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Watching the Watchers

June 20, 2013

Five days after East Bay native Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station, an incident captured on video by witnesses, Oakland-based attorney and Berkeley School of Law graduate John Burris filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against BART in support of the Grant Family.

Tonight, when the San Francisco Film Society and Oscar Grant Foundation host the first Bay Area screening of Fruitvale, the feature film that depicts that last 24 hours of Grant’s life, Burris’s role will not be front and center. But the UC Berkeley alum played an essential role in the days, weeks, months and years that followed that troubling New Year’s Day. In addition to seeking damages for the family (BART has already settled with Grant’s daughter, agreeing to pay her more than $5 million over a number of years) Burris’s involvement helped put the case in a broader social justice context.

Since his graduation from Boalt Hall in 1973, Burris has spent his career focused on cases concerning civil rights and police brutality. In 1992, he briefly served as Rodney King’s legal representation in the landmark case against the Los Angeles Police Department. Locally, he’s known as the man who brought down the Oakland Police Department: He was the attorney in the 2003 “Riders” class-action suit that resulted in OPD facing a lengthy list of reforms overseen by a group that includes Burris and backed by the threat of federal receivership.

In 2010, Burris (who also holds an MBA from Berkeley’s Graduate School of Business) came back to campus for a lecture about his career, influences and principles as a defender of social justice. He cited the “tumultuous” times at Berkeley during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as a key motivator. “I wanted to understand how people who go into the police, some upstanding people, could wind up in serious acts of brutality,” he said. Burris concluded that it was “the culture of the department that really dictates the behavior of a police officer, and officers are often more loyal to their fellow officers than they are to the laws they enforce.”

Currently, Burris continues to run his private practice in Oakland and in 2007 he was named one of the Top 100 Trial Lawyers in California by the American Trial Lawyers Association.

Tonight’s screening of Fruitvale at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater will be attended by director Ryan Coogler (an Oakland native), several actors, and producer and Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker.

—Jessica Pena

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