The death of Freddie Gray and the uprising in Baltimore have dominated news coverage for the past week. Incidents of police violence around the country have gained massive attention since, and even before, the uprisings in Ferguson last year. With all the attention paid to these national cases, we sometimes ignore the police killings of unarmed civilians in our own backyard.
On Saturday, May 2, concerned citizens from different races, gender identities, and economic backgrounds came together at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur to remember the lives of Georgians who were killed or maimed by police, or whose investigations were hampered by police interference. These people have names, and so do the people who killed them.
Kathryn Johnston was a 92-year old grandmother killed in her own home by Atlanta police serving a no-knock warrant based on false information. Mrs. Johnston attempted to defend herself from what she thought was an attack by intruders. She was viewed as a threat by officers who shot and killed her. Some of the officers involved were sentenced to prison terms for covering up details of the raid, but not for the killing of Mrs. Johnston.
Kevin Davis, a 44-year-old black man with no criminal history, was killed by Dekalb County police officer Joseph Pitts in December 2014. Davis had dialed 911 to get help for his wife, who had been stabbed by a guest. Police showed up, entered Kevin Davis’ home, shot his dog and then fired on Mr. Davis. Dekalb police then transported Mr. Davis to the hospital in handcuffs and refused to allow his family to visit. Kevin Davis died alone in the hospital three days later. He had previously taken part in Black Lives Matter marches and protests.
Anthony Hill, a 27-year-old US Air Force combat veteran and musician, was killed by Dekalb police officer Robert Olsen in March during a manic episode. Mr. Hill was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which can cause delusions and hallucinations. He was completely naked and obviously unarmed when Officer Olsen shot him. No charges have been filed in the case. Hill’s partner said of him at the #RestInPower memorial service, “If he wasn’t walking around smiling, he was walking around singing.” Matthew Ajibade, a 22-year-old Savannah College of Art & Design student from Lagos, Nigeria, who also suffered from mental illness, died under unexplained circumstances at the Chatham County Jail in January of this year. No charges have been filed in that case either.
Nick Thomas, 23, was killed in Smyrna just last month while six (yes, six) police officers attempted to serve a warrant at his workplace. Mr. Thomas fled, likely fearing for his safety, and was shot to death in a barrage of gunfire by police. Officers claim Mr. Thomas was driving toward them, but almost all bullet holes were fired into the side of the vehicle and witnesses report Mr. Thomas was driving away from officers at the time. Thomas’ mother is attempting to organize what she calls “strong women” from all 50 states to raise awareness and combat police violence.
Kendrick Johnson’s body was found rolled up in a wrestling mat at his school in Valdosta last year. School officials and investigators claim Johnson, age 17, crawled into the gym mat himself and died from asphyxiation. A subsequent independent autopsy revealed Johnson died from blunt force trauma and when his body was exhumed most of the internal organs were missing. The clothes Kendrick wore to school that day were never found and local police have been notoriously uncooperative in dealing with the family.
Just last week Atlanta police shot and killed Alexia Christian, 25. Ms. Christian had been patted down, handcuffed, and placed in the back of a squad car when officers claim she opened fire on them from inside the vehicle. This is not the first case, even in Georgia, of police killing a handcuffed victim. In September of last year, Savannah police shot and killed 29-year-old Charles Smith, whose hands were cuffed behind his back.
Here in the North Georgia mountains last year, Bounkham Phonesavanh (“Baby Bou Bou”) was maimed when Habersham County deputies served a no-knock warrant and tossed a flash-bang grenade into the crib where Baby Bou Bou was asleep. The Habersham Sheriff’s Department has refused to take responsibility for the incident and sheriff Joseph Terrell laughed through an interview with WSB-TV when questioned how he felt about the matter. The family recently reached a $1 million settlement with the county (which will likely come out of taxpayers’ pockets, not from the sheriff’s departments budget). The settlement amount doesn’t even cover the family’s medical costs. Baby Bou Bou has suffered permanent facial damage and scarring and will likely suffer emotional trauma the rest of his life. The family and their supporters continue to push for charges against the officers involved.
