By ERWIN FREED
Newly released body camera footage shows Alameda, Calif., police officers murdering 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez on April 19, only one day before the conclusion of Derek Chauvin’s trial for killing George Floyd. While dozens of people have been killed by cops between the beginning and end of Chauvin’s “day in court,” Gonzalez’s death is especially notable because of the method that was used.
Following two 911 calls reporting that a man was “loitering around” and “talking to himself” in a neighborhood park, cops started harassing Gonzalez and put him under arrest. The act of putting handcuffs on him ended up with their placing Gonzalez in a prone position, with one officer putting weight on his back and another holding him down by the arm.
In an attempt to cover up their murderous act, police claimed that there had been a “scuffle” and “physical altercation” as they attempted to restrain him, followed by a “medical emergency.”
After protests by Gonzalez’s family and attorneys, the police department released body-cam video to the public. The footage shows that the officers have him held down and handcuffed for close to five minutes, while Gonzalez gasps for breath, before one of them asks, “think we could roll him on his side?” The officer pinning him down rejects that, saying, “I don’t want to lose what I got, man.” Less than 30 seconds later, Mario is dead.
In a press conference on April 27, members of Gonzalez’s family, who had privately viewed the footage, said Gonzalez was “compliant and they continued to pin him down.”
“Alameda police officers murdered my brother Mario,” Gonzalez’s brother Gerardo said, noting that his brother was in the park “not bothering anyone” and that “at no point was he violent.” He added, “Everything we saw in that video was unnecessary. APD took a calm situation and made it fatal. … Police killed my brother in the same manner that they killed George Floyd.”
One week before the incident in Alameda, Seth Stoughton, a cop turned use-of-force expert and professor, testified at Derek Chauvin’s trial. Stoughton reiterated points he had made as a co-author of an opinion piece titled “George Floyd’s death shows exactly what police should not do” published in the Washington Post last May. Both that article and his testimony emphasized that “the ‘prone’ position … face down with his hands behind his back—is intended to be a temporary position to put someone in handcuffs and possibly search for weapons. Being in that position puts weight on the subject’s chest and abdomen, which makes it harder to breathe. For more than 20 years, police have known that “positional” or “compression” asphyxia can occur when someone cannot draw sufficient breath, even if they can breathe enough to gasp or speak. Time in the prone position needs to be kept to a minimum because of the risk of positional asphyxia—which is elevated when the subject is obese, frail or being held down by officers, or has had their breathing compromised by, for example, alcohol, drugs or exposure to pepper spray.”
According to pulmonologist and breath mechanics expert Dr. Martin Tobin, in trial testimony given on April 8, “simply being in the prone position reduces lung capacity. … On top of that … the weight on [Floyd’s] back alone made it three times harder than normal to breathe.” While Gonzalez was generally cooperative, giving the officers information and “thanking” them for their promises that he would be okay, the police video showed him struggling repeatedly against the force on his back. Floyd also attempted to relieve the pressure on himself, which Tobin analyzed as a sign that he was suffocating.
While the entire world was learning about the deadly consequences of prone positioning, Alameda police used it to restrain a man whose only crime was standing alone outside. Those officers must face consequences, but the struggle against police brutality cannot stop and end with individual cops. The whole racist institution of capitalist policing must be abolished and replaced with community and worker organizations that can carry out conflict resolution in ways that do not depend on perpetuating social harm. In order to really create the conditions for such a change, workers have an obligation to take control of production away from the capitalists who depend on police violence to maintain their profits.
Photo: Screenshot of Gonzalez from police body cam. Two officers hold him on both sides before pinning him to the ground. (NPR)