Nearly two weeks after the beating of a 20-year-old student in Venice by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, police, members of the clergy and community as well as the young man’s family are still seeking answers to a situation that has become a clarion call for police accountability and has drawn the attention of a high-profile attorney attached to another well-known case.
Ronald Weekley, Jr., a student at Xavier University in Louisiana, was on his way home Aug. 18 when four police officers stopped him for allegedly skating in traffic. Police claim the skateboarder resisted arrest and a cell phone camera captured a series of images that appear to show three officers on top of Weekley with one officer hitting him numerous times.
The beating was posted online and outrage throughout Venice ensued. At the Aug. 21 Venice Neighborhood Council meeting, several residents spoke of their anger with the police on what they felt was excessive force.
The following day, friends, family and supporters of the Weekly family held an impromptu protest where they demanded an explanation for the beating.
Tempers flared at an Aug. 28 meeting at the Westminster Senior Center in Venice after LAPD Pacific division Traffic Commander Capt. Brian Johnson told the audience that the investigation into the beating could take up to six months and while the department has identified the officer who struck Weekley, Johnson was not allowed to make his identity public.
Johnson was part of a panel that included two Venice pastors as well as Mike Bonin, Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s chief of staff, and Inspector General Alexander Bustamante. Bustamante’s office, which oversees the police department and investigates accusations of police misconduct, has taken over the probe of the police assault.
The audience that packed the senior center demanded answers from Johnson and Bustamante and a chorus of boos erupted after they heard the results of the investigation might not become public until next year.
“These investigations are very complex, and you’re not going to like this, but I think it’s important to understand that no stone will be left unturned,” Johnson pledged.
Venice social activist Naomi Nightingale moderated the discussion and floated the idea of creating a community police relations board for Venice, an idea that Johnson agreed to consider.
It was also revealed that the officers who arrested Weekley are members of a Violent Crimes Task Force that has been operating in Venice for at least two years, according to Johnson. They are a mobile unit that typically comes to Venice on weekends, the captain said.
At an Aug. 22 press conference, Ronald Weekley Sr., the father of the young skateboarder, addressed the media for the first time since his son’s arrest. He thanked those who came out to support his family and said they are asking that the felony charges against his son be dropped and that the arresting officers be held accountable for their conduct.
“We want kids of all races and backgrounds to be able to skateboard in Venice without oppression,” he added. “We don’t want a community called Venice, where some live free and others live in a police state.”
Weekley Sr. said discussion around his son’s beating would hopefully be instructive to resurrect past conversations of how law enforcement polices certain communities.
“Maybe we’re going to redefine the definition of protect and serve,” he said. “We’re going to have this conversation, we’re going to have it for real and we’re going to have it continuously until it’s defined correctly.”
Weekley, who was flanked by his son and other relatives, was calm and collected during his brief remarks and acknowledged that the majority of police officers were law abiding. But he took exception to how the department released his son’s outstanding misdemeanor warrants, none of which involved a felony.
“His character has been questioned, which in terms of intelligent conversation, was immaterial,” he asserted. “The issue is why was a young man on a skateboard coming to his house (beaten by police).”
The Weekley family says their son suffered a concussion and broken jaw bone during his encounter with the police and still has trouble breathing.
“My family has taken the position that we do not hold vengeance in our hearts, we do not hate anyone and forgiveness is what this family is about,” Weekley Sr. said. “But forgiveness in a context, and the context is on one side accountability and on the other side responsibility.”
The younger Weekley stepped gingerly to the microphone after his father, walking in a stiff gait. “One of the things that I think the public should know about how I feel is that I’m not walking away from what happened to me with hatred in my heart,” he said. “I’m walking away with forgiveness.”
He asked his supporters not to be upset about what had happened. “Everybody who’s angry about what happened, don’t be,” Weekley Jr. implored, his voice breaking. “Just fight for what’s right, because we need it.”
The family has retained noted civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is also the attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen who was killed by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, in a case that has captured international headlines.
The attorney took issue with the fact that Weekley is being charged with felony counts.
“The felony that was committed was against Ron Weekley,” Crump told The Argonaut prior to flying to Los Angeles for the Aug. 28 community meeting. “According to all witness accounts, this young man did nothing wrong yet he was struck several times in the face by these officers. This is a college kid on summer break.”
