Who is qualified to speak for the dead? Although many try, few of us have that type of authority.

Most often, folks try to invoke the name and authority of respected deceased public figures in order to gain support for some favorite new policy or other. How many times have you heard someone bring up the authors and signatories of the U.S. Constitution in the debate over, say, internet pornography, or speculating on what the Rev. Martin Luther King might say about Ward Connerly’s recent race initiatives? In truth, we don’t know what the dead would do or say today, or what they would think, even when we have an extensive public record of writings and speeches and actions to call upon.

That is even moreso true about those who have passed on and who were not public figures.

And yet we do so much in their names, as if we have access to their present thoughts.

Tribune columnist Peggy Stinnett did it the other day, in a column about the passage of Senator Don Perata’s anti-"sideshow" bill. Perata’s bill would allow police to seize cars off the streets and impound them for 30 days, without any show of proof, and without the benefit of prior hearing before an independent jury or judicial officer, merely on the word of the police officer that the driver of that car had engaged in an illegal activity. I suppose this makes sense if you believe that police officers are the only form of humanity that always tells the truth, and never makes mistakes. If I were invoking the name of the nation’s Founding Fathers, I might say that Perata’s anti-"sideshow" bill is a giant step backward from the Constitutional principle of due-process and the right to trial and a showing of proof before the enactment of punishment, and the Founding Fathers would probably strongly oppose it on those grounds. But of course, we shouldn’t be invoking the names of the deceased to support today’s causes.

But in buttressing her support of Perata’s bill, Ms. Stinnett brought in the name of U’Kendra Johnson, the young Oakland woman who was killed in an East Oakland auto accident last winter by a car driven by Oakland resident Eric Crawford. "U’Kendra K. Johnson must be smiling," Stinnett wrote earlier this month. "Where she is, there are no scary sideshows or reckless drivers."

In truth, we who did not know U’Kendra in life have no idea what she might have thought about sideshows. And none of us know if she had any clue as to the circumstances surrounding her death…the accident happened so fast. And, therefore, we shouldn’t presume.

There is, actually, one person in this city who may be qualified to speak for U’Kendra Johnson, and that person has, so far, said very little. Except for a few anguished comments in the newspaper in the week after the accident, U’Kendra’s mother, Winnie Johnson, has maintained a dignified public silence over her daughter’s death.

Though the dignity remains, the silence may be changing.

Earlier this month, with no public fanfare, Attorney John Burris brought a $10 million damage claim against the City of Oakland on behalf of Winnie Johnson for the death of her daughter, U’Kendra. The claim, filed with the City Attorney’s Office, names Eric Crawford as one of the defendants. But it also names the City of Oakland, Police Chief Richard Word, and those Oakland police officers who "contributed to causing the death of U’Kendra Johnson by intentionally or negligently pursuing Eric Crawford at high speeds without using their flashing red light or siren, thereby violating their duty to use due care towards bystanders (on foot and in vehicles)..."

There is the undisputed fact that U’Kendra Johnson died after being hit by Crawford’s car. There is a second undisputed fact that Crawford was being sought by Oakland police for a minor traffic violation…spinning donuts in his car in the middle of an intersection, several blocks from the scene of the Johnson accident. Aside from those two facts we have confirmed almost nothing…either publicly or legally…about the circumstances that led to the death of U’Kendra Johnson. In the politicians’ eagerness to be in on a "cure," we have bum-rushed over the most important preliminary step…a determination of the "cause."

But perhaps we are beginning to find out…

Originally Published September 4, 2002 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA