When the Jan. 1, 2009, video footage of unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant being shot and killed in Oakland by BART police was made public, the world was not only outraged but stunned. The footage, downloaded over 500,000 times in the first few weeks after Grant's death, spurred protests and rebellion in the East Bay community where he had worked and lived with his fiancée and four-year-old daughter.
On the evening of Grant's funeral, grief and shock quickly turned to anger during a protest rally that lasted two days. This death, many say, was a crucial tipping point in the struggle against police brutality. Hundreds poured into the streets to express their rage. Journalist JR Varley and artist Holly Works were among those arrested and dubbed the Oakland 100. Both were charged with felonies. For Valrey, it was an arson charge that has since been dismissed. For Works, it was felony assault, based on a screwdriver falling out of her backpack. Works' trial has been rescheduled for April 5.
These two cases have been drawn out for well over a year and are extremely costly for the defendants. In addition, Valrey alleges that his camera equipment was confiscated and has yet to be returned, despite dismissed charges and a court order in place for the return of his property, which he depends on for his career as a journalist. "I have been to the police station six times since my last court date," Valrey says. "They are still not handing it over."
Activists say that the charges against the Oakland 100 are tools of intimidation and that Valrey and Works are being used as scapegoats to deflect community attention from the bigger problem of police brutality. Local activist Ben Saari, who has organized a fundraising event to help Valrey and Works with legal fees, says that the two are being used as examples of "bad" activists.
"Holly is an anti-racist, anti-authoritarian artist from the suburbs [Healdsburg] who moved away and started doing important work," Saari says. "If every kid in the suburbs stepped up and spoke out the way Holly does, the people in power would really have something to be scared of."
To that end, a fundraising event is planned for Thursday, March 18, at the North Bay Film Art Collective. Both Valrey and Works will speak on their cases and two short documentaries will be shown to raise awareness and funds. 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa. 7pm. $5&–$500, sliding scale.