John Burris isn't a political activist. "Making speeches? Nobody can win that," he says ruefully over tea in his Oakland law offices. "You can say what you want, I can say what I want, and we both go home."
No. Burris, a relaxed 71-year-old, wants to win. Rather than speechifying, his "calling — I feel that strongly," he says, was the law. "A lawsuit you have to respond to... That's why I love being a lawyer. Somebody wins the argument. Something happens."
Burris' most notable victory — there have been many — might still be the 2003 Oakland "Riders" case, and he has not tired of discussing it. Police officers wrongfully arrested, beat, and planted evidence on 119 plaintiffs, he argued, settling with the city for $10.9 million. Beyond winning the argument and the money, the largest such payout in Oakland history, the settlement led to departmental reforms. Something, as he might say, happened.
Still, as of 2012, the Oakland Police Department had not fully complied with the terms of the settlement in the Riders case. That's illustrative. "There's no doubt we're in an uphill fight all the time, all the time," he says of reform efforts. Take Burris's first prominent case, that of a 14-year-old African American boy shot and killed by Oakland Police in 1979. Now, in 2016, Burris' biggest case is a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the family of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old African American man shot and killed by San Francisco Police. What, if anything, has happened?
If Burris' work is Sisyphean, it might be so in the manner Camus intended: Not without real accomplishment. What happens happens case by case, says Burris, who was taking on around 50 police brutality lawsuits a year in 2009 according to an article in Real Clear Politics. He hasn't appeared to slow much since then. "When you bring a lawsuit, and it focuses on an event, the department, internally will change," Burris says, repeating himself, not just emphatically, but assuredly: "They will change."
To make sure, Burris aims to keep the pressure on. "We always have a number of cases pending against the City and County of San Francisco and the Sheriff's Department," Burris says of his law offices, a team of nine lawyers. "I know that, from a positive point of view, I can make change happen," he says. "If you listen to what I say, you might change your approach to how you deal with the mentally impaired. Or an edged weapon. If you assess why you didn't win a case, you can see that the approach was wrong, the tactic was wrong, and then the tactics can be changed."
John Burris was born in Vallejo in 1945. Though he lived in a predominantly black community, he attended a largely white public school. "I don't know. Maybe it was a test question," he told the Chronicle in a 2005, suggesting he scored his way in. "I was pretty smart." Burris earned his bachelor's degree from Golden Gate University and worked briefly as an accountant, where a higher up told him "I want you to be the Jackie Robinson of this firm, of accounting." Instead, he went to Berkeley's business school, and then, after interviewing black lawyers for a project, to UC Berkeley's School of Law.
During a summer internship at a law firm in Chicago, he was mentored by Ralph Metcalfe, a democratic congressman who was part of the so-called "Daley Machine." When Metcalfe's doctor was beaten by police officers, the congressman responded with a congressional meeting, then a commission to investigate police brutality in Chicago. Every day for the summer of 1972, Burris interviewed black people — "a string of them all day" — mostly men, who were beaten by police. As a kid in Vallejo, he says, "You get chased around here and there, you were familiar with cops. But you didn't really feel the weight of it." Other than the Civil Rights movement, which he watched closely as a child, "where you really had the clash with police over the status quo," he says he hadn't been fully, viscerally aware of the brutal treatment to which black bodies were subjected in America.
Burris practiced law as an Associate Attorney at Jenner and Block, then, as Assistant State’s Attorney in Cook County, Illinois. He was Deputy District Attorney with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office from 1977 to 1979, and a partner at Harris, Alexander, and Burris before founding his own offices. 1991 was a breakthrough year for Burris: He won a $3.8 million jury verdict for Rodney King in a case against the LAPD and a $42,000 settlement for the late Tupac Shakur in a brutality case against the OPD. Burris has been on the other side of lawsuits, too. King sued him and two other lawyers for malpractice in a suit that was dismissed in 2001. In 1996, he was suspended by the California Bar Association when his law firm sent misleading solicitations to mass disaster victims. He attributed the error to members of his staff.
"It's easy to represent famous people," Burris says, "and I have." By contrast, "Nobody cares about Mario Woods, at least in the police agency. I feel very fortunate that I get to represent him... I feel very strongly that I am representing people who would otherwise not be represented."
While "the African-American community has always known, in a relative sense, about police brutality," Burris agrees that the public consciousness of police violence toward black and brown citizens has grown. If so, the knowledge has been hard-won. On New Year's Eve, 2009, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, as he lay face down at Oakland's Fruitvale Station. Burris took up the case of his mother and daughter, and in 2011 the Chronicle reported that BART had agreed to a cumulative $2.8 million settlement with them.
"It's David and Goliath," says Burris. While he says "the most despised person in the entire system is the African American male," he'd extend that metaphor to "other minorities who are disadvantaged. If you're at the lower end of the political strata or the economic strata, you don't have much purchase."
But in America, Goliath is not felled by one blow. On December 2nd, 2015, San Francisco police officers shot and killed Mario Woods in the Bayview neighborhood in a scene, captured on video, that has been likened to a firing squad. On December 11, Burris announced that he had filed a civil rights lawsuit against SFPD on behalf of Woods' family. “[The] killing is an outrage and an affront to the African American community,” he said at the time. That case, as well as a Department of Justice review of the San Francisco Police Department, is ongoing.
Burris acknowledges that he's taking on a powerful, often hegemonic system, but when I put his David and Goliath metaphor back to him, he immediately demurred. "That's just a metaphor. I don't have a view that I'm tackling the whole world, because then I'd go under." Instead, he says "I'm taking on a larger system — but it's one chunk at a time. It's not like I'm saying I'm going after the Oakland police department — although, I've done that, but that's because I had a case that allowed me to do it."
"I don't know that we beat Goliath," Burris concludes "We get some justice, not full justice."