‘The whole system can burn to the ground’
What was supposed to be a normal visit to the drive-through pharmacy at Giant Eagle turned into a police encounter that left Kamahlai Muhammad, an eight-month pregnant Black woman, fearing for her life.
Ms. Muhammad’s five-year-old son had an ear infection, prompting the doctor to prescribe him some medicine. When she went to the drive-through of the local grocery store and pharmacy, the pharmacist told her it would take 5-10 minutes. Soon after, Jeff Desimone, the chief of police of Homestead, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa., pulled in behind her. She said after a while, he turned on his police lights and started yelling and screaming, saying she needed to move her car and go back around so he could get his prescription.
“I’m like, no, I’m not moving. What gives you the right to turn on your lights and try to intimidate me and try to make me move? I was here first. You’re going to have to wait your turn. I’m not moving. I can’t go in. You’re an able body, you can go in. You don’t have children with you, I do. I’m not getting out of the line,” she said to The Final Call.
About five minutes later, more police officers arrived. One of them eventually asked her what was going on. After she explained, the officer asked the pharmacist to expedite the order.
While the situation didn’t escalate past the police chief verbally harassing and shouting at her, the incident left Ms. Muhammad appalled.
“I was fearing for my life because I’m thinking about everything that goes on in the world today whenever cops are involved. So here I am, a Black mom, pregnant with my sick child in the car, and I’m outnumbered by six police officers. All for a prescription,” she said. “So, in my mind, I’m like, oh my God, this is getting ready to get ugly. So that’s when I began to record. When I saw the other officers pull up, I began recording, because I’m like, now at this point, my life feels like it’s in danger. Because who calls the police on a person just waiting for their prescription?”
Her incident is one of several police-abuse encounters that took place in July and August. Others include Dalonta Crudup, who was swarmed by Miami beach officers and kicked repeatedly while he was lying face down, and Erica Thompson, who was forced to give birth inside her jail cell and ended up losing her child.
As the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act makes its way through Congress, and after an especially intense summer of protests and calls to dismantle the police last year, police abuse of Black people has continued.
‘Believe Black Women’
Homestead Mayor Betty Esper gave the police chief a three-day suspension without pay. Ms. Muhammad is demanding more, including having him removed from office.
“She’s basically saying there’s two sides to every story, and I’m like, there’s two sides to every story? It’s on camera. So how do you change that story?” the Black mother asked.
Danielle Chanzes, a Gainesville-based community organizer who works with Florida Prisoner Solidarity and Dignity Power, has been on the ground fighting for another Black woman, 25-year-old Erica Thompson, who was forced to give birth in a county jail. Ms. Chanzes questioned the “two sides to every story” argument.
“I’ve heard a lot of the other side. ‘Well, why isn’t anybody blaming her for being in jail in the first place?’ I just want to state, that doesn’t f****** matter, okay,” Ms. Chanzes said. “It does not matter what she did to get in jail in the first place. At the end of the day, she is a human being, she’s innocent until proven guilty. And even if she wasn’t innocent, nobody deserves to be treated the way she was treated.”
Erica Thompson was picked up on Aug. 9 for two outstanding warrants: one for failure to appear in criminal traffic court and the other for violating probation. Before police booked her, she told them she had been having contractions.
“Erica describes crawling on the floor at one point while she got no help, and eventually she gave birth to her child in the Alachua County Jail, and the child was born premature. They sent out two ambulances, and ultimately her baby, whose name was Ava, did not make it and passed,” Ms. Chanzes said.
Protests have occurred at the county jail, and while there is an internal investigation of the sheriff’s department, the Gainesville activist said the sheriff has called Ms. Thompson a liar and that the whole story is messed up.
“What happened at the jail is tragic, but to be honest, we see these issues happening not inside jails. There is racism in the medical field, so a really simple answer is, believe Black women, period, and believe them the first time,” she said.
Last year, state legislation was introduced on “protecting the dignity of incarcerated women and infants,” but it didn’t get passed.
“That law would essentially allow for any pregnant individuals to be released, to be able to demand a pregnancy test and for them to not have to be in jail, and also allow any pregnant women who get sentenced to incarceration to defer their turning themselves in until 12 weeks postpartum. That law has been renamed Ava’s Law. We want to see Ava’s Law passed in the legislature,” Ms. Chanzes said.
But in general, she said she’s not a reformist. “I think the whole system can burn to the ground,” she said.
More police abuse across country
Ta’Neasha Chappel. She was an inmate at Indiana’s Jackson County Jail and died in police custody on July 16.
Alvin Motley. He was killed by a Memphis, Tenn., security guard outside of a Kroger gas station on Aug. 7.
Aaron Larry Bowman and Nakia Porter. They both lived through police encounters in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and are now fighting back through lawsuits.
May 31, 2019, former Louisiana state trooper Jacob Brown beat motorist Aaron Larry Bowman with his flashlight 18 times in 24 seconds.
“Caused nine staples to be put into the crown of his head. He broke his jaw and broke three ribs, and his arm had to have surgery. The unfortunate thing about his arm having surgery is that my client is a dialysis patient, and that’s the arm where he would take his dialysis,” said Atty. Ronald Haley, who has taken on his case.
It took filing a lawsuit in Oct. 2020 for an investigation into Mr. Brown’s actions to occur.
“Louisiana State Police, in particular Troop F of Louisiana State Police, is under severe fire right now for their abuses of Black and Brown motorists dealing with excessive force. Antonio Harris happened February 2019. Ronald Greene happened May 2, 2019. Aaron Bowman happened May 31, 2019. And these are just public cases that are known because of bodycam footage,” Atty. Haley said.
He explained that it took over two years for footage of both Mr. Bowman’s and Mr. Greene’s incidents to come out and that investigations can take months and sometimes years. To him, reform looks like transparency and accountability. He said police officers need functioning body cameras, there needs to be a civilian oversight board and police agencies need to be demilitarized.
Fabrications, White supremacist ties and trouble with police unions
In many cases, authorities found that officers lied in their reports. For example, in Mr. Bowman’s case, state police released a statement Aug. 25 saying that the White trooper “engaged in excessive and unjustifiable actions,” failed to report the use of force to his supervisors and “intentionally mislabeled” his body camera videos.
In Nakia Porter’s case, a Black woman who was knocked unconscious and then arrested during a trip with her father and three young children, two Northern California sheriff’s deputies lied about what happened to responding paramedics and on official police reports, according to a federal lawsuit filed Aug. 25.
In a message delivered July 4, 2020, titled “The Criterion,” the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam spoke about officers justifying their evil actions.
“If you could read the record, the police records of what they say in their reports that they write, they have concocted lies to justify their murder of our brothers and sisters,” he said. “Why are the police quitting now? You should all quit. Because if in your presence there you think that you’re going to come into the Black community and do what you’ve been doing, you better quit.”
Continued police abuse of Black people can be attributed to several reasons. Memphis-based author, researcher and Nation of Islam Student Minister Demetric Muhammad pointed to Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson, Mo., officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Mike Brown in 2014.
“He was quoted as saying that he wanted to police in a Black neighborhood because that was where the fun was. So clearly this is a man who has a warped view of impoverished Black communities that he thinks policing there, dealing with the problems of those neighborhoods, equates to fun,” Demetric Muhammad said.
The student minister also brought up the link between law enforcement and White supremacists. In 2015, a classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide warned that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”
It doesn’t help that the Supreme Court has a documented history of siding with police over Black people. The chokehold former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin used on George Floyd May 2020 can be linked back to a 1983 case involving a 24-year-old Black man, Adolph Lyons. In 1976, he