Column: Undercurrents: Two More Innocent Bystanders Die in High Speed Chase

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 02, 2006

We didn’t do anything about it when it happened the first time and so, perhaps, that is why it has happened again . . . a high-speed police chase, supposedly from an East Oakland “sideshow,” ending in the death of innocent bystanders. Saturday night, it happened on 90th and MacArthur Boulevard. 

As always when the East Oakland “sideshows” are involved, it’s important—if you wish to get to the truth—to save the articles and official statements, read the fine print carefully, and check current “facts” against the “facts” as previously presented. Official “facts” given out about Oakland’s sideshows are like houses built on the Hayward fault—the ground tends to move under them and if you don’t pay attention, some of it ends up disappearing altogether or changing so much you can hardly recognize it. 

Reporting on the first court appearance of 33-year-old Oakland resident Amiri Bolten, Oakland Tribune staff members Harry Harris and Kristin Bender write in Thursday’s paper that “Bolten’s 1988 Chev- rolet van . . . first attracted the attention of police near the intersection of 73rd and Ney avenues about 9:20 p.m. Saturday because it was blaring loud music. Officers stopped the van and while walking up to it smelled marijuana inside, said Traffic Officer Jeff Thomason.” 

Thomason, it should be noted, was not one of the officers involved in the incident; he’s just the one who talked with the reporters. The Tribune account goes on to say that after the officers walked up to the van “without warning, the van sped off and officers pursued it, radioing to other officers and supervisors that they were in a chase.” According to the Tribune account, Bolten sped up 73rd Avenue to MacArthur with the police following some blocks behind, turned right, and then roared through a red light at 90th and MacArthur, hitting a Nissan Sentra driven by 25-year-old Jessica Castaneda-Rodriguez of Oakland. Castaneda-Rodriguez was killed in the crash, along with a passenger, 21-year-old Salvador Nieves Jr., also of Oakland. A second passenger, a 24-year-old San Leandro woman, was hospitalized in critical condition. 

The Thursday Tribune report said that Bolten was captured trying to run away from the accident scene, and that officers “found marijuana in the van.” The paper reported that Bolten has been charged by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office with “vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, one count of evading police causing injury or death, hit and run, and a parole violation.” 

But not DUI or possession of marijuana? Even though that was the underlying offense which was supposed to have triggered the pursuit in the first place? An interesting omission, but perhaps that was an oversight, either by the DA’s office, or by the reporters, to be corrected as we go on. 

In any event, the Harris-Bender Thursday morning Tribune account of the chase and accident were slightly different from those printed in the Tribune on the previous Monday, this one attributed to Tribune “staff reports.” 

In the Monday story, the Tribune said that “Strategic Area Command officers were in the vicinity of 73rd and Ney avenues about 9:20 p.m. Saturday when they saw a full-size 1988 Chevrolet van involved in “sideshow activities, which can include reckless driving, people hanging out of car doors and doing donuts in the street.” 

This is an interesting way to characterize the initial circumstances, don’t you think? The Tribune “staff reporters” don’t actually say that the Chevrolet van was doing “reckless driving [with] people hanging out of car doors and doing ‘donuts’ in the street.” In fact, it doesn’t even say that such activity was going on in the vicinity at the time the police stopped the Chevrolet van. Why, then, one wonders, did the Tribune include the reckless driving, etc., in the original story? Was it actually going on at the time at 73rd and Ney, or did they just add it, for “color”? Perhaps the good folks at the Tribune will someday explain. 

Three other items are notable in the original Tribune story. The article says that “police said Bolten appeared under the influence of alcohol while driving,” but does not mention any marijuana. It also says that “the names of the officers chasing Bolten were not released,” although it doesn’t say why this should be. 

Why is the marijuana important to this story, both its absence in the original Tribune account, and its addition later? 

Without the “smell of marijuana” from Bolten’s van, what we are left with is Strategic Area Command officers riding through what the Oakland Police Department officially calls the “sideshow zone,” stopping a car because of “blaring loud music,” and then chasing it after the driver ran away. If this was the case, then two innocent young people are dead and another is in critical condition in the hospital because the City of Oakland has decided that “blaring loud music” is a serious offense. At least, it is in the sideshow zones of East Oakland. 

(A “sideshow zone,” by the way, is not the official police description of the location where a sideshow is actually taking place. It is the Oakland police designation of geographic areas—all in East Oakland—where they enforce traffic laws in a stepped-up way. No sideshow has to be occurring—or ever has to have occurred in that location—for this stepped-up enforcement to take place.) 

The Castaneda-Rodriguez/Nieve tragedy is agonizingly similar to the death of 22-year-old U’Kendra Johnson, who was killed on Seminary Avenue in the early morning hours in February 2002 by driver Eric Crawford, who was also being chased by Oakland police. 

Back in 2002, police said they’d seen Crawford spinning donuts on Foothill Boulevard just before they started chasing him, and most newspaper and television accounts at the time blamed Johnson’s death on the sideshows. Before Johnson’s death, there had not been any deaths at or near a sideshow, and very little reported violence, even though murders were rampant on the streets of Oakland. The Johnson death ushered in the hysteria over sideshows, and became an instant political platform with State Senator Don Perata naming an anti-sideshow bill after Johnson, and gruesome, in-color accident-scene photos of the car Johnson died in appearing on the cover of promotional pieces for two candidates running for Oakland City Council to advertize those candidates’ positions of cracking down on the sideshows. 

The facts that witnesses denied that a sideshow was taking place at the time that police began chasing Crawford, or that the accident had more to do with a police chase and Crawford’s drinking and driving, were lost in all the general uproar. 

U’Kendra Johnson’s mother eventually filed a wrongful death action against the City of Oakland, the Oakland Police Department, and the two officers involved in the high-speed chase of Crawford, but she later quietly dropped it, without comment. And Oakland police said that while the officers did chase Crawford, they never got close enough to have any effect on the accident. (That’s the same position currently being taken in the Castenda-Rodriguez/Nieves accident.) 

U’Kendra Johnson’s death—and the official attribute of it to the sideshows—opened the political floodgates against the sideshows, leading to Oakland City Council passing Mayor Jerry Brown’s “arrest the sideshow spectators” law, and the setting up of the so-called “sideshow zones” in East Oakland, where Oakland Police officials openly admit that they enforce traffic laws different than in the rest of the city. Under this policy, police crack down on minor traffic violations in East Oakland, not because the drivers are involved in sideshows, but on the theory that doing so will prevent sideshows from occurring. In any other city, that would be called both discriminatory and unconstitutional. In Oakland, they are getting by with it. 

The high-speed police chase over a “sideshow” incident that led to the death of U’Kendra Johnson in 2002 got covered up, so that most Oakland citizens never knew that such a high-speed police chase ever took place. Now we have another one, in which two more innocent citizens have been killed. 

This time, maybe, we should pay closer attention to what is being done on our streets by the people we are paying to protect us.