Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the third annual Clinton R. Allen Youth Speak Out yesterday afternoon. For the past few years, Mothers Against Police Brutality has held this symposium to discuss police brutality and injustice. The event is named in honor of Clinton R. Allen, a 25 year old who was killed by Dallas officer, Clark Staller. Allen, who was the father of twin boys and had dreamed of being a 5th generation rancher, passed away after Staller shot him seven times. The young man was unarmed, and according to witness accounts, was following instructions when the officer ended his life.
I attended this event as a volunteer, since I am passionate about the topic of equal justice and effective policing, so I didn't intend to include this topic as a blog article. Therefore, unfortunately, I didn't record all of the names of the speakers or note all of their details. After I left the event and as I went through my day, their voices continued to resonate in my head. When I woke up this morning, I knew I wanted to share their stories with others.
The topic of police brutality is a hot button issue in this country- people have found themselves on different sides- some fighting against police brutality and some arguing that police have difficult jobs and shouldn't be criticized. One of the speakers said that about 1200 people are killed every year by the people who are supposed to protect and serve us and at the end of the day, most of these officers are never prosecuted. Most of the people who are murdered are people of color, but there have also been White people who were killed during police interactions. Unfortunately, many people have relegated the issue of police brutality and unequal justice to being "a black issue," (which means that the issue gets very little coverage and/or concern) but in truth, this problem is a "justice issue." The Clark R. Allen event did a great job of showing people from different backgrounds and from different states which highlights the fact that death or injury at the hands of police can happen to anybody.
Rekia Boyd's brother spoke at the event, relating his account of finding out that his sister was the 22 year old woman he had heard about on the news who had been shot in the back of the head by a plainclothes officer. Another person spoke about how her son had gone to buy a sandwich and was subsequently shot multiple times by an officer while trying to shield his face. They found a gun near the young man's body, but it turned out the victim's fingerprints weren't on it and ballistics revealed that the victim hadn't shot the gun. Another woman spoke about how her son was arrested and called her and said that the police were trying to "electrocute" him- he later ended up dead after being tased and beaten in his cell. "He's having a nervous breakdown," one of the police officers told her over the phone. The thing that struck me was how many similarities there were in these stories: Unarmed people killed, their deaths swept under the rug by a careless justice system, key information withheld from family members, family members' emotions being policed by law enforcement and judges ("I don't want to hear any outbursts upon reading this verdict!" one judge hissed at the family), some officers with a history of excessive force and with their own run-in's with the law. And the ultimate similarity: True justice was never served. Officers were suspended or moved around, one was promoted. Another filed for disability because he claimed he had PTSD from shooting Rekia Boyd in the head.
Some people wave away concerns about police brutality- "they must have done something wrong for that to happen to them," they shrug. Remarkably, it's the same sort of reaction that many people have to rape victims' stories or when hearing stories of people who were abused or sexually harassed in the work place. I think that deep down, people don't want to believe that something so terrible could happen to them or to their families. So they mentally turn victims into their own perpetrators. It was what they were wearing, or doing, or saying, or the look they had on their face, or they had done something bad in the past so perhaps they deserved everything they got. It's a very flimsy insulation against a sometimes cruel and irrational world, where sometimes the people who wear the friendly face or hold the badge or the gavel or sit behind the boss' desk, may not be who you think they are at all.
What was most heartbreaking is that every single family member who spoke made sure to include the wonderful things their child or sibling had done- "he was an accountant," "he was a straight A student," she had dreams, he had goals. Everyone was so used to having to prove their family member's worth- to prove that this person's life mattered, that they didn't deserve to die. One woman mentioned that "human life matters" regardless of their grades or whatever accolades they'd received throughout their lives. Her brother had been shot in the head four times by police officers. He lived ten days in the hospital before he passed away. Several family members reported that they had to fight for their deceased loved one- telling stories about who their son or sibling really was in order to change the narrative that was perpetrated by the police and the media. In the midst of grief, they had to become public relations professionals so their loved ones wouldn't go down in the news as "thugs" or "potential killers" or the like.
Perhaps the takeaway from this event was that we all have the opportunity to make a difference. Some of us are writers, some of us are public speakers, some of us are politicians, some of us are attorneys, some of us are judges, some of us wear the badge and try to do the job right, some of us are just people who feel that sting of pain every time we see another news story about yet another person who was beaten or killed by law enforcement. Beaten for jaywalking? Shot while trying to pull out his driver's license? We can all make a difference- we can protect each other. Like one woman said, looking out into the crowd, her eyes sad: "Help us before it happens to you."
-Photo from ABC News