Civil rights lawyers and activists from the National Action Network gathered downtown on Wednesday (December 21) to blast new city-council president Myrtle Cole for her appointments to the council's Public Safety and Livable Communities Committee.
After teaming with council Republicans to defeat David Alvarez's bid for the presidency, Cole assigned three of them, including committee head Chris Cate, Lorie Zapf, and Barbara Bry to the committee along with Chris Ward.
The critics said the lack of diversity in the membership, along with the fact that the members represent affluent areas mostly north of Interstate 8, mean that issues including those raised by a recent report on racial profiling in traffic stops are unlikely to receive proper attention.
"I thought at one time that Myrtle Cole really cared about her community, but from what it appears to be right now, she doesn't," said Cornelius Bowser, whose work includes community outreach and gang suppression efforts.
"Instead of acknowledging that racial profiling exists," Bowser continued, "they'll just say, 'Well, everyone has biases.' But research demonstrates that although everyone has bias it's overwhelmingly focused against black people, who are seen as criminals and as dangerous."
Local National Action Network president Shane Harris characterized Cole's appointments as an instance of "paying back her Republican friends who voted her in as council president."
"Cole says she'll serve as an advisor, but why didn't she put herself on that committee? Why didn't she put David Alvarez or Georgette Gomez on that committee?" Harris also said that Cate "has spoken very clearly about his bias for police," and that "we know Lorie Zapf is racially biased; that's another conversation, but that's why she hired a black guy in her office."
Of Cole, Harris promised to "give her hell for the next two years" and to find an opponent to run against her in a reelection bid.
Also revealed at the press conference were allegations of widespread police surveillance surrounding the case of Robert Branch, who was choked into unconsciousness by an off-duty sheriff's deputy in 2015, yet found himself facing felony charges including assault on an officer.
According to Branch's lawyers Marc Kohnen and Dan Gilleon, law enforcement has quietly been attending rallies and community meetings in support of Branch, recording and photographing attendees.
"Anytime the government makes an effort to chill or suppress free speech it's a horrifying thing for democracy," said Kohnen. "This is like Cointelpro of the '60s being used to attack civil rights. We're not a terrorist organization. This is surveillance of normal citizens. It feels like gestapo tactics to me.
"This is why we need civilian oversight — this is government run amok. I want our oversight committee to take action, and I ask them what they're going to do about this."
Added Gilleon: "This is how worried they are that we're going to expose what they're doing: they're literally going into churches where civil rights leaders are talking about issues and recording and monitoring everything that's being said. Maybe they have a right to do that, but it certainly doesn't suggest that they're really looking for the truth; it seems they're trying to target people who might be exposing them."
The lawyers say they learned about the surveillance during the discovery period before Branch's trial, which is set to begin in 33 days.