Watkins Arrest Reminds Alameda of Things Past

Watkins Arrest Reminds Alameda of Things Past

The recent murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have gained global attention and brought the issue of racist policing back to the forefront. The arrest of and use of force against Alameda resident Mali Watkins is not the first time Black people and other people of color have been profiled or by the Alameda Police Department (APD).

Nearly 30 years ago, Alameda police officers were involved in several racist and sexist controversies. In 1991, an audit found that some of these officers exchanged racist messages from the Mobile Digital Terminals “MDT” in their patrol cars. Officers texted statements about donning Blackface, dressing up as Ku Klux Klan members and shooting Black people. This racist “MDT incident” became public just months after the 1991 beating of taxi driver Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department.   

Local civil rights groups protested at City Hall and demanded the names of the officers be released. Civil rights groups also demanded an independent investigation. Then State lawmaker Barbara Lee joined the local demand to fire APD Chief Robert Shiells. The Alameda branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) picketed weekly at APD headquarters. Among the group’s demands were:

1. The removal of Shiells as chief of police 
2. Dismissal of all officers involved in the “MDT” incident. 
3. Support for an independent Investigation of the incident. 
4. Creation of a Citizen’s Police Review Commission
5. A strong multi-cultural training program
6. An examination of the broader problem of institutional racism in Alameda

The City Council condemned the officers’ racist remarks and made an apology to “all Alamedans.” The officers involved received suspensions — from one day to two weeks. The City Council voted to hire outside counsel to investigate police racism. 

Mayor Bill Withrow also appointed a Committee on Ethnic and Cultural Diversity. The committee found: “racial problems do exist in the city and police department,” police needed to be trained and “there must be education and training of both community and police to effectively work on racial concerns.”  It is not precisely clear why, but a number of people of color appointed to the committee resigned before the report was issued. 

Committee documents also show that youth of color were more likely to be arrested and cited by Alameda Police. Black youth represented 31 percent of juvenile arrests, compared to 28 percent white, 20 percent Latino, and 9 percent Filipino. Youth of color were considered a minority within the city. 

Despite the protests, task force, and the replacement of Shiells with Burnham Matthews, issues of racial profiling continued for Black residents. Between 1997 and 2017, according to an city analysis of marijuana-related arrests, Alameda police officers disproportionately arrested African Americans. Over 20 years, African Americans were 32 percent of those arrested for marijuana-related offenses. Although whites were nearly a third of those arrested, Black Alamedans represented just 6 percent of the total population. 

In response to the recent arrest of Watkins for exercising in the streets, protests have hit the streets of Alameda again. Although the Alameda NAACP branch is no longer active, youth and others inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have led multiple actions. Two youth-led efforts, the Alameda. BLM Protests and Youth Activists of Alameda released seven demands last week during a sit-in outside Alameda Police Department (APD) headquarters. Youth demanded:

1. The release the names of officers involved in the arrest of Watkins
2. The placement of the involved officers on administrative leave, pending an independent investigation
3. Defunding of the police, an audit of the police budget with a focus on redirecting the funds towards the social safety net and community-based alternatives to police
4. The quarterly release of use of force and arrests by race
5. An independent oversight body to monitor the police
6. The removal of law enforcement from Alameda schools and reinvestment in education,
7. A requirement for police officers to be unable to turn off their body cameras while working. 

History has not repeated itself, but there are certainly similarities. Some demands from 2020 echo 1991, as people demand an independent investigation, want to reallocate funding from policing or “Defund the Police”, and call for Chief Paul Rolleri to be fired and have an independent police oversight body added to the City Charter. Nearly 30 years later, the same concerns exist, and the same proposed solutions have yet to be implemented.

A number of efforts to promote racial diversity and equity emerged following the MTD incident. Groups like Coalition of Alamedans for Racial Equity (CARE) emerged and pushed for racial equity in the schools. Coalition members went on to start other initiatives, like the Alameda Multi Cultural Community Center and Renewed Hope Housing Advocates. 

Today, many people are waking up to racial injustices others have known personally. Various groups are emerging to deal with systemic racism and anti-Blackness in the City, schools, and other public and private institutions. 

The recent arrest of Watkins is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the police and racism in Alameda. Perhaps our young folks, born after the MDT incident, will lead Alameda towards solutions that will finally eliminate systematic racism in the Alameda Police Department and the City of Alameda.


Rasheed Shabazz is a writer and West Alameda resident. He is currently writing a history of African Americans in Alameda, titled Alameda is our Home.