America's Safest Big City Sours

Charisse Domingo
August 27, 2007

This story originally appeared in De-Bug.

When Stephen Johnson first came out to San Jose for school in April 2005, he didn't imagine himself leading a community movement to hold the San Jose Police Department and the justice system accountable. Nowadays, he runs from meeting to meeting of families who have been victimized by the police, holding grassroots fundraisers, speaking in forums, attending court and finding his way around the judicial process. Johnson is a teacher, videographer, artist, and community organizer. But to the eyes of the police, he is just another Black man caught up in the mix.

Because of his political beliefs, Johnson has become a target of bogus charges and police abuse in San Jose. Of course, police -- or no one in power for that matter -- would ever admit that because it would mean that bias exists in the eyes of the law that's supposed to regulate actions rather than behavior. But Johnson's experienced one too many incidents in the hands of the police -- including torture -- to just pass off as coincidental. With his latest charges of battery on an officer and resisting arrest for an incident that up to now he is confused about what arrest he was resisting and how he assaulted an officer, Johnson could be facing more than two years in jail and $1,000 fine.

What was supposed to be just a bike ride home on May 5, 2007 became another incident with the police in San Jose. Not surprisingly, the police report tells a different story. But according to Johnson, at about 1:30 that day, Johnson was on his way home when he saw a police officer -- whom Johnson would later know as Sergeant Ackeman -- questioning two Black men on Third Street just south of Downtown San Jose. Johnson was sitting on his bike parked across the street when Officer Ackeman made a hand gesture for him to move. When Johnson shook his head, Ackeman then told him, "I have a taser for you if you don't leave."

Already with his handcuffs out to his side, Ackerman then approached Johnson. While Johnson showed Ackeman his bike registration, Stephen says he was then grabbed at by Ackeman. It was then that Johnson started to bike down Williams towards Fourth Street where he lived. Trying to run after him, Ackerman threw his handcuffs at Johnson, got in his squad car and pursued Johnson to his house. When he caught up with Johnson, he then pulled a taser gun on him. Johnson asked what he was being arrested for, and the cop replied "Resisting arrest." When Johnson asked what arrest was he resisting, Ackeman said, "Just get the fuck on the ground."

Backup then came for Ackeman with Officer Urban. While he wasn't sure who said it, either Ackeman or Urban threatened Johnson and said, "One wrong move and you'll be tased." Johnson yelled for his roommates, neighbors, and people in the neighborhood to come watch what was going on outside. The officers countered by saying anyone looking outside their windows would then be arrested. When Johnson's housemate stepped outside, she was threatened with jail and her son taken to a shelter if she refused to answer questions pertaining to Johnson.

Refusing to be silenced by threats of police, Johnson continued to assert that this was an illegal arrest. Officer Urban, who was walking Johnson to the paddy wagon, then told him to shut the fuck up and punched him in the face. The officers then drove Johnson to an overpass near Fifth street where he witnessed them getting their stories straight. When Ackeman approached Stephen, Stephen told him he'd be filing a complaint on him. Ackeman then smugly replied, "I have had 30 complaints filed against me. You'll just be the 31st".

That a police officer would say that so boldly -- to a known community leader, right after he was beaten by a fellow police officer -- speaks to a mixed self-perception of half invincibility and half insecurity. Nowadays, the world order of the San Jose Police is being shaken by a myriad of voices in the community -- from family members of victims who have been brutalized by the police, to community and neighborhood organizations, to independent juries, and even its own I ndependent Police Auditor who is asking for more accountability. "It's not about me, "he says. Stephen just happened to be the threat to their system staring at them in the face.

This wasn't even the first time that this has happened to Johnson. "I have had a gun pulled on me by a Santa Clara County Sheriff, been cited for riding my bike on the sidewalk twice, beat up and then charged with beating up an officer and taken to the booking station for being under the influence while riding my bike," he says. Most recently, on July 27, 2007, Johnson and a friend were stopped for not signaling 100 feet before a turn by the same two police officers he was monitoring just ten minutes prior, when those officers stopped four young people at Welch Park in Eastside San Jose. Even though Johnson was a passenger in the car, he was asked to show identification and asked if he was on probation or parole.

The police officer also instructed Johnson not to call people into "his car stop" in case Johnson was to "invite armed people" and claims that Johnson grabbed his arm, which eyewitnesses say never happened. The officer also made claims that because Johnson and his friend documented the prior event with the youth, they "shamed the juveniles" and "made them cry", when the youth actually thanked Johnson and his friend for "looking out".

But one date in particular sticks out in Johnson's consciousness. On March 10, 2006, Stephen met Police Officer Lira at what used to be the old Tower Records store at the Oakridge Mall. He had a conversation with Lira about the role of police in society. Nothing heated, he felt, but "it obviously left a bad taste in his mouth." Three hours later, Johnson and two friends left the store when he was stopped by the same Officer Lira for his friend's license plate. Even though Johnson was seated in the backseat, he was asked for his identification. He asked why, and after not receiving an answer, he was ordered out of the car.

"I asserted my rights to not exit the car or give ID without probable cause," he said. But what followed after that was a brutal attack on Johnson. He was tased in the neck and dragged from the backseat. He hit the ground and said he wasn't resisting arrest, to which he was then tased three more times by other officers who arrived on scene. Later in the holding station, Stephen says he was tortured even more. He says, " That night I endured some of the worst pain in my life."

After that incident, he helped start "Hood Patrol" or "Policing the Pigs." His third eye is his video camera, always out patrolling his neighborhood filming police activity to make sure his community was protected. He follows in the tradition of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s whose cornerstone work centered on patrolling the police and making sure Black people knew their rights when facing arrest. "Police are the most visible in the community of what oppression looks like. They're there to protect and serve the society that values property over people, not us."

Johnson goes around downtown San Jose about three to four times a week filming any police harassment that takes place in the streets. Unfortunately, they're not hard to find -- especially on the weekends. He has hours and hours of footage of San Jose police encounters with civilians. He has gotten to know their tactics of shielding film by shining their lights directly at the camera or just physically blocking its view. He knows many of them by last name, and they know his face.

Sitting with him in the car one early morning before the crack of dawn, Johnson is who you'd imagine Mumia Abu-Jamal must have been like when he was 22 -- tall, intelligent, full of energy and ideas, and has this infinite love to bring people together. He is fearless and resilient in his fight. For Johnson, vigilance is an approach to life, not an activity. " It is a long fight, but I am prepared to win justice for not just myself, but for all. "

Update: A recent Metro article on taser use in San Jose.