Naked, unarmed and still shot dead

March 19, 2015

Dora Curry, Tom Gagné and Jonathan Ellis report on the outpouring of grief and anger in yet another community shaken by the police murder of an unarmed Black man.

TWO GUNSHOTS echoed across Chamblee Tucker Road in the northeast quadrant of metro Atlanta on a quiet Monday afternoon. Moments later, 27-year-old Anthony Hill died on the pavement of his apartment complex, naked and unarmed.

Hill was shot to death by DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen on March 9, when Olsen responded to a call from another resident of the apartment complex, apparently stating that a man was acting strangely on the grounds, according to the police report. Upon his arrival, Olsen claims that Hill "charged" him. However, some witness reports contradict that claim.

That Anthony was unarmed is undisputed. But with an all-too-familiar excuse, Olsen says he "feared for his own safety" because Anthony was advancing toward him. Even if this was true, Olsen had two non-lethal options available to him--pepper spray and a Taser. Yet he chose to shoot Anthony dead.

Anthony was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and participated in combat in Afghanistan, which may have exacerbated his struggle with bipolar disorder.

Atlanta marches for Anthony Hill
Atlanta marches for Anthony Hill

Before the investigation is even complete, the county police department rushed to defend Olsen. "We have what we refer to as a continuum force," said DeKalb County Public Safety Director and Chief of Police Cedric Alexander. "Continuum of force" is the legal principle that allows police officers to use proportionate force when threatened.

But local activists are pointing out the obvious: There is nothing proportionate about using of a gun against a naked, unarmed Black man.

Alexander's claim is even more frustrating knowing the fact that Alexander was appointed by Barack Obama in December to the 11-member Task Force on 21st Century Policing in the wake of the public outcry, after grand juries failed to indict the cops who killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

THIS MOST recent police murder has once again spurred people to action. Within 24 hours, Rise Up ATL and #ShutItDownATL organized a demonstration under the Black Lives Matter banner. Rise Up ATL is an organization that took shape in the wake of Occupy Atlanta, and has focused on the Fight For $15 movement and more recently racist police violence.

Outrage filled downtown Decatur as hundreds of protesters converged on the square in front of the DeKalb County Courthouse. Made up of Black Lives Matter organizers, mental-health advocates and veteran disability organizers, the march took the streets and shut down traffic at several intersections.

Demonstrators expressed frustration at holding repeated protests that have yielded little progress. One person shouted, "Don't tell people to put their hands up--fist up, fight back." Another said the people will have to "shut the whole country down" to achieve significant change. People are placing the blame squarely on the police, as an aggressive, militarized force organized to protect the powerful at the expense of the persecution of Black men and women.

A later protest at the apartment complex where Anthony was shot was attended by many from the community. Kids in the complex knew Anthony as a helpful guy in the neighborhood who would get their soccer ball off of the roof or buy them candy when they were short of money.

After a short speak-out, activists led the community on a march that grew so large that it effectively shut down a highway bridge. The community then marched back to the apartment complex for more speeches.

Just as some activists and community members decided to hold another march, DeKalb County police took the opportunity to flex their muscles, arresting several people, including a 15-year-old girl who had seen Anthony's slain body.

Despite DeKalb County being the second-wealthiest Black-majority county in the country, pockets of poverty dot the region. Predominantly Black and Brown communities are, of course, overrepresented within these pockets. The show of Black and Brown unity during the community march was inspiring in a racist area that seeks to exploit differences between people.

ATLANTA PROVES that racism won't be ended by economic and electoral advancement for a minority of Black people under the prevailing system. Following the historic success of the civil rights movement, the city of Atlanta has projected itself as "post-racial," well before the term became widely used during the Obama era.

The self-styled "city too busy to hate" experienced less violence than many cities outside the South during the wave of desegregation that followed the civil rights movement. City leaders absorbed the reality that economic growth depended on stability--and with a high concentration of Black people, it would have to suppress racial unrest in order to create such stability.

