COVID-19 pandemic to protests of systemic racism, 2020 will be remembered as a unique year.

Here’s a look back at 2020 through the pages of the Alameda Sun.

Alameda began the year by honoring local icon Jim Sweeney at his 90th birthday celebration at First Congregational Church on Jan. 5. He and his wife Jean enabled the City of Alameda to obtain the 40-acre Beltline Railroad property at its original 1925 purchase price, a small fraction of its current value. The city rezoned the property to open space and built a park named after Jean, who died in 2011.

More than 100 Alamedans participated locally in a nationwide Women’s March on Jan. 18 to send a “resounding message that we reject President Donald Trump,” according to protest organizer Felicia Roche, an Alameda resident. The nationwide march followed in the pattern of the Women’s March held in 2017. The women gathered in the Safeway parking lot on Bay Farm Island, marched down Island Drive, continued across the Bay Farm Island Bridge and ended at South Shore Center.

Former U.S. Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark Jr. died on Jan. 24. Stark served in the House of Representatives for 40 years, from 1973 to 2013. During his last 20 years in Congress, Stark represented California’s 13th Congressional District, which included Alameda. Redistricting, which began in 2011, redrew Stark’s District as the 15th District. Stark entered Congress in 1973. He was an advocate for healthcare for all citizens. Among his many feats, he helped pen President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The first homicide of the year occurred on Jan. 31 when Justin John Benton drove off the roadway at the intersection of Ralph Appezzato Memorial Parkway and Coral Sea Street and struck a woman. First responders arrived at the scene to attempt life-saving procedures, but the injuries sustained proved fatal. Benton was arrested at the scene by Alameda Police Department (APD) officers and booked into Santa Rita County Jail in Dublin, where he remains today, on gross vehicular manslaughter charges. He was also charged with possession of narcotics, driving while under the influence of narcotics, reckless driving and more.

Lincoln Elementary fifth grader Callista Frederick won the 2020 Alameda Spelling Bee on Feb. 1 at Otis Elementary School. Roughly 45 students from more than a dozen schools participated in the competition, which included a written test followed by an oral spelling competition.

The city experienced its second collision-caused death on Feb. 11 at the intersection of at Encinal Avenue and Walnut Street. Alameda Fire Department (AFD) firefighters and paramedics and APD officials discovered that an automobile had struck a 60-year-old pedestrian. Paramedics transported the victim to the hospital, where she later succumbed to her injuries. The incident caused Alamedans to hold a town hall to discuss how to improve pedestrian-vehicle traffic.

At its Feb. 18 meeting, the City Council approved a plan that would convert the northwest section of Alameda Point into a regional shoreline park. The future park will be operated by the East Bay Regional Park District.

The St. Joseph Notre Dame (SJND) women’s basketball team were crowned the inaugural North Coast Section (NCS) Open Division champions after defeating Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa, 67-58, on Feb. 28. Then sophomore Randi Harding came off the Pilots’ bench to lead all scorers with 18 points.

On March 1, a large group of Alameda residents and city officials celebrated the opening of the Cross Alameda Trail between Main Street and Constitution Way. The new addition to the trail connects Jean Sweeney Park with Atlantic Avenue and Ralph Appezzato Memorial Parkway.

Alameda voters passed Measure A, which was backed by the Alameda Unified School District, in the March 3 election. Measure A approved a special parcel tax on property owners with the new revenue going toward hiring new teachers and increasing the salary of currents teachers and educational employees.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to make its way through the United States, Alameda got its first scare when it was announced that an AFD firefighter tested positive for the virus on March 10. The City of Alameda announced that eight additional Alameda firefighters were placed under quarantine on March 13 due to contract tracing while they awaited their COVID-19 test results.

By mid-March city, county and state officials began to make life-altering decisions based on the COVID-19 pandemic. The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) announced it cancelled all winter sport state championship games on March 12. The CIF would later cancel the entire 2019-2020 spring sports season.

On March 17, six of the nine Bay Area counties declared a Public Health Order that required residents to stay home for three weeks, except for “essential needs” or people who have “essential business” occupations. The order shut down schools, entertainment venues and limited the number of patrons at grocery stores. The order was scheduled to end on April 7, but the order was extended to May 3 on March 31.

