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Former councilman in dispute with city over sweat lodge says he was forcibly arrested

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A former Oakland City Councilmember says he was forcibly arrested in the city’s Planning and Zoning department on Thursday after an argument with staff stemming from a long dispute over having a sweat lodge on his property for his Native American spiritual practices.

Wilson Riles Jr., 73, served on the Oakland City Council from 1979-1992. He said that as he was leaving the city office on Thursday morning he was confronted by police officers who threw him to the ground and handcuffed him without giving him any indication that they intended to arrest him.

An Oakland police spokesperson said the department would not provide any additional details about Riles’ arrest until Monday. Police logs indicated he was arrested on suspicion of battery of a police officer.

Riles was released from Santa Rita Jail late Thursday night after posting $20,000 bail, he said.

Riles said in an interview:

“I am incensed, it’s not the relationship the city government ought to have with the residents.”

“I am frustrated and very concerned and ashamed of what’s happening in this city that I love.”

The arrest was the culmination of a long dispute that Riles has had with staff at the city’s planning department over the use of a sweat lodge to conduct Native American ceremonies in his backyard on 39th Avenue.

A neighbor had complained about the temporary structures that he and friends and family were using, where they would pour water on hot rocks to create a steam room.

Riles said that the neighbor complained to multiple city agencies about the activity and while the fire department took no issue with it, the planning department did.

He submitted extensive plans for the temporary structures, but staff at the planning department denied his application. When he appealed the decision to the planning commission, the commissioners unanimously voted in his favor.

Yet the complaints and the obstruction from the city’s staff continued, Riles said.

Riles said:

“This is a religious freedom question, it’s a cultural and ethnic question.”

“This is in many ways very similar to BBQ Becky at the lake or trying to shut down black churches in West Oakland. Folks are using the police and the directions of the city to try and close off things that they have no right to close off.”

He said:

“We have a right to practice our spiritual beliefs in our backyard that don’t disturb people any more than someone having a barbecue.”

Riles said that two weeks ago, planning staff arrived at his home and again indicated that they’d received complaints about the activity, which he considers harassment. Riles argued when he returned to the office on Thursday that his temporary structures were permitted under the city codes and demanded the inspector review the codes.

Instead, the inspector said he would call the police if Riles didn’t leave. Riles asked to see a supervisor and met with him, but as he was leaving, four or five police officers blocked his path.

He tried to walk by them but, he said, the officers twisted his arm behind him and tripped him, throwing him to the floor. He said the arrest left him bruised and sore.

Riles said he intends to file a complaint with the Oakland Police Commission.

Riles said:

“I am flabbergasted that the residents and workers in the city that I love are subject to this kind of treatment.”

“We have a long, long way to go in Oakland to improve how we are treated by our government and improve how we treat each other.”

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