[The CRC] was a very important because no other organization was taking on civil rights issues. The NAACP had a branch in Richmond [California] which was very strong, but they didn't fight on civil rights issues. They fought on more educational-type issues. They did most of their stuff going to governors and mayors, trying to get a black person in some kind of official position, getting him appointed, something like that. They didn't fool with police brutality,
The Civil Rights Congress took on a lot of issues and won tremendous support in Northern California and Oakland. At the time, they were the only organization fighting for civil rights in a meaningful way. It cost about $3-4,000 to get a lawyer to fight for you on a rights case, and the CRC was handling things like that. A lot people who would have been convicted because they wouldn't have any representation in court, and CRC gathered the lawyers and raised the money.
It wasn't long before there was a deluge of cases coming in. For example: there were more shipyards then, and a lot of [people who] worked on nightshifts would get their paychecks on Friday. There were liquor stores all around there, and they would go to the liquor store and if they bought a pint of whiskey, they would cash ther checks for them. The police would catch these guys with the bottle they had opened, and put them in the car and arrest them, even though the man was not drunk. [The police would] get him in the car and maybe one would get in the back with him. They'd whip him around the legs with a club or something and take his money -- and then say, "You've been gambling; you got this money gambling, or you must have stolen it."
It was widespread enough, especially out on 7th and Adeline [in Oakland]...if the guy protested, he went down to City Hall. The judge would say, "You're lying; my cops wouldn't do nothing like that. You're trying to discredit my police force! Why would he lie, they are paid to work." Blah, blah. And if the guy was lucky and got off, he's going to get his head beaten by those cops the next time they catch him on the street.
Well we learned of this, we started to tell some of the guys to report it to the CRC. The guy who made the case was a man by the name of Cunningham, [who had been] whipped around the legs with ther clubs. He had enough confidence and enough courage to let the CRC fight his case. A jury exonerated him: not guilty. And to some degree, the police department was indicted through publicity.
More and more of these guys were willing to report their case to the CRC. Some of them would just be walking down the street at night, having done nothing. The cops would pull up beside them and say, put your hands up, then frisk them. If they didn't find anything, they'd put something in their pockets, like a knife or something. They would take the guy, take his money, and book him. But they wouldn't keep him long: just an hour or two. He'd get his wallet back from the clerk but the money would be gone. He'd say, I had 30 dollars in my wallet; the clerk would say, what do you mean you had 30 dollars? This is all you've got; you're going to lie if you say we took your money. You couldn't prove it.
There was a sickening number of cases like that. We went to court on some of these cases and sued the police. Very, very hard cases to win. Almost impossible. Lawyers -- very soon, we were the only ones in town -- and I mean the only ones, who ever sued the police for damages for these beatings. For assult, battery, injury. Of course, we also represented these blacks at the same time when they were charged with resisting arrest -- another favorite charge, also hard to beat.
So very soon, some of the criminal lawyers in town started to send cases to us. They'd say, "Well, I'm representing this guy and the police really beat the shit out of him. I really think he ought to sue." I'd say, "Why don't you do it?" "I can't do it. I gotta get along with the police. You got nothing to lose. Why don't you do it?" That was pretty much the attitude. And for many, many years, we were, almost without exception, the only lawyers to ever sue the police. We were, in turn, hated by the police.