While the focus of recent victims of police violence has been centered on young black males, it’s important to note that women, Latinos, American Indians, LGBT people, and even poor whites are also frequent victims of these incidents. This is an issue that crosses racial boundaries and affects almost all Americans who don’t belong to the ruling class. The Freddie Gray and Baby Bou Bou cases demonstrate we need not even break any laws to become victims of the police.
We should see more than just people of color out in the streets protesting and chanting that Black Lives Matter. While protests are a great catalyst for sparking conversations about race and police violence, charges against officers in the Freddie Gray case would never have been filed without the Baltimore Uprising. We need to find more long-term solutions to resolve these problems.
In cities like New York and Oakland, residents are aggressively filming almost every police interaction to the point that police are no longer comfortable entering some neighborhoods. Residents host block parties and declare their neighborhoods “cop-free zones.” The flip side of this is that these neighborhoods are building community self-defense groups and select local residents, rather than outside police, to keep their neighborhoods safe. It’s important to note that, like many urban police forces, 70% of Baltimore City police reside outside city limits and 10% live outside the state. Community self-defense ensures community defenders are accountable to and come from within their own neighborhoods. This approach has proven highly successful in Latin American countries, where state police are corrupt or non-existent, and these ideas are slowly making their way into the consciousness of Georgia residents and those across the United States.
We recognize that many police officers mean well and are truly dedicated to protecting our communities. Unfortunately, the system in which they’re required to work doesn’t allow them to protect us in the ways we need and very often makes our communities more dangerous. Modern police forces were created to enforce the will of the ruling class on working people and have proven highly effective in that regard.
In Lumpkin County and most of North Georgia, we’re fortunate to have a low violent crime rate and mostly responsible police forces. However, we believe that ourselves and our neighbors are best equipped to decide how our public safety can most effectively be administered. The Baby Bou Bou incident in Habersham County proves that even rural mountain communities are not immune from the effects of police violence and a lack of accountability.
If we are made uncomfortable by the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, perhaps that tells us something about the role we all play in these incidents. Spokesperson for the families of Kendrick Johnson and Baby Bou Bou, Marcus Coleman, said at the Decatur memorial service: “The time is now to make those uncomfortable in the places they feel most comfortable.” If we can feel content and safe while our neighbors suffer the structural violence of poverty, mass incarceration, and gentrification and the immediate violence of crime in their neighborhoods and police violence, perhaps it’s time to step out of our comfort zone and support our neighbors who are fighting for their lives.
If one of us suffers, we all suffer and none of us is free until we are all free.
Participating groups included: Oakhurst Baptist Church, Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, WeCycle Atlanta, Active Voice, Raise Up ATL, Rise Up Atlanta, #ItsBiggerThanYou, Gen Y Project, Decatur Black Lives Matter, Davis Bozeman Law Firm, Save Our Selves (SOS), Atlanta Q&T POC, Atlanta Friends Service Committee, Willie Watkins Funeral Home, Henry & June, and Jewish Voice for Peace, Action in Dahlonega
More on community self-defense and the origins of modern policing:
Click here for an update on the Matthew Ajibade case.
More information on Georgia victims of police violence:
Kathryn Johnston: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/02/24/atlanta.police/
Kevin Davis: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/dekalb-police-respond-to-critics-of-officer-who-sh/nj55t/
Kendrick Johnson: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/parents-of-star-recruit-sue-kendrick-johnson-faceb/nj5c2/
Charles Smith: http://legalinsurrection.com/2014/09/georgia-police-officer-shoots-kills-handcuffed-black-suspect/
Alexia Christian: http://clatl.com/freshloaf/archives/2015/05/04/activists-apd-should-immediately-release-camera-footage-in-alexia-christian-police-shooting
Nick Thomas: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/family-of-man-killed-by-smyrna-police-call-for-fbi/nkd64/
Anthony Hill: https://actionindahlonega.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/anthony-hill-unarmed-georgia-man-murdered-by-police/
Matthew Ajibade: http://www.blackyouthproject.com/2015/01/how-did-matthew-ajibade-die-in-custody/
Baby Bou Bou: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/report-family-of-baby-bou-bou-county-reach-964k-se/nkzmb/