Oakland Occupy helper faces life in prison

For an update, see here.

It sounds like a tale told by Kafka: A 38 year-old-man gets arrested on a minor charge outside Oakland City Hall, and days later finds himself faced with the threat of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the case, but from what we’ve been able to piece together, the elements include a man who spent most of his adult life in prison, then was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder requiring medication.

Friends say he turned his life around, and spent his last days of freedom on the margins of the Occupy Oakland encampment outside city hall before it was swept away in that controversial police action.

Al Jazeera reports on the plight of Marcel “Khali” Johnson:

A man arrested during at an Occupy Oakland encampment is potentially facing a life jail sentence under California’s “three strikes” law.

The law gives anyone who is pronounced guilty of their third felony charge an automatic life sentence, which in California can range from 25 years to the rest of someone’s entire life.

Read the rest.

We were alerted to the case by a reader, Jay Sheckley, who writes:


This is Marcel “Khali” Johnson, 38, at Occupy Oakland a few weeks ago, giving a kid a flashlight the child had dropped, and saying,”You share, now.”

Sad to say, Khali has spent 15 of his 38 years incarcerated. Pushing 40, he wants to take his meds, have friends, and be free to sing and perform. Mostly, he volunteers distributing food. It’s well known that Khali helps people whereever he goes. It’s not his fault the Occupy kids love him.

Khali was recently arrested for sitting on a public bench vaguely near a group of Occupy protesters during a plaza raid. This bench sitting misdemeanor [being near a raid] went uncharged for 4 days while his psych meds were withheld. Finally, at a hearing, Judge Hugh Walker released him pending an address check of where Khali would be living. But the city offices had just closed for the long weekend. Some disagreement between him and his jailers has been termed assault. As many of us have recently learned via streaming video, that’s what police charge you with after they hit you.

So Pleasanton has filed felony charges against Khali, unreasonable charges because of “3 Strikes” and things which happened in his early 20s, are likely result in life in prison for this gentle man.

Because charges, once filed, must be dealt with in court, we need to make a civilized showing when he goes before the judge 9am Monday morning. Please dress clean, neat and business-like, and behave in a mannerly fashion in Rm 704 Gale E Schenone Courthouse 5672 Stoneridge Drive Pleasanton CA. [Character witnesses and employers may contact civil rights attorney Dan Siegel of Sigel & Yee, 499 14th Street, Suite 220; Oakland, CA 94612; (510) 839-1200]

Rachel Swan of the East Bay Express has more:

On December 16 he was arrested outside City Hall for violating anti-encroachment laws — namely, for a dispute about a blanket — which normally wouldn’t have warranted more than a few hours jail time. Since Khali was in fact violating his probation terms for a different case in Sacramento, he was taken to Santa Rita and made to serve some jail time in lieu of going to trial, his attorney Dan Siegel explained. There, Khali was held in solitary confinement and not given his psychiatric medications, which might explain why he got into an altercation with a peace officer — the exact circumstances of which are still widely disputed. Now, Khali faces a felony assault charge in place of his original misdemeanor. As of Friday, December 23, Khali’s bail was set at $580,000, according his attorney, Dan Siegel.

“So he’s basically arrested for littering, and a week later he’s facing felony charges,” Siegel said, in an interview on December 23.

Read the rest.

The Occupied Oakland Tribune has more details:

Although Occupy Oakland was able to raise money to bail out two of these individuals that evening, due to a violation hold we were unable to bail out Khali who was then forced to remain in Santa Rita Jail for four nights until his arraignment on the following Tuesday.

At the arraignment, we waited all day for Khali’s hearing because the District Attorney had yet to file any charges (even after four days of incarcerating him). With only minutes before closing the court for the day, the DA announced that charges were being filed and that the paperwork was being drafted and was on its way. Khali’s attorney, Dan Siegel, had only minutes to look over the charges before the hearing began, at which time he requested that Khali be released until his next court date given that he was being charged with very minor misdemeanors. The District Attorney opposed this request, arguing that he couldn’t be released because he was homeless and had no residence on record. Khali immediately notified the judge that he did have a residence and provided the address. It was then concluded that because the staff that could confirm this residence was gone for the day (it now being minutes before closing the court room), Khali would have to remain in jail until his next court date.

