Dedan Ji Jaga shares his thoughts about relations between the police and African Americans.

By Genoa Barrow | Observer Senior Staff Writer

REPORTER’S NOTE: It was October 3, 1995. The day the verdict came in for the O.J. Simpson trial. I remember being a student journalist at the time, reporting for Contra Costa College’s nationally recognized newspaper, The Advocate. When the jury made its not-guilty announcement, the campus erupted with both anger and jubilation. Staffers went out on the grounds of the San Pablo, Ca. community college to get reactions from students and faculty. One of the people I spoke to that day, almost 26 years ago, was student leader Dedan Ji Jaga. On April 20, I spoke with Ji Jaga, whom I hadn’t seen or talked to since, getting his reflections on the Derek Chauvin trial and verdict, how Black men fare with law enforcement and how some things have changed and sadly, how much hasn’t since Simpson’s infamous acquittal.

Veterans advocate Dedan Ji Jaga can remember with absolute clarity every interaction he’s had with law enforcement. With the skin he’s in and having grown up in the Jim Crow South, there have been quite a few. 

“I get stopped a lot,” Ji Jaga said. “I wasn’t someone that was careless and showed blatant disrespect or disregard for that authority, but I did make a concerted effort to let them know that I wasn’t intimidated. I wasn’t fearful.”

There was the time in his native Danville, Virginia, however, where he was arrested for failing to comply to an order and “talking sh**” to a police officer who pulled him over. 

He got pulled over once for speeding while driving from Bakersfield to Virginia with his two daughters. He admits to going too fast, but says the officer seemed more upset that he was driving a nice, new mini van, than how fast he was going.

“He was looking at me like, ‘I’m out here chasing people speeding and this ni**a got a brand new van, driving cross country on a nice vacation. Let me show him, with these two tickets.’ So no, it doesn’t surprise me when you see a brother with a nice car get pulled over by the cops, because that’s happened to me,” Ji Jaga said.

There was also the time he and three friends were in New York riding in a town car that fit the description of a vehicle driven by four Black men suspected of robbing and beating a White couple. He and his friends, he said, “were drinking beer, smoking weed and minding our own business,” unaware of any crime being committed nearby.

“They came at us with shotguns, pistols, everything that you can imagine in terms of a weapon pointing at us from every degree; we said, ‘What’s going on?’ They start swearing at us, calling us names and this and that. One of the cops pulled out his badge and my partner looked at him and said, “What the fu** do you want me to do with that?’ That infuriated them that much more,” he shared.

Ji Jaga jokes about some of the details now, but the knowledge that he’s still alive to do so, when so many others aren’t, is not lost on him. He’s dodged several bullets.

“An older guy came to me and he said, ‘You show a foolish kind of courage,’” Ji Jaga said. 

“He said ‘sometimes that’s good, but let me tell you something, we live in the South and when them Good Old Boys decide they want to get you, they’ll get you.’ He said, ‘Don’t ever let yourself be caught naked, where they are going to have that kind of advantage over you.’ Those words were what echoed, ‘If they want to get you, they’ll get you.’”

Ji Jaga was born Earl Rainey Jr. His father was an electrician and businessman who hosted visiting civil rights leaders and joined other Black men in challenging segregation at a local golf course. He also admired his uncle, a man who embodied the swagger of a Marine. He wasn’t taught to remain silent or to back down.

Ji Jaga has packed a lot of living in his 73 years. He followed his uncle into the military. He worked with the Black Panthers and was given a new name by Geronimo Pratt, who was targeted by the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO project and wrongly imprisoned for 27 years. He acted as a security guard for a wealthy scientist and worked as a sports editor for the Black newspaper, The California Voice, in Berkeley.

Today, the Vietnam veteran leads the Richmond Chapter of the National Association for Black Veterans. He travels to Sacramento frequently in support of the local chapter of the organization and in hopes of getting Gov. Gavin Newsom to create an advisory committee to better serve veterans of color.

The Derek Chauvin case brought up memories for Ji Jaga, of past trials — George Zimmerman who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, the four Los Angeles police officers who savagely beat Rodney King in 1991, and of course football legend O.J. Simpson, who stood trial in 1995 for the grisly murders of his ex-wife, a White woman, and her friend. Simpson had a brilliant Black attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, who’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line is a part of the Black lexicon to this day.  

As it was a defining moment, many Blacks remember where they were when the O.J. Simpson verdict was handed down almost 26 years ago. Whether people liked Simpson or not, whether they believed in his innocence or not, there was a widespread belief in the Black community that Simpson had “won one for the team,” that a Black man was found not guilty of killing two White people.

