Viral video of Alameda Police detaining a black man while exercising is raising questions

Screenshot from a viral video showing Alameda Police momentarily detaining a black man on May 23.

A viral video of a black man being detained by Alameda Police officers while exercising is gaining the attention of city officials and the public in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

Four Alameda police officers restrained Mali Watkins on May 23 before wrestling him to the ground on the 2000 block of Central Avenue in Alameda. Watkins was later given a citation by police.

Alameda Police released body-camera video of the incident on Friday, along with the call for service. The call to the police dispatcher reported an African American man walking and dancing in the middle of the street.

Watkins told officers that he practices martial arts choreography every day in the area. “I do this every morning. Let’s me go! I have the right to exercise on my street,” he said after being detained by police.

For context, the incident in Alameda occurred two days before a Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee to the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes, leading to Floyd’s death and nationwide anger and protests.

Over the next week, a video of the incident in Alameda created by a member of the public went viral on various social media sites.

Watkins is known to those in the neighborhood as someone who exercises in the area. A woman in the video is heard corroborating Watkins’ daily activity. “Why are you making a problem out of nothing?” she called out to police.

Alameda Councilmember Malia Vella said she saw an initial description of the incident in a Reddit posting on May 23, but without yet witnessing video of the incident. Vella alerted City Manager Eric Levitt on May 25 and asked for more information, she said. The officer involved was described to her as a rookie cop who incorrectly handled the matter, Vella said. She also asked for the citation to be rescinded.

However, when Vella later viewed the video, the explanation previously given to her by the city manager did not match what she had now witnessed. In a tweet on Friday, Vella accused the police department of a “cover-up.”

“They said there was one novice officer who responded. In the video, there’s four officers. I don’t know why someone on staff would be compelled to mischaracterize what happened,” Vella said in an interview. “There’s no reason to lie. There’s no reason for a cover-up. This is what people are talking about police departments and closing ranks.”

In her series of tweets, Vella said Levitt apologized for the misunderstanding. “I don’t have cause to question Eric. I believe he is genuine,” Vella said. In addition, the city is beginning an independent investigation of the May 23 incident.

“I don’t think our city manager is involved in a cover up. I don’t know who he spoke to and what he was told,” Vella said. She hopes the independent investigation will help determine who disseminated the false or incomplete information to Levitt, Vella added,

“If a bystander hadn’t recorded this, if people wouldn’t have posted this on social media, this wouldn’t have come out,” said Vella.

Although Alameda, landlocked from its East Bay neighbors, once had a history of racial intolerance and redlining tactics that sought to keep African American off the island, it has since become one of the most racially diverse populations in the Bay Area, while also being, politically, one of the most progressive cities in the East Bay.

At the same time, Alameda Police has largely avoided controversy in an era when police brutality and accountability has become society-defining issues.

Last Tuesday, Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri noted an Alameda police officer has not been involved in an officer-involved shooting in 15 years, he said. “We can all talk about the things that are broken and wrong with this country, specifically with policing in this country,” Rolleri said. “That’s real stuff and I get it. But it doesn’t matter what I say, it’s what I do.”