Shortly before 9 a.m. on May 23, 2020, a woman called the non-emergency police line in Alameda, California, to report that an older black man was behaving erratically in the bike lane. She was concerned that he might be intoxicated or mentally ill, noting, “Obviously, something is very wrong.”
Two responding officers paused to observe the man in the bike lane waving his arms in the air. “Hey man, you look like you are having fun, is everything OK? Someone said that you are dancing in the street. They are concerned for your safety,” one officer asked. The man responded that he was exercising. The officer continued with more questions, but when the dancer, Mali Watkins, heard “Do you feel like hurting yourself today?” he attempted to leave.
“At this point you are detained, you understand?” The two officers grabbed his arms. Watkins resisted, and soon three more cops arrived to help restrain him. The Alameda Police Department reviewed the episode and recorded in the blotter that Watkins was detained “for not following police instructions.” He was released later the same day.
Two days later, George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, and activists launched a crusade to cleanse American police departments of what they deemed systemic racism. They soon found footage recorded by a bystander and posted on social media of Mali Watkins’s arrest and broadcast heavily edited video of the incident, emphasizing the words “exercise,” “dance,” “I do it all the time,” and “jazzercize.” The nature of the man’s physical activity was uncertain, but outrage about his detention was substantial. Tabloids from the New York Post to the Daily Mail published the story, alleging that Alameda cops arrested a black man for “dancing on the street.” Only ABC News bothered to report that “Watkins does admit that he has autism and has faced some mental challenges in his past.” With Black Lives Matter fervor surging across the country, virtually no one paused to consider that Watkins’s behavior that morning, even if typical for him, was abnormal and concerning.
Residents frequently act out of neighborly concern in Alameda, a municipality in San Francisco’s East Bay. Separated from Oakland by the Oakland International Airport and a narrow channel, Alameda maintains its own police department. While Oakland consistently ranks among the most dangerous cities in the U.S. (before the Covid-19 closures, it was near the 99th percentile of criminal activity), Alameda’s crime rate is a about one-third that of its neighbor. As rioters looted and set fires in Oakland following George Floyd’s death, Alamedans staged socially distanced dance rallies in solidarity with Mali Watkins.
Alameda’s response to this negligible incident in the post-Floyd summer of 2020 is suggestive of the anti-police environment in which law enforcement still finds itself. John Knox White, at the time Alameda’s vice mayor and now a city council member, along with City Manager Eric Levitt, seized the moment to wrest control from the police department and push for progressive reforms, including stipulating that police respond only to reports of actual criminal behaviour and avoid more discretionary contact with members of the community. They also proposed cutting police funding by 42 percent.
Knox White appeared on local TV stations professing outrage at Watkins’s treatment, charging the Alameda police department with systemic racism, promising “a full, independent investigation” and pledging his commitment to “accountability for those involved, including those who created a system that allowed this to happen.” On June 7, 2020, Knox White conducted a virtual townhall meeting limited to 500 participants, with an outflow Facebook discussion space. Knox White commenced the meeting by announcing that the discussion would be censored for hate speech. Participants’ views were of limited variation, with many demanding that the city defund the police department, punish people who call cops, and “re-educate” whites. They took for granted that the Alameda police department was racist and that officers were not already trained for community engagement. One woman at the Zoom town meeting, who didn’t give her name but introduced herself as a regular speaker at the rallies, said:
White America—this is not just the cops—have stamped out the humanity of black and brown people who have come here. We have to strip our culture, and humanity to fit into white culture which is robotic. And white culture here is rootless . . . It’s important for all Alamedans to know that we don’t feel the humanity of white people with just a fake smile, and a “Hi!” . . . We need white people to start living back in humanity, and if that means that every white person gets mental health to disarm themselves, that needs to happen.
In late 2020, talk of bias at the Alameda Police Department was incessant, but evidence was sparse. (The closest thing to corroboration was an incident nearly 30 years earlier, in which four officers exchanged slurs on patrol-car data terminals.) The main target of the “anti-racist” fury, Police Chief Paul Rolleri, retired two months after the Mali Watkins incident. Harris Smiler and Anthony Buck, the officers who responded to the call about Watkins, were taken off patrol duties. The police department conducted an internal investigation and found no evidence of misconduct, Smiler has told me. The department released the video of the Watkins incident. Five policemen restraining Watkins may seem excessive but having multiple officers as back-up enabled the police to use the minimum amount of force necessary.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley’s office conducted a separate investigation. Ignoring the demands of politicians and activists, she refused to charge the police officers, instead recommending further training “regarding contacts, detentions, citations and arrest of individuals.” Smiler points out that the district attorney’s office permits “special needs detention” when it’s in the public interest and public interest outweighs intrusiveness. According to O’Malley’s directives, peace officers were within bounds questioning Watkins to determine whether he met the criteria for a mental-health emergency, and law enforcement officers were authorized to subject him to investigative detention. If a detainee refuses to comply with an investigation, police officers are authorized to arrest him. Smiler says Rolleri told him, “You didn’t do anything wrong, but you could have done it better.”
The city hired Pasadena law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo to conduct an independent investigation of Watkins’s arrest. An attorney interviewed Smiler but never informed him of the findings. Knox White soon washed his hands of the matter. When asked whether the investigation he pledged to see through was completed, he recommended that I contact the city manager and city attorney. Neither responded to my query; nor did the law firm. Smiler believes that the probe was likely never concluded and therefore falls under attorney/client privilege, meaning that the investigators are not obliged to reveal the results.
With no grounds for termination, the Alameda Police Department did not fire any of the officers involved. Smiler, a three-and-a-half-year veteran of the Atherton Police Department when he transferred to Alameda in 2019, was still on a one-year probation as a recent hire at the time of the Watkins arrest. At his next performance review in October 2020, he was told to resign within ten days, or be fired. He was privy to neither the results of the independent investigation nor of the performance review. Fearing that, if fired, he would be unable to find another post in law enforcement, Smiler agreed to resign. No police department nearby would touch him. After trying Berkeley, San Bruno, BART, and Antioch, he ended up finding a position in Redding, more than 200 miles north of Alameda.
Watkins sued the city but gained little else from his arrest’s notoriety. His arrest did not prove that the Alameda Police Department is racist or that Broken Windows policing is abusive. Though Watkins is ostensibly independent, his potentially dangerous quirk—dancing in the street—might require a mental-health intervention. That, by his own admission, he does this “all the time” is not reassuring.
Alameda hired a new police chief, Nishant Joshi. Not wanting to work with Joshi, two department veterans resigned and soon after, several shootings—or “gun discharges,” as Knox White described them—shook the city. Knox White admitted that crime is on the rise; his proposal to cut police funding dramatically was defeated.
But the damage had already been done. If the forced resignation of Smiler was intended to send a message, the message was received. The Alameda Police Department is budgeted for 88 police officers but currently employs 53 and has no applicants in its recruitment pipeline.
I’ve seen Mali Watkins a few times on the street. Once, he was crossing a busy intersection a few blocks from where Alameda police officers arrested him in May 2020 when he started doing some jiu-jitsu-like dance moves. After executing his routine, he dropped down on the crosswalk, stood quickly, and continued walking.
Photo by Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images