Ji Jaga was a student at Contra Costa College in San Pablo at the time, a leader with the school’s Associated Students Union. 

“I remember, one brother came running out of the AA building, just screaming, ‘He’s innocent, he’s innocent.’ Everybody was, just like today (before the Chauvin verdict), just sitting on pins and needles, just hoping and praying. 

“Even back then I knew that O.J. was guilty and I’ve gotten in quite a few very heated arguments with a number of people that basically resent the fact that I would suggest that O.J. was guilty.”

Ji Jaga says he watched the Chauvin trial fairly consistently. Some said it was “too much” and chose not to follow the televised court proceedings.

“As a Black man myself, that was a special interest, how things would play out, how they would try to out the character of George Floyd, his behavior and so forth. Based on some of my experiences with the police, this would represent to me, another life lesson for Black men of all ages, for people of color in general as well.”

Ji Jaga says he was bothered tremendously by the video of Floyd’s interaction with Chauvin and the other officers present on the scene. 

“When they took him into custody, handcuffed him, started to manhandle him, you could see if George Floyd wanted to become violent, he would have been a handful. He was trying to de-escalate the situation and the police were just dousing him with gasoline before they ignited him. They wanted it to get out of hand to justify, I guess, some of that ill intent.”

Some said that all law enforcement was on trial right beside Chauvin. Outrage and mistrust of law enforcement is at an all-time high.

“I know quite a few police officers, some of them are of relatively sound and reputable character, and are good people whether they’re in uniform or not,” Ji Jaga.

He was classmates at one point with Bisa French, Richmond’s current and first Black female police chief, at Contra Costa College.

“Being a police officer, that takes certain personality traits, certain personality qualities. Some of the officers that I know, when they’re not in uniform, they’re quite different from when they are. I think there’s something to be said about the unbridled degree of authority or power that the police have. The badge. The gun. It gives you that sense of invincibility that the average citizen doesn’t have.

“It can temper the way a person approaches another person, especially in a conflict situation. I think this qualified immunity gives police officers the opportunity to cross that line. Some of them probably feel that the consequences are not going to be of any major harm to them, career-wise or otherwise. That that big blue wall is going to essentially wrap around them and protect them, and ensure that they don’t have to pay.”

Qualified immunity is a legal tenet that protects local, state and federal law enforcement officers from lawsuits seeking money damages unless the person suing can show that the officer violated a clearly established Constitutional right. Lawmakers are urging the passing of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, among its reforms is elimination of qualified immunity.

As a champion for veterans, Ji Jaga was particularly disturbed by a recent incident in Virginia where officers pepper-sprayed and pointed guns at a Black soldier, Second Lt. Caron Nazario, during a traffic stop.

That Nazario was wearing a uniform, signifying service to his country, didn’t matter, Ji Jaga said. Not when the skin underneath it was brown.

“Once those individuals decide that you represent some threat or danger or, they need to teach you a lesson,” he said.

Being targeted takes a toll on a Black man’s spirit and wellbeing, Ji Jaga said.

“I read something one time that said being Black in America is like being on a thrill ride 24 hours a day. Even when you’re asleep, you don’t really have an opportunity to recover from the stresses, the strain, the threats a Black man, a person of color, encounters on a daily basis. It’s kind of like, standing up against a big grinding wheel and having yourself just gradually worn away every day, the person that you are, is just diminished by these forces and influences every day and it’s virtually nothing you can do about that … it just wears away at your psyche.

“Many of us already have underlying medical problems and things like that. These types of encounters, often will exacerbate high blood pressure and other things that are common problems that Black people deal with. You get used to it after a while. I can’t really define or identify what the sensation is,” Ji Jaga said.

He remembers seeing the Rodney King beating that led to the infamous L.A. Riots 29 years ago.

“I can’t recall the number of times that Rodney King was struck. Somebody counted the blows that he sustained. To me, it speaks to his genetic composition that he survived. If you put a watermark at that incident in time of the Rodney King assault, and then you fast forward that until the day that they killed George Floyd, the situation has gotten worse, it hasn’t gotten better,” he said.

The Chauvin verdict won’t sway his opinion.

“It’s just a matter of time before we’re going to see something more egregious happen to a person of color than what happened to George Floyd. If you look back to Rodney King and then ahead to George Floyd, in between those two incidents there’s been some really disturbing civil atrocities that have taken place that people really didn’t make a big deal out of.”

After so many acquittals and rarely seeing justice or accountability, Ji Jaga concedes that the Chauvin conviction is a victory.

“This is one that we need to relish. This needs to be a watermark in time. This could be a turning point that wakes up America and shakes her violently enough to get her to understand.”