El Cajon memorial
When Alfred Olango’s sister called 911 two weeks ago, she was seeking help for her brother, whom the media reported was mentally ill and the family has said was having an emotional crisis in reaction to the suicide of a friend. These details are beside the point: The police recorded the call as a 5150, or a psychiatric issue, and as such, should have dispatched the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT). This team being unavailable, officers untrained to handle a mental health crisis were dispatched instead. They arrived 50 minutes after the call, aggressively approached Olango and immediately cornered him, something mental health professionals say is the exact opposite of any de-escalation protocol.
In less than two minutes, one officer had tased Olango while the other shot and killed him. Neither officer attempted to talk to the victim’s sister who can be heard on cell phone video pleading that her brother was having a breakdown. Someone even tells her to “shut the fuck up!”
In a video posted to Facebook five days later, dozens of police officers in riot gear can be seen moving in on a small group of peaceful mourners holding vigil at the spot where Alfred Olango died. This shield-wearing, baton-wielding state-sponsored militia arrived after days of peaceful protests (“don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype”) and declared that this also-peaceful gathering—which included at least two children—comprised an “unlawful assembly.”
The officers gave everyone 10 minutes to leave and then proceeded to move in slowly like a boa constrictor choking its prey, compressing the space from several directions until they’d boxed in the citizens who remained. The children can be heard crying. Police arrested 17 people, including the mother of the kids on bogus charges.
And then. Then they began to dismantle the memorial that had been built over several days, desecrating the memory of the man they killed.
I have been down in El Cajon, have participated in a faith-based gathering and march and have spent time at the exact spot where Alfred Olango died. It was while I was standing quietly at the restored memorial the day after the dismantling—looking at photos of Olango and his family, survivors of war and genocide, reading the handwritten messages left by friends and strangers alike—that I thought of Chelsea King.
For those who have forgotten, King was a beautiful, young high school student who was murdered while out on a run one day in Rancho Bernardo. Following the discovery of her body in a shallow grave, San Diegans came out by the thousands to mourn her loss.
There were vigils all across this city and up and down the coast. Memorials were erected to honor all the promise that had been snuffed out in one horrific, despicable and inexcusable act. Elected officials and community leaders everywhere publicly mourned; Arnold Schwarzenegger, our governor at the time, came to Balboa Park in support of a law in King’s name. There is a freeway bridge named after her, an annual 5K run and a foundation to honor her legacy.
“When our daughter Chelsea went missing, and we learned the terrible truth of our loss,” her parents write on the Chelsea’s Light Foundation’s homepage, “we struggled to find air to breathe.”
Those words. They are the words of a movement and make me feel some kind of way.
The grief of Chelsea’s parents is beyond imagination. But it is not unique to them, or to all who felt their loss so acutely as to be moved to show up, be visible, and then take action to make something good come from something despicable; to transform their feelings into policy change.
And during that time of such darkness and sorrow, anger and outrage over King’s senseless death, not one police department sent out militarized officers to break up the assembly of so many mourners and vigil-holders. There was not one single unlawful assembly declaration that I can remember. There were no ultimatums given to, or arrests of, folks gathered to contemplate the state of our humanity while peacefully lighting candles, holding hands, wrapping arms around one another, whispering memories and wiping away tears of grief for this life that had been snuffed out in one horrific, despicable and inexcusable act.
And there certainly, definitely, absolutely was no removal by police officers of candles or signs or flowers or stuffed animals from any memorial.
Some will write to tell me I’m comparing apples and oranges. And I will argue that I’m comparing black and white.
As I see it, Chelsea King and Alfred Olango were both loved by their families, friends and the communities in which they lived. As I see it, each were the now-unfulfilled promise of their parents. As I see it, the only real difference is that King was killed by a civilian monster while Olango was killed by a deputized one.
And that deputized one? He didn’t take a single moment to speak to Olango’s sister or hear what she had to say before he pulled his trigger four times at close range. Because she didn’t matter to him, and Olango didn’t matter to him. And the mourners at the taco shop where Olango died, who are still out there each night to alleviate this trauma and grief, do not matter to them, vividly underscoring without doubt and with punctuation, that all lives definitely, definitely do not fucking matter.