In Your Backyard: How police treat you when you’re homeless
Photo courtesy of San Jose Police Department.

    Two weeks ago we watched in horror the ugly side of the San Jose Police Department.

    For many of us, the aggression and cruelty was a surprise. For the writers of the In Your Backyard column, this was the police force they’d known for decades. Below are three accounts of what it meant to face the police in sunny San Jose while homeless. Be advised, there are graphic descriptions of brutality and sexual violence that may be triggering to some.

    — Frank Ponciano

    Michael Eckhart: Personalization vs. separation

    My wife and I have been at one point or another banned from just about every parking lot in south San Jose. San Jose police would pound on the door all hours of the night — usually between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. — opening the front door to our RV with no warning and weapons drawn, asking what the (expletive) am I doing as I’m sitting there in boxers watching the news. I have been detained and assaulted by officers while in handcuffs.

    I’ve been housed at Second Street Studios for a little over a year now and am sad to say the police continue to harass us even if we’re not in the streets anymore. The other day, a neighbor of mine who happens to be a black woman was detained by our property manager who then called the police because she was bringing an unopened bottle of alcohol up to her apartment (she was not intoxicated).

    Seeing the police in our building is a weekly occurrence. Property management regularly guides police officers to specific apartments and even opens the door for them in violation of our personal rights.

    The San Jose Police Department is not a friend of the poor and much less the homeless. When homeless, poor or mentally ill, the color of your skin is not a factor. Being poor and homeless, that knee could have been on any one of our throats; black, white, brown, yellow. The more you have, the less you want poor people around. That’s just human nature.

    In no way am I trying to discredit or take away from the severity of what happened to Mr. George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. What I am trying to do is bring to light the fact that powerful forces are using race to keep all working and poor people suppressed and separated. As a very poor white male, I can tell you this, when you are broke living on the streets, race does not come into play in the eyes of the police. It does not matter the color of your skin: society does not like you.

    Kris Gardner-Ramsey: ‘To Protect and Serve’/‘Comply or Die’

    My dearest friend of many years, who also happens to be my husband, is a black man in America. He often shares his experiences on issues involving the police and homelessness, racial profiling, abuse of power and the long-term psychological effects that result from constant humiliation, public emasculation and mental abuse. Today we share a bit of this experience with you.

    Growing up during the 60s in the Midwest, being African-American and male, my husband RJ recalls a childhood filled with isolation and fear. That’s always been a part of life’s conditioning. In my experience, police brutality and police-involved fatalities amongst the minority communities have always gone unseen, unquestioned and unpunished.

    But the experience of police brutality doesn’t end when you leave the heartland if you’re a black man, especially if you’re homeless.

    In San Jose, RJ once was harassed by the police at a local park. He was told to relocate himself and his belongings, a request any homeless person has heard one too many times. RJ refused to move and was beaten unconscious, waking up three days later in the infirmary. All of his belongings were ripped to shreds and covered in his dried blood. His face took three months to heal.

    It is also hard for homeless people to be taken seriously by San Jose police when they experience crime.

    As a biracial couple, we often had violent encounters with people upset by our relationship. Once, a group of white men jumped both my husband and me and beat him with clubs and bars. I tried getting in the middle to protect my husband but was soon dragged out and raped by two of the men while the other four held my husband down. My husband was beat so bloody I could barely recognize him.

    We contacted the police and they arrived and took our statements. It was very upsetting when we later found that all the information in our case was fake. It seems the officer put incorrect information in our statement as a joke — resulting in our losing any record of a rape or a hate crime.

    On multiple occasions, my husband has been made to lay face down the way George Floyd died. While his face was sometimes partway submerged in puddles of stagnant and disgusting water, I was asked inappropriate questions about our sex life. I’ve been propositioned for dates while he’s been held.

    It is time for the local government and our police department to encourage, embrace and become ambassadors for real change. To the next generation: Don’t let this become inconsequential. To our police officers, with honesty (being transparent), comes taking on responsibility (being held accountable).

    Human beings, as a whole, are creatures of habit. This was not the first, not the second, the third … and it won’t be the last time police mistreatment happens. The only difference now is that the majority of the entire world supports us and the “Black Lives Matter” legacy. That’s power.


    Cecilia Martin: Scarred For Life

    I was 16 ½ years old the first time I was arrested by San Jose’s finest — the San Jose Police Department. When they got me to the police station, I was assaulted and told to give a blood sample. When I declined, I was slapped, punched in the face, held down and called a b—-. I was forced to give the blood sample anyway. I’ll never forget how frightened I was, praying “God please help me get through this.” Not only did the San Jose police rob me of my constitutional rights, they left me feeling worthless; with no dignity. I’ve been profiled my entire life, as white trash, a drug addict, or one of them homeless people. As long as I can remember I’ve been harassed and abused by the police, not to say anything about broader society.

    What police officers are allowed to do to black people and people born poor like me is just pure evil. We need to put an end to people dying unnecessarily. Policing has to be turned around for the good of all mankind.

    I believe with all my heart that with God by our sides, with all people working together, we have the power to make sure no one else has to be beaten or killed by any officer, anywhere in the world. Genesis 50:26 says: “God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” I say, let not one more human being die in vain at the hands of Satan and the police.

    Michael Eckhart, Kristine Gardner-Ramsey and Cecilia Martin are part of a group of current and formerly homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley. 

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