The police killing of George Floyd has touched off a tidal wave of protests against police brutality and killing of unarmed Black Americans across the country. These protests have forced the country to confront our long history of racial bias by police and many longtime police-reform advocates are optimistic of the opportunity to finally create lasting change within Law Enforcement Agencies around the county.
But before George Floyd, before Oscar Grant, before Rodney King, and even before Arthur McDuffie was the story of a 14-year-old Black kid named Tyrone Guyton. A familiar story about the police killing of an unarmed Black person, the pursuit of justice by his family and how this pursuit can be undermined by our institutions and complicated by differing political agendas.
2015: Yuvette Henderson, Dan Siegel & APTP
After the tragic officer-involved shooting of Yuvette Henderson in 2015, a group of Anti Police-Terror Project protesters filled Emeryville City council chambers demanding action. Among those that addressed council was longtime Civil-Rights Attorney Dan Siegel. Siegel referenced another officer-involved shooting of a Black person in his public comment that very few still remember.
“When I came up here tonight, I somehow went back in time and thought about one of the first cases I ever did which was in 1973 when three Emeryville detectives shot 14-year-old Tyrone Guyton in the back. So things haven’t changed very much, we’re just getting older but the cycle of [police] violence continues.”
It was evident that the case still lingers with Siegel today and even helped shape his career. Siegel penned an insightful 1974 article in the wake of the killing originally published in The Social Justice Journal chronicling his efforts to bring justice to the Guyton family. The article spotlights a very familiar narrative that we’re still confronting nearly 50 years later.
Details of Tyrone Guyton’s 1973 Police Killing
According to news reports, on the night of November 1, 1973, undercover Emeryville detectives were staking out a club on San Pablo Avenue. They reportedly observed Guyton “tinkering” with and then entering a presumably stolen vehicle. A high-speed pursuit ensued with two Emeryville Detectives driving unmarked vehicles. They caught up to and rammed the car Guyton was driving disabling it near 33rd and West Street in Oakland a block from Guyton’s home.
According to the police, a foot-chase ensued and Guyton fired two shots “from a small caliper pistol” in the officers’ direction. The two detectives both discharged their weapons at Guyton with one hitting him in the back and disabling him. Guyton was struck a second time while on the ground by a joining officer who claimed he saw Guyton reaching for a gun.
No weapon, bullets or casings were ever found at the scene. Then Emeryville Police Chief James Donovan dismissed that the gun was likely picked up by someone in the crowd that had gathered around the crime scene. ATF tests failed to prove Guyton had discharged a weapon.
Guyton was six days shy of his 15th birthday.
County Grand Jury Refuses to Indict Officers
A week later, a grand jury refused to indict the three officers citing a lack of evidence. Emeryville police detectives Dale Phillips, Thomas Mierky and officer William Matthews apparently all invoked their 5th amendment rights.
Presiding Superior court judge Lionel J. Wilson publicly called upon the Alameda County District Attorney Lowell Jensen to prosecute the case but he refused to act. (Wilson went on to become Oakland’s first Black mayor four years later). The Grand Jury later reopened the case but the results were the same.
Committee for Justice for Tyrone Guyton Created, Black Panther Party Joins
Unsatisfied with the verdict, Guyon’s mother Mattie Guyton Shepherd and other family members along with Black community leaders began organizing to get the answers they deserved and bring justice for Tyrone. The Black Panther Party (BPP), active since 1966, joined the cause by publicizing, helping coordinate rallies and providing a meeting space at their East Oakland Learning Center.
According to Seigel’s writings, Shepherd had never been politically active before the death of her son but evolved into a forceful and moving speaker and a political leader as a result of her loss. “Her goal, she says, is not really justice for Tyrone Guyton, because that is impossible, but rather justice for all the future Tyrone Guytons of all races who should be able to live without the fear of being gunned down by the police.”
Her goal, she says, is not really justice for Tyrone Guyton, because that is impossible, but rather justice for all the future Tyrone Guytons of all races who should be able to live without the fear of being gunned down by the police.”
It was true grass-roots organizing long before the presence of social media with door-to-door signature gathering, selling pins and blanketing the neighborhood with flyers. A May, 1974 story notes that 2000 people attended a rally in support of Guyton at Defremery park in West Oakland.
In addition to the support of Black community groups, the case gained the support of “radical and progressive organizations associated with the local dump Nixon Coalition.”
Committee Co-opted by Leftist, Anti-Capitalist Organizations
The broad coalition of groups with different agendas “brought a whole new set of problems” Seigel wrote. “[The Black Panther Party] joined with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in urging the committee to take a moderate, single-issue approach. Several Black and multi-national communist organizations opposed this position and wanted to build the committee as part of a broader anti-repression campaign, linking the murder of Tyrone Guyton with the oppression of Black and all Third World people in a decaying, capitalist society.”
Siegel lamented the bickering between the various factions in the committee and how the voice of the Black community was getting lost in the political agendas of the varied groups. “In the middle of this struggle, which also included serious strategic disagreements among the communist organizations, were Tyrone Guyton’s family and the ever decreasing number of Black community people in the Committee.” Siegel went on to write. “The only thing that has held the Committee together has been the extraordinary courage and determination of Mattie Guyton Shepherd, Tyrone’s mother.”
“Several Black and multi-national communist organizations opposed this position and wanted to build the committee as part of a broader anti-repression campaign, linking the murder of Tyrone Guyton with the oppression of Black and all Third World people in a decaying, capitalist society.”
