Lessons from a Killing

Changing news coverage of police
brutality in San Francisco

By Van Jones

Get in touch with your local chapter or start one: (888)No-Brutality

From “Extra!” May/June 1998 Vol. 11, No. 3 The Magazine of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) www.fair.org

In the fall of 1996, the San Francisco Police Review Commission held hearings on the death of Aaron Williams, an African-American man suspected of a $50 pet-store burglary who died in police custody. According to witnesses and police sources, a team of police led by Officer Marc Andaya repeatedly kicked Williams in the head and emptied three canisters of pepper spray into his face. Despite the fact that Williams was having difficulty breathing, the police finally hog-tied, gagged and left him unattended in the back of a police van, where he died.

My organization, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and our project, Bay Area PoliceWatch, organized around this case for two years. This is our experience changing news coverage around the case and how it affected our organizing campaign for justice for Aaron Williams.

In its first set of hearings, the police commission ruled that no “excessive force” was used, that the cops’ role in beating Aaron Williams was fine. The police commission was able to get away with such a ruling because of the abysmal media coverage leading up to the initial hearings on the case.

The few news reports were ridiculously biased. The coverage made it look like Aaron Williams hadn’t been beaten to death, but died because of a strange new malady, “sudden in-custody death syndrome.” That’s how the San Francisco Chronicle (4/8/96), the Bay Area’s leading daily newspaper, described a new phenomenon in which victims of police beatings inexplicably die, but it’s somehow not a result of those beatings.

As often happens in coverage of police brutality, news reports during the hearings focused on the back ground and alleged misdeeds of the victim. In Williams’ case, coverage focused on his alleged drug problem and referred to him as a parolee. There was virtually no mention of Andaya’s record, which included 37 prior complaints of police brutality, five lawsuits alleging racism and abuse, and one other death of an unarmed man of color.

Examining the Message

After we lost the initial hearings, we brought in We Interrupt This Message, a media activist organization that specializes in working with groups that face media stereotypes and biased coverage. They asked us to tell them what our initial media message and organizing goal had been.

Our initial media message had been “the San Francisco police department is out of control.” Not even the progressive press wanted to cover the story with that message.

The problem was that people had to be completely critical of the San Francisco police department in order to agree with us that police officers shouldn’t have beaten an unarmed man to death. People in the neighborhoods with experience with police brutality might agree with that message, but what about people from communities which rarely suffer from police brutality?

What we were really asking people to agree with us about was not particularly radical at all. Most people would agree that cops shouldn’t beat unarmed people to death. So we focused on that.

And we had defined our goal as justice for Aaron Williams and his family. As a media message, that was too vague. When Kim Deterline from Interrupt asked us what “justice for Aaron” would look like, what we really wanted the police commission to do, we said, “Fire Marc Andaya.” She said, “Say that.”

Like most grassroots groups, we knew exactly what our organizing goal was–we just didn’t think we could say it to the media. We were thinking of media as separate from, rather than in support of, our organizing effort.

Strategic Challenges

The next step was to look at the strategic media challenges ahead. Given the biased media coverage so far, the Ella Baker Center faced three challenges in achieving good coverage for the second round of hearings on the case. We had to rehumanize Aaron Williams, shift the focus from Williams to Andaya and establish institutional accountability for what had happened.

We had to rehumanize Williams because he had been demonized in the press. We had to rehumanize Aaron so people who had heard about the case through the media could see him as something besides some crackhead parolee who happened to die, and the loss to Aaron’s family was felt by the community as a whole.

Next, we had to shift the frame and the focus of the story from the background and history of Aaron Williams, the victim, to the past misdeeds of Marc Andaya, the perpetrator. Shifting the focus of coverage to Andaya’s background and record–which is where it should have been in the first place–was key to changing public opinion on the case.

Finally, we also had to establish institutional accountability for the police brutality that was happening in our communities. We had to put a name and a face to who was responsible for what happened in that neighborhood. And we needed to turn the tables and hold the police commission accountable for letting cops get away with murder.

Sharpening the Target

We had to find a way to talk about Marc Andaya that let people know he was a racist cop and a bad apple from the beginning. So we called him a name that was becoming synonymous with racist cops: We said, “Marc Andaya is the Bay Area’s Mark Fuhrman.”

Since the police commission had the power to fire Andaya and they were appointed by the mayor, we came up with a much sharper target: Mayor Willie Brown’s police commission. We started putting it in terms of “Willie Brown’s police commission protecting the Bay Area’s Mark Fuhrman.” “If Willie Brown’s police commission doesn’t fire Marc Andaya, Aaron Williams’ blood is on Willie Brown’s hands.”

Our media strategy became integrated with our organizing campaign. Our primary tactic was to stop business-as-usual at the police commission, bringing 100 to 200 people to every police commission meeting and having the media there to broadcast it all. This constantly ratcheted up the pressure on the police commission, and on Mayor Brown to do something about the commission.

Brown, who had been in the background, was suddenly in the hot seat. Andaya, who had been presented as this nice police officer who had unfortunately had somebody die on him with some strange malady, became what he was, which was a menace and a terror to the African-American community. And Aaron Williams, who before had been some black crackhead who happened to die, became a valued member of a community and part of a family that was devastated by his loss.

Victory for the Community

In a four-week period, we got close to two hours of television coverage. The story went from being buried to the front page. And it made the front page repeatedly for several weeks. We also shifted the coverage dramatically. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner editorialized against the police commission for refusing to fire Marc Andaya. The coverage’s focus went from Aaron Williams’ background to Marc Andaya’s record to the institutional factors which allow police brutality to happen–proving that you can use an individual story to talk about institutional issues.

But more importantly for our communities, we collapsed the police commission. By the time the campaign was over, all three of the commissioners who had initially sided with Andaya had been removed or had quit because of the tidal wave of media and community attention. And as a result of unprecedented community pressure, Marc Andaya was fired.

On the day that Marc Andaya was finally kicked out of the police department, the major stations interviewed Williams’ aunt. Her voice broke when she said, “Now I can go to my nephew’s grave and tell him we got some justice for him.” For Aaron Williams and the thousands of police brutality victims across the country, reframing media coverage is a prerequisite to any kind of justice.

Van Jones is director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in California. He recently won the Reebok Human Rights Award for his efforts on behalf of police brutality victims, including Aaron Williams.

Get in touch with your local chapter or start one: (888)No-Brutality

Also see: The Anti-Fascist Info Bulletin which documents police abuse, abuse of prisoners, and other official abuses of power in North America and Europe. The political rhetoric may be off-putting at times, but as the experience in San Francisco has shown, the practice of using police violence to punish and intimidate lawful political dissent is alive and well in the “free” world.

Who knows, had American citizens taken the reports issued by “communist” and “socialist” newspapers in Europe during the 1930s seriously, the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy might not have been so smooth.

Early reporters of the fascist movement in pre-war Europe: