Vigil held for father, caretaker who died of 'medical emergency' in Alameda police custody

Activists and family members organized a vigil for a man who died Monday morning while in Alameda Police Department's custody during an attempted arrest. 

The candlelight vigil for 26-year-old Mario Arenales Gonzalez of Oakland was held at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday at 802 Oak Street in Alameda. 

Gonzalez was identified by police a day after his death.

On Wednesday, a statement released by Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice said he was a father of a 4-year-old boy and the caretaker for his 22-year-old brother, Efrain, who is autistic. 

"Mario was a noble and decent man who didn't deserve to have his life ended in this way," his mother, Edith Gonzalez, said in Spanish. Through a translator, she said Mario was the full-time caregiver to his autistic brother who is now distraught over the loss.

"Mario would take care of him. He would bathe him, shave him, fix his hair," his mother said. "He can't eat. He can't sleep. He keeps asking where Mario is." 

And his in-custody death is raising questions in Alameda. 

Investigators say Gonzalez suffered a medical condition, which they wouldn't reveal, causing his death. Police said Gonzalez was being arrested in connection with a possible theft in the 800 block of Oak Street in Alameda. They said they received two separate reports; one regarding the theft, the other about someone who appeared under the influence.

A police press statement reads, "…there was a scuffle as officers attempted to place (Gonzalez’s) hands behind his back. Officers did not use any weapons…"

However, family members say Gonzalez was healthy before coming into contact with law enforcement.

"He was indispensable to my family," said Gerardo "Jerry" Gonzalez, the victim’s younger brother. "He helped raise me too, you know?"

He said his brother was smart, kind, helpful, and committed to the family.

"How the hell did he die?" his brother said. "No. He's not an 80-year-old man with medical issues."

"We’re here to fight for justice. And make sure my brother gets justice and he doesn’t die in vain," he continued. "The Alameda Police Department needs to explain why a perfectly healthy man who's never charged with a crime was killed in their custody. I'm ready to fight. I got people ready to fight. We're locked and loaded. We're coming at them." 

The NAACP has also stepped in to ask questions about Gonzalez's death. 

"It all sounds familiar. And if we go back through the history of policing in America, we’ll see cases like this over and over again," said Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP.

Supporters question if racism played a role in when people called the police when they saw Gonzalez. Family members say they don't trust the information police have released. 

"He was a loving father. "He was a brother. He was a partner. He was a son," said George Galvis with CURYJ. "A brown man in Alameda looks suspicious ...Mario's dead."

In the press release by CURYJ, Barni Axmed Qaasim wrote that the Alameda Police Department has not released any facts about the killing, but has already begun releasing statements creating a negative image of Gonzalez. 

"[Alameda police] called him a suspect in a 'possible' theft. This is the continuation of a familiar pattern of criminalizing those killed by law enforcement in an attempt to discourage support and empathy. This heartless tactic only serves to retraumatize family members during their most difficult moments," Qaasim said. 

"Every law enforcement officer in the country is trained in proper arrest and control procedures or handcuffing. And so that’s what you have to look at, how it was done?," said Lisa Dadio, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.

She said the Alameda County coroner’s autopsy will be crucial in filling gaps in information.

The family is calling for an immediate release of officer-worn body camera video and a third-party autopsy to determine how Gonzalez died in police custody. Alameda police said the body-cam video could be released by April 30.

"It’s painful. It’s hurtful to hear this," said Linda Sanchez, a Gonzalez family friend. "And just the lack of transparency, I think that’s what’s adding more damage to this already painful circumstance." 

A GoFundMe has been set up by the Gonzalez family.