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‘I Guess a Black Man Is Not Supposed to Raise His Voice’: Former City Councilmember Who Was Roughed Up By Oakland Police During Zoning Dispute Has Been Awarded $360,000

The City of Oakland will pay over a quarter million dollars to one of the municipality’s former representatives. The ex-politician sued the city, alleging he was roughed up and arrested by police in 2019, after members of the Oakland Planning Department called 911 on him.

Wilson Riles Jr. (Credit: CBS News Screenshot)

Wilson Riles Jr., a former Oakland City Councilmember, says he was complaining about a zoning decision the department would not immediately make that directly impacted his residence and his faith community. At the center of the dispute was an issue about what permits he needed to perform certain rituals on his land.

Tempers were raised on that day, and law enforcement was brought in to de-escalate the argument between the man and the workers.

After arriving on the scene, officers reportedly threw the man face down on the floor and a year later, he sued the city for the altercation, according to the Mercury News.

Three years after the altercation, on July 19, the man settled with the city on his federal lawsuit that claimed members of the Oakland Police Department violated his civil rights during the arrest. The City Council agreed to give Riles, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor three times, an award of $360,000.

Even though the city settled, it continues to deny any wrongdoing and has not validated Riles’ allegations regarding the 2019 altercation.

According to court documents, the officers were called by a city worker, who referred to Riles as a “hostile individual.” The ex-Councilmember, who operates the sweat lodge, was arguing with two individuals about a long-standing dispute over him using the structure he built for ritualistic purposes in the backyard of his 39th Avenue property. 

This is not the only authentic indigenous structure on the property. Riles also has a free-standing yurt for overnight stays.

Neighbors not connected to the community wanted to shut it down, reporting the smoke from the rituals and a lack of parking in the neighborhood during events.

His family and other members of the Nafsi Ya Jamii, an Indigenous American group also called the “Community of Souls,” used the sweat lodge to conduct religious ceremonies and clashed with other neighbors disrupting their sacred rites. The politician, who served the city as a lawmaker from 1979 to 1992, said he went to city officials because he wanted action.

“I guess a Black man is not supposed to raise his voice, because my raising my voice caused them to call the police department,” Riles said.

Police arrested the then-73-year-old as he tried to exit the city office, blocking his safe passage, attempting to twist his arm behind his back, as they pushed his face into the ground. Officers claimed he was resisting being placed in handcuffs and charged him with obstructing a public officer and on the suspicion of battery of a police officer. 

He was booked and taken to Santa Rita Jail.

Those charges were later dropped after the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office refused to file them.

Riles said after the incident, according to US News, “I am the most peaceful person there is. There was no intent on my part to be violent in any way. They thought the only answer to that was to bring the police in to drag me out? It makes no sense.”

A year later, Riles employed his attorney Walter Riley, a local civil rights lawyer, and filed the complaint, claiming the man’s civil rights were violated when officers used excessive force to wrongfully detain him. It further claimed, “racial discrimination, retaliation … and unlawful arrest” on the part of the OPD.

The plaintiff also alleged in the lawsuit the two planning staff members hurled “racist and inflammatory remarks” at him, according to Oaklandside.org.

Despite the conflict with the OPD, he and his community did prevail.

Riles said though the zoning department had originally sided with them, it flip-flopped on its position based on pressure from “confused neighbors,” a GoFundMe page reads. However, something changed after the incident with Riles and the police.

“With the tremendous help of the community,” he wrote in 2020, after the incident, “we worked our way through five years of bureaucratic struggle to a unanimous decision in our favor from the Planning Commission and a nearly unanimous decision in our favor from the City Council. Late in 2019 Zoning came after us again for almost the same issues. I [Wilson Riles, a 74-year-old black man] went to the Zoning office to work out the problem. I was tripped, thrown on the floor, and carted off to Santa Rita Jail. 

Though the City Council approved the settlement, Riles does not believe that justice has been served. 

“I don’t believe that it’s justice,” he said. “Making the settlement is not admitting that it’s wrong or that its officers need to be retrained.”

He further noted he will use “as much of this money as I can” to police reform advocacy efforts, hoping to lobby to change laws, and city codes and develop diversity training for officers as an effort to improve their sensitivity to the community they serve.

The Oakland city attorney’s office has declined to comment on the settlement.

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