Bail, however, was set and Occupy Oakland immediately began the process of posting it. With all paperwork ready to go, we waited for Khali to be transferred back to Santa Rita Jail so his bail could be posted. Shortly after 8pm, we were notified that Khali could no longer be bailed out because he was now being charged with a felony count of assaulting a correctional officer. We have since found out that this alleged incident occurred upon his arrival back at Santa Rita Jail (at the very time we were placing numerous calls to staff at the jail regarding posting his bail). Khali’s bail for this case has now been set for a staggering $580,000.

We don’t yet have all the details about this alleged incident of assault at Santa Rita, but do know the following:

  • Khali was originally arrested on minor misdemeanor charges but because of a violation hold he was incarcerated for 4 days before any charges were formally filed.
  • While most people would have been released from jail and asked to appear for a future court date given the minor nature of the misdemeanor charges, the DA extended Khali’s incarceration because of the county’s assertion that he is homeless.
  • We are concerned for Khali’s health and physical well-being. He has shown up for every court appearance with severely bruised, swollen eyes and it’s evident that he is suffering physical abuse.
  • We are also concerned for Khali’s mental health. He is on medication prescribed by a psychiatrist and we have learned that he has not been given his meds, nor even received medical evaluation since his arrest. It is clear during his court appearances that he is suffering enormously from having his medication withheld.
  • We have learned that the alleged assault occurred upon his arrival back at Santa Rita when guards were placing him in solitary confinement. It is unclear why the decision was made to place him in solitary confinement (prior to any alleged assault) given that he was only being charged with minor misdemeanors and was in the process of being bailed out.

Next, a video of Johnson made at Occupy Oakland 2 December:

While we don’t have all the details, enough of the outlines are clear enough to raise a lot of questions.

So far the story hasn’t attracted the attention of either of the two major metro papers, the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. We hope they devote some attention to Johnson’s case.


4 responses to “Oakland Occupy helper faces life in prison

  1. Thank you so much Richard Brenneman for writing about this! Crazily, this is being covered by Egypt’s internationally acclaimed Al Jazeera newsservice, but going unnoticed in our own nation. As the “Land of the Free”, we are a laughing stock.
    Your opening spin -or maybe it’s the police spin- I disagree with a bit. I don’t know that Khali was in any scuffle. Yes he was arrested Dec 16 for having a blanket. This was I think one of the sleeping bags which I -in my role as the “Sock Fairy”- gave him and 10 others after the General Assembly called for help because “People are FREEZING!”. Despite Occupy’s then-current permit for a 24 hour vigil, all sleeping bags, gloves etc were seized by police and destroyed. The more recent arrest, Khali had been freed from that and was sitting on a blanket on a bench, awaiting a ride away from Occupy when he was swept up in the raid, possibly for “Sitting While Black.”
    Some people consider Life Imprisonment worse than the death penalty. Please come to the Pleasanton hearing Monday morning, Rm 704 Gale E Schenone Courthouse 5672 Stoneridge Drive Pleasanton CA. If convenient, wear red, Khali’s favorite color! 😀
    At least SHARE Mr Brenneman’s excellent article here. Send it to friends and newspapers! WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN IN AMERICA.

  2. The officers and their supervisors holding him at the jail should be charged with endangering the health of Mr. Johnson. Depending on the medication, attempted manslaughter. Most psychiatric medications can cause severe side effects if interrupted abruptly, up to and including seizures and death.

    Withholding medications is a criminal act, and should be dealt with as such.

  3. I don’t think anyone has mentioned that a fight this man got into, in November, is the reason Mayor Quan claims spurred her into ordering the original raids of the Oakland Occupy camp. Sad all around.

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