At the Aug. 28 community meeting, Crump asked if the felony charges against his client would be dropped, pointing out that Weekley has a Sept. 13 court date on charges of resisting arrest and interfering by force on an officer.
Bustamante was unable to give Crump a definitive answer.
Several of the speakers at the protest, which included civil rights activists and prominent African American community activists such as Rev. Tony Muhammad and Najee Ali, referenced the beating of the late Rodney King, who became an international symbol of police brutality after he was beaten by LAPD officers in 1991 after a freeway chase. As in the Weekley case, the police quickly made public King’s prior record.
Stan Muhammad, the head of Venice 2000, a gang rehabilitation and job training non-profit, said he was alarmed when he heard about Weekley’s beating for personal as well as community reasons.
“I thought about my own son, who is also a skateboarder,” said Muhammad, who grew up in the Oakwood neighborhood and is a former member of the Venice council.
Ali harkened back to his days as a young community activist during the aftermath of the King beating, where four LAPD officers were acquitted by a Simi Valley jury but later convicted in federal court on civil rights violations. He issued a challenge to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck regarding the Weekley incident.
“Twenty years ago I was part of a group that ran former (LAPD Police Chief) Darryl Gates out of office because he did not take the Rodney King beating seriously,” Ali asserted. “And 20 years later we want to send the message to Chief Beck that if you don’t take the beating of Ronald Weekley seriously, we’re going to help get rid of you.”
Crump said he sees certain similarities in the Weekley case and the shooting death of Martin. “The parallel seems to be that they were profiled for some reason,” he said.
The attorney lamented that in certain aspects little appears to have changed regarding police conduct in minority communities since King was beaten by LAPD officers more than 20 years ago.
“(The police) called him a ‘dumb (expletive)’ and he was just another ‘dumb (expletive)’ while he was in jail,” Crump alleged. “You would think 20 years after Rodney King that LAPD would be more cognizant of using excessive force.
“When you look at parallels, they are there.”
Rosendahl, who represents Venice, expressed his concern about the police actions after viewing them shortly after Weekley’s arrest.
“I was very disturbed by the KTLA (television) video and by the allegations of police misconduct. My staff and I were immediately in contact with community and religious leaders and with officials of the LAPD to make sure we could keep calm in the community, and to make sure everyone understood that we needed to have a clear and transparent process for the investigations into the incident,” Rosendahl told The Argonaut.
The councilman applauded members of the department’s high command for not shying away from the controversy surrounding the arrest.
“I have been extremely pleased with Capt. Brian Johnson, who has been meeting with members of the community, in large meetings and in small groups, to listen to community concerns, and to explain the process,” added Rosendahl, who is recovering from chemotherapy. “He has demonstrated a commitment to the style of community policing we need to build good solid relationships between community and law enforcement.”
Prior to the press conference, a protest march outside the Weekley family’s home on Sixth Avenue was held, where demonstrators waved signs criticizing the police for the arrest.
Cameron Engels, a friend of Ronald Weekley Jr., was one of the most vocal protesters. They have known each other since they attended New Roads School, where Engels is a senior.
Engels said a number of skaters from Westchester wanted to come down and skate along Venice streets to show their solidarity with a fellow skateboarder. “This is where skateboarding was born,” said the teenager, who lives in Westchester and frequents the Westchester Skate Plaza.
“I skate down the street every day when I go to the skate park,” Engels continued. “The fact that I have to second guess what I’m doing now because of what happened to Ron is ridiculous and it’s something that I’ve never had to do before.”
Weekley Sr. urged all parties involved not to let the police incident with his son leave a lasting stain on the place where he lives.
“We don’t want this to be the legacy of Venice,” he said. “So let’s come together and let’s create a legacy that we can all be proud of.”
Crump said the family remains insistent that the felony charges against their son be dropped.
“If they continue with these trumped up charges, if they don’t hold the officers accountable, the answer is ‘yes,’” the attorney responded when asked if legal action will be considered if the charges are not dismissed.
Nightingale implored those who attended the meeting to join one of the committees and stay involved in order to push for broader, long-term changes in how the police interact with residents of Oakwood. “This is a movement, not an incident,” she said. ¤