Siegel described some of the committee members as deceitful, engaging in “race-baiting” and antagonist toward white people that they desperately needed to forge alliances with. “The SWP member who chaired the rally rearranged the speaking order at the last moment, with the result that the featured speakers, Mrs. Shepherd and Otis Hyde, veteran Black communist and member of the October League, did not speak until the rally was almost over and many people had left. Instead, a member of the SWP-supported Pan African People’s Association was allowed to dominate the early part of the rally with a violent polemic characterizing whites as the main enemy and coming close to urging an attack on the white people who made up almost half of the rally.”
Emeryville Police Cruiser Bombed in Retaliation for Killing
The ’70s were a time when radical politics flourished in our area and a string of bombings, kidnappings and politically-motivated assassinations marred the era.
Some of these leftist groups apparently sought retaliation for Guyton’s death and targeted the Emeryville Police Department. On August 13, 1975 , an unoccupied Emeryville police cruiser was bombed while parked at the police station. In addition to the Emeryville bombing, two Sheriff’s vehicles were bombed outside a courthouse in San Rafael.
Days later, a group calling themselves “The New World Liberation Front” (NWLF) took credit for the blast. They communicated via a typed letter to the KSAN radio staton that these were in retaliation for Guyton’s death as well as the death of Black Guerrilla co-founder George Jackson.
The bombings were later linked with similar bombs found in the apartment of William and Emily Harris who were members of the left-wing terrorist group the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The Harris apartment also contained the names and home addresses of four Emeryville police officers (none of whom were involved with Guyton’s death according to EPD Chief John LaCoste). The NWLF also targeted the home of SF Supervisor and acting mayor at the time (and current California Senator), Dianne Feinstein.
Civil Suit Pursued by Guyton’s Mother
After the rallies tapered off and criminal action against the officers was unsuccessful, Shepherd filed a $2 million suit against the City of Emeryville charging wrongful death. A verdict was not reached until 1981.
U.S. District judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that the three police officers acted with “callous disregard” for Guyton’s life. Patel rejected the claim that the officers had conspired to kill Guyton but ruled “that the conduct of the officers in firing upon Guyton was excessive, unreasonable and unjustified.”
Additional details about the event revealed that Guyton, already shot once, was in the process of being cuffed by Officer Mierkey when shot the second time in the back by Officer Matthews. Matthews contended that Guyton was rising from the ground in an attempt to shoot him. In addition, the witness that claimed she heard Guyton fire two shots turned out to be an informant for Detective Phillips and was discredited.
Shepherd was awarded $200,000. $115,000 was to be split evenly by all three officers with an additional $35K in punitive damages against Philips and $50K against Matthews.
Mierkey and Matthews retained their jobs with Emeryville Police. Phillips resigned in 1975 for unrelated reasons.
The EPD’s Long Road to Reform
Corruption in the EPD continued for at least another decade under the leadership of Chief John LaCoste. A string of tragedies eroded the EPD’s already tarnished image including the fiery death of a woman in her jail cell in 1982 as well a former officer who was convicted of raping his step-daughter.
The EPD, and the city for that matter, began to cleaning up their act after LaCoste was ousted from power in 1983. LaCoste was replaced by Joseph Malpe who served from 1983 to 1987. Malpe was in turn succeeded by Joseph Colletti who served from 1987 to 1998. Ken James followed Colletti as Chief until his 2015 when Emeryville’s first female Chief Jennifer Tejada took over.
“They all did their part to promote certain reforms,” noted retired Emeryville Police Officer Randy Horton who served from 1974-2005. “Malpe did a lot of the ground work and Colletti focused on training, accreditations and really empowering officers to take the initiative to go beyond just the paperwork. Ken helped continue this work and moved the ship forward. All of them embraced the community policing approach that I think was always in the DNA of the force.“
There have been three officer-involved shootings in our city since Guyton’s death including 24-year-old Reginald Smith who was shot at a Doggie Diner in 1982, 23-year-old Oakland resident Julio Paredes who was shot in the Oak’s Card Club parking lot in 2005 and the aforementioned Henderson near the Extra Space Storage Facility in West Oakland in 2015.
Longstanding Impact on Siegel’s Career
Siegel became motivated to become a lawyer after participating in the civil-rights movement in 1963 at the age of 19. “I remember crying a lot” Siegal recounted after witnessing racial injustice in Mississippi. “It motivated me.” Siegel admits he has evolved over the years from a hardcore Maoist, to more of a social progressive.
The Guyton case clearly had an impact on Siegel’s career and he has gone on to make police reform and accountability one of his personal missions. “This case deeply affected me and opened my eyes to the never ending racial violence towards young men of color by police departments,” he stated in a post while campaigning for Oakland Mayor in 2014.
Siegel has served as Vice Chair of the City’s Community Policing and has spearheaded some important police reforms in Oakland including co-authoring Oakland’s community policing policy. He penned a recent article on Rise Up Times on his proposals for defunding police.
Siegel confirmed that Guyton’s killing was a major spark for police brutality activism and reform in the East Bay. A spark that ultimately led to a wildfire with the BART police killing of Oscar Grant in 2009 and now with George Floyd.
There clearly remains a lot of work to do and the recent efforts by activists have fortified a path forward. “I feel very positive about it,” Siegel noted when we followed up with him about the current state of police reform. “It seems like the desire for change is broader and deeper than ever before and it makes me optimistic that this will finally happen.”
Feature Image: Guyton’s family including his mother Mattie gather on the steps of Oakland City Hall (Photo courtesy of Andrea Benavidez).