Several dozen registered nurses and employees for the Alameda Health System (AHS) and Bay Area human rights activists held a “lightning” rally April 7, at Alameda Hospital to voice their concerns with the lack of adequate personal protective equipment and weakened patient care standards for health care workers and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county public health officer, Dr. Erica Pan, ordered people to wear face coverings in public, including when inside, or waiting in line to enter essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies and at medical appointments starting April 22.
On April 27, Governor Gavin Newsom extended the stay-at-home order for a second time to June 1. He said that the order would remain in effect until his office decides to lift it.

The City Council approved the “Alameda Strong” community relief fund at its May 19 meeting. The fund, financed solely by community donations, will provide grants to small businesses, nonprofits and renters financially affected by the shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus.

Graduation ceremonies for the altered 2019-2020 high school year began in late May. Alameda, Encinal, St. Joseph Notre Dame, Alameda Community Learning Center and Island high school students all held unique graduation ceremonies unlike any year before.

Alameda resident Mali Watkins was arrested after an incident with APD officers on May 23. Officers approached Watkins across the street from his home on the 2000 block of Central Avenue. An anonymous resident called APD’s non-emergency line alerting them that a man was dancing on the street and he might be “mentally ill.” Watkins told the officers he was exercising on the street. When Watkins tried to walk away the officers physically detained him. The incident quickly escalated and Watkins, while handcuffed, was forcefully taken to the pavement. The officers and the department were met with strong ridicule from residents after the body-camera footage was released. The incident took place two days before the killing George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25.

Alameda residents held a rally outside APD headquarters on June 1 demanding justice for George Floyd’s killing and people of color across the country who disproportionately suffer at the hands of law enforcement.

The killing caused protests and vandalism to businesses throughout the country including in Alameda. There were 15 reports of burglaries or petty thefts at commercial businesses on May 31 and June 1, resulting in four arrests, according to APD police reports. As a result, the city enacted an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew starting June 1. It remained in effect until June 5. Several Alameda businesses boarded up their windows to prevent looting on June 1.

After the Mali Watkins arrest was made public, city staff recommended two initiatives to curb use of force by APD officers. The city approved former President Obama’s Mayor’s Pledge to review police use of force policies; engage the community for input and more. They also discussed the “8 Can’t Wait” initiative that seeks the banning of chokeholds and strangleholds; requires de-escalation; requires verbal warnings before shooting firearms and more.

City Manager Eric Levitt announced on June 6 that the city would release the body-camera footage of the Mali Watkins arrest. He also announced the city hired a private law firm to conduct an independent investigation of Watkins’ arrest.

The City Council voted 4-1 at its June 2 meeting to instruct city staff to create ballot language for a measure that would be placed on the November ballot that would eliminate Article 26, which restricts the development of multifamily housing in Alameda.

The Alameda Recreation and Parks Commission voted 5-0 on July 9 to rename Jackson Park. The park, located on Park Avenue between San Jose and Encinal avenues, was named in 1909 for President Andrew Jackson. The commission decided to change the name, at the public’s behest, because Jackson was a racist slave holder who forced the relocation of thousands of Native Americans for white settlers in the southeast United States (Google “Indian Removal Act” to read more).

Wenyong Huang was arrested for murder for allegedly shooting a man suspected of shoplifting while working his shift as a store clerk at the Circle K gas station at 1716 Webster St. on July 11. Huang shot Ethan Escorcio, 24 after Escorcio tried to steal a pack of cigarettes. Huang called 911 and Alameda Police Department (APD) officers and emergency medical personnel arrived shortly thereafter. Escorcio was transported to a nearby hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

The Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced her office would not pursue criminal charges against Alameda resident Mali Watkins on July 10. O’Malley stated in a letter sent to APD Chief Paul Rolleri, that the responding officers “did not have sufficient probable cause to detain him, making the citation null and void.” Watkins was cited on May 23 for resisting officers while dancing on the street.

APD Chief Paul Rolleri announced his retirement from the department on July 22. Rolleri had been with APD since 1992 and was named police chief on June 1, 2013.
The “free” COVID-19 testing site in Alameda closed on July 31 after reports of confusion and setbacks. The testing site originally opened on July 22, but the site temporarily closed on July 23 after CityHealth, the testing site’s operator, said it administered more tests than expected and disputes about patrons’ health insurance.

A group of young men turned downtown Alameda into a warzone when they engaged in a shootout on Aug. 7 outside the Airloom Deluxe apparel store at 2322 Santa Clara Ave. A surveillance camera from a barbershop next door captured the incident. Two people were struck in the incident but received only non-life-threatening injuries. A stray bullet struck a vehicle driven by a mother who was riding with her two-year-old child in the backseat. Both occupants were not injured.

