Occupy Oakland activists rally for former pariah

Demian Bulwa, SF Chronicle – Monday, January 9, 2012

Occupy Oakland protesters are rallying behind Marcel "Khali" Johnson, a mentally ill man who was arrested during a demonstration outside City Hall last month. Photo: Courtesy Adam Katz / SF

Occupy Oakland protesters are rallying behind Marcel “Khali” Johnson, a mentally ill man who was arrested during a demonstration outside City Hall last month. Photo: Courtesy Adam Katz / SF

PLEASANTON— One obstacle Occupy Oakland faced after building a City Hall encampment came not from authorities but from within – a mentally ill homeless man with a long prison record who witnesses said beat fellow campers in fits of rage. Some were so frightened they moved out.

No one called the police on the man, who called himself “Kali.” Instead, he was banished in an act of freelance justice, with a protester knocking him unconscious with a two-by-four Oct. 18. Police cleared the tent city a week later, and Mayor Jean Quan has cited the incident as a motivating factor.

Times have changed. On Monday, dozens of Occupy Oakland protesters went to a courthouse in Pleasanton to rail against prosecutors for filing assault charges against Marcel “Kali” Johnson, 38. Some said they forgave him and have come to see him as a good man who needs support, not more prison time.

“That’s the beauty of Occupy,” said Laleh Behbehanian, a UC Berkeley graduate student trying to help Johnson. She spoke after telling activists how they can visit him, in groups of four, at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.

Improved behavior

Johnson returned to Frank Ogawa Plaza outside City Hall a couple of weeks after being knocked unconscious, witnesses said, and did better this time, helping out before police swept through the camp a second time Nov. 14.

Johnson was one of several demonstrators arrested on minor charges there Dec. 16, as Occupy Oakland sought to maintain a 24-hour-a-day vigil. The next day, at Santa Rita Jail, Johnson was accused of assaulting an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy.

According to an affidavit by the arresting officer, Deputy Clifford Malihan, Johnson struggled as a second deputy, referred to as W. Chase, tried to handcuff him and move him between housing units.

Malihan wrote that Johnson first tried to strike Chase in the head, then got behind him and wrapped his arms around him. Malihan said he performed a leg sweep, causing Chase and Johnson to fall, and punched Johnson repeatedly.

Malihan said Chase suffered cuts, bruises and neck pain, while a third deputy suffered a minor concussion from an inadvertent baton strike.

Not-guilty plea

Johnson pleaded not guilty Monday and is scheduled to return to court Feb. 6. Alameda County prosecutors say he has six felony convictions, including one for domestic violence and two for robbery that count as strikes under California’s “three strikes” law, meaning he could face up to 25 years to life in prison.

However, Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said prosecutors had decided – at least for now – not to seek a “three strikes” sentence.

Johnson’s supporters said they believed the alleged assault would not have happened if he had been given proper psychiatric care. Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a sheriff’s office spokesman, said the jail had treated Johnson appropriately but would not elaborate, citing Johnson’s privacy rights.

“Are they going to blame someone else for everything he’s done in his criminal history?” Nelson said. “Throughout the course of Occupy we’ve been accused by them of many things regarding the custody and control of inmates.”

‘It’s a family’

Activist Rachel Dorney, 23, said she had tried to calm Johnson in the early days of the Occupy camp, and when he returned after being beaten, she was scared.

“Then, once you’re in our camp, and you’re helping people out, and you’re talking and not being so aggressive, it’s a family,” Dorney said. “And you have to support everyone.”

She added, “There’s a larger issue with the system. The city won’t support people who have mental issues or who are homeless, and they come to us.”

Jaime Omar Yassin, 42, said Johnson had a political awakening through Occupy.

“He’s exactly the kind of person you would hope would get a second chance,” Yassin said, “and contribute his experiences and knowledge to the movement.”