City officials were also hoping that by gaining the allegiance of an aspiring Black elite, they could ensure relative compliance from Black people of all classes. Through concessions such as the creation of a class of Black elected officials and the nurturing of an emerging Black capitalist class, the city has built a reputation as a "Black Mecca"--a friendly environment for up-and-coming Black entrepreneurs, media empires and politicians.

Why then do unarmed Blacks die at the hands of the police in this so-called paragon of post-racial America?

Less than three months before the police murder of Anthony Hill, Kevin Davis was shot to death at his metro Atlanta home. Kevin's girlfriend April Edwards was stabbed during a domestic dispute with their roommate. Kevin called the police and ran to his girlfriend's defense, armed with a gun while the roommate escaped. When officers arrived, they shot Kevin's dog before announcing themselves. Thinking this was the roommate returning, Kevin again grabbed his weapon, stepped outside and was immediately shot down by DeKalb County officer J.R. Pitts, who is also Black.

The family's lawyer says that witnesses heard gunshots before the officer shouted, "Drop your weapon." Kevin was shot three times and then isolated in a hospital. Prevented from seeing his family and friends, police charged Kevin with aggravated assault and cuffed him to the hospital bed where he would die alone two days later.

In 2006, the Atlanta Police Department (APD) once again gained national attention with the murder of 92-year-old grandmother Kathryn Johnson.

She was killed when officers knocked and then forcibly entered her home in what was later claimed to be a "botched" drug raid. Fearing for her life, with no idea that these were heavily armed police officers, Kathryn fired her gun once--then officers unleashed a hail of 39 bullets, killing Kathryn and injuring three officers. It was later proven that one of the officers planted marijuana after they discovered the mistake they made, and then documents were falsified to attribute Kathryn's home as the correct address for the raid.

In 2011, during the height of Occupy Atlanta, Black teenager Joetavius Stafford was shot in the back and killed by metro transit police during a fistfight after a sporting event. Although Joetavius had a weapon that evening, he was unarmed when the police officer shot him.

Then there was unarmed Black teenager Ervin Jefferson, shot and killed in 2012 by security guards impersonating police. Also in 2012, unarmed Black teen Ariston Waiters was shot twice in the back while handcuffed and killed in the impoverished suburb of Union City. Earlier this year, Aboymai Royalston, a 26-year-old Black man who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia, was shot three times by police.

THESE BLACK men and women represent only a handful of the countless other Black Atlanta residents whose lives have been stolen by police officers and security guards in the "Black Mecca."

The case of Atlanta demonstrates that racist police violence is not a matter of a "few bad apples" acting out their personal hatred on the job. While officer Olsen was white, both the Atlanta city police force and the police forces of the two major counties comprising Atlanta--Fulton and DeKalb--are predominantly Black. The Atlanta Police Department has one of the largest Black forces in the U.S., with a Black chief of police--Atlanta's city council has only white member. Plus, it was a Black officer who shot Kevin Davis to death.

This proves that we need more than just a police force and political representatives that share the same racial makeup as the people they patrol or govern. Atlanta's Black majority is the overwhelming target of the city's police force, while policing in the city's northern, more white and more affluent areas is far, far less intense.

The class and corporate dimensions of Atlanta are also reflected in the fact that in this city famous for its civil rights history, daily life is deeply segregated. Despite a significant Black elite, the wealthier white counties that have been incorporated into the metro area have implemented a range of racist policies, up to and including enforcing residential segregation and an underfunded "public" transportation system.

During the Great Recession of 2008, close to 18,000 homes went into foreclosure in Atlanta during the first quarter of 2008, disproportionately affecting Black homeowners who were nudged into subprime mortgages.

This is compounded by the fact that virtually no public housing exists in Atlanta. In 2010, after Section 8 housing applications for a spot on the waiting list were made available for the first time in eight years, some 30,000 residents in one of the city's most impoverished areas showed up hoping to get one of only a few hundred vouchers, nearly resulting in a riot.

In the face of the daily violence of poverty and segregation, the Black Lives Matter movement is compelled to confront the reality that police violence, the defunding of public services, school closures, and a two-tiered system of transportation are jointly facilitated by the white and Black ruling classes of Atlanta.

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