Former city councilman beaten by Oakland police during zoning dispute has been awarded $360,000

The city of Oakland is paying over a quarter million dollars to a former community official. The ex-politician sued the city, claiming he was beaten and arrested by police in 2019 after members of Oakland’s planning department called 911 on him.

Wilson Riles Jr. (Photo: CBS News screenshot)

Wilson Riles Jr., a former member of the Oakland City Council, says he complained about a zoning decision the department wouldn’t make immediately that directly affected his residency and his faith community. At the center of the dispute was the question of what permits he needed to perform certain rituals on his land.

That day, tempers ran high and law enforcement was called in to de-escalate the dispute between the man and the workers.

Upon arriving at the scene, officers reportedly threw the man face down on the ground, and a year later he sued the city over the altercation. according to to the Mercury News.

Three years after the altercation, on July 19, the man settled with the city on his federal lawsuit alleging that members of the Oakland Police Department violated his civil rights during the arrest. The city council agreed to give an award of $360,000 to Riles, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor three times.

Though the city has settled, it continues to deny any wrongdoing and has not confirmed Riles’ claims regarding the 2019 altercation.

According to court documents, officers were called by a city employee who described Riles as a “hostile person.” The former councilman, who runs the sweat lodge, clashed with two people over a long-standing dispute over his using the structure he built for ritual purposes in the backyard of his 39th Avenue property.

This isn’t the only authentic indigenous structure on the property. Riles also has a detached yurt for overnight stays.

Neighbors unaffiliated with the community wanted to close it, reporting smoke from the rituals and a lack of neighborhood parking during the events.

His family and other members of the Nafsi Ya Jamii, an Indigenous American group also known as the “Community of Souls,” used the sweat lodge to hold religious ceremonies and clashed with other neighbors who disrupted their sacred rites. The politician, who served as the city’s lawmaker from 1979 to 1992, said he went to city officials because he wanted action.

“I guess a black man shouldn’t raise his voice because raising my voice caused them to call the police department,” Riles said.

Police arrested the then 73-year-old as he attempted to exit the city office, blocking his safe passage and attempting to twist his arm behind his back as they pressed his face into the ground. Officers claimed he resisted being handcuffed and charged him with obstructing an officer and suspected of assaulting a police officer.

He was booked and sent to Santa Rita Jail.

Those charges were later dropped after the Alameda County Attorney’s Office refused to file them.

Riles said after the incident, according to US News, “I’m the most peaceful person there is. There was no intention on my part to be violent in any way. You thought the only answer to that was to call the police to pull me out? That makes no sense.”

A year later, Riles hired his attorney, Walter Riley, a local civil rights attorney, and filed the complaint, alleging the man’s civil rights were violated when officers used excessive force to wrongfully arrest him. It further alleged “racial discrimination, retaliation… and unlawful arrest” on the part of the OPD.

The plaintiff also alleged in the lawsuit that the two planning staffers threw “racist and inflammatory remarks” at him, according to

Despite the conflict with the OPD, he and his community have prevailed.

Riles said that while the zoning department was initially on her side, she changed her position due to pressure from “confused neighbors,” according to a GoFundMe page. However, something changed after the Riles and police incident.

“With tremendous help from the community,” he wrote in 2020 after the incident, “we worked our way through five years of bureaucratic struggle to a unanimous decision in our favor from the Planning Commission and a nearly unanimous decision in our favor from the city council.” At the end of 2019, Zoning haunted us again for almost the same issues. I [Wilson Riles, a 74-year-old black man] went to the building department to solve the problem. I was tripped, thrown to the ground and taken to Santa Rita Jail.

Although the City Council approved the settlement, Riles does not believe justice has been done.

“I don’t think it’s justice,” he said. “Getting the deal doesn’t mean admitting it’s wrong or that its officials need retraining.”

He further noted that he will use “as much of this money as possible” to support police reform efforts, hoping to advocate for changing laws and city statutes and developing diversity training for officers, to enhance their sensitivity to the community they serve.

Oakland prosecutors declined to comment on the settlement. Former city councilman beaten by Oakland police during zoning dispute has been awarded $360,000

James Brien

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