About 50,000 gallons of raw sewage leaked into Oakland-Alameda Estuary on Aug. 15 due to equipment failure at the EBMUD’s main wastewater treatment plant in West Oakland. The incident was caused by a power outage the day prior. EDMUD posted about 20 signs along the estuary on Aug. 15 warning people not to swim, boat or make any bodily contact with the water due to the high bacteria levels caused by the sewage. The advisory was lifted on Aug. 18.

Alameda Fire Department (AFD) personnel responded to the wildfires that ravaged Northern California on Aug. 17 and left Alameda under red skies. The department sent 10 firefighters and three fire engine vehicles to combat fires in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Napa, Solano and Lake counties. The fires were caused by lightning strikes from Tropical Storm Fausto, which took place more than 1,000 miles away, on Aug. 16 and 17.

At its Sept. 8 meeting, the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) Board of Trustees voted unanimously to use Edmentum as its new 2020-2021 Remote Learning Program curriculum provider. The Board also voted to discontinue using Acellus, the district’s curriculum provider at the beginning of the school year, after hearing it was pulled from schools in Hawaii due to inappropriate learning curriculum that promoted racist, sexist and homophobic biases.

The City of Alameda named Randy Fenn interim APD police chief on Sept. 29. He started his new role on Oct. 5. Fenn took over for Rolleri who announced his retirement as Alameda’s chief of police in July.

Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, along with the Alameda Police Department (APD), addressed the city’s unprecedented number of shootings in a press release on Oct. 28. Ashcraft displayed sadness that “many people have turned to firearms to settle their grievances, including domestic disputes and illicit business dealings.” APD announced new procedures to cut down on shootings and make arrests. There were 14 shooting incidents between June 1 and Oct. 28 this year.

Alamedans celebrated Halloween in an untraditional way due to the COVID-19 protocols. Alameda County interim Public Health Officer recommended that would-be candy gatherers not go trick-or-treating this year. Instead, Alamedans took part in socially distanced costume parades for kids on Halloween morning and other approved activities.

Alamedans went to the polls, and the mailboxes, to cast their ballots in the Nov. 3 election. In the final tally, Councilmember Malia Vella was voted back into the Council with 22.63 percent of the vote. Former Mayor Trish Spencer was voted into the Council with 20.13 percent of the vote. She took the seat of former Councilmember Jim Oddie who received 18.59 percent of the vote. The highly contested Measure Z failed to pass with 59.94 percent of voters choosing against the measure that would have eliminated restrictions against multifamily development in the city. Jennifer Williams, Heather Little and Megan Sweet were approved for the Alameda Unified School District School Board.

The city’s third homicide of the year happened on Nov. 8 in the area of Park Street and Shore Line Drive near the Coral Reef Inn. APD responded to a call of shots fired in the area. Upon arrival, officers located an adult male victim suffering from life-threatening gunshot wounds. APD officers immediately rendered medical aid until AFD arrived. The victim was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

At its Nov. 23 meeting, the Planning Board voted unanimously to approve a tentative plan that would allow Alameda Municipal Power (AMP) to build a solar plant at the intersection of Doolittle Drive and Harbor Bay Parkway. AMP will use 11 acres of the 33.2-acre site, known as Mount Trashmore, for its 2.0-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility. The site was home to the Doolittle Landfill from 1953 to 1985.

Another EBMUD equipment failure caused 97,000 gallons of raw sewage to spill into a lagoon near Robert Davey Jr. Drive on Bay Farm Island on Dec. 16. After 10 days of water sampling for enterococcus bacteria, EBMUD declared the water in the lagoon safe on Dec. 26.

Despite the ongoing shelter-in-place protocols, Christmas Tree Lane, also known as Thompson Avenue, lit up for Christmas and Hanukkah holidays. Along the block between High Street and Fernside Boulevard, homeowners decorated their houses with lights, candy canes, snowflakes, Santa Clauses and more.

The city enacted an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew starting June 1 until June 5 as a result of vandalism and protest due to the George Floyd killing.
In late July, workers removed a city park sign whose namesake is now associated with hate and violence. The park in the center of Park Avenue is currently undergoing a renaming process.
Among the many flash-points during the 2020 election season was Donald Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court. Women marched in Alameda to protest that decision and to promote the election of the Democratic ticket across the board just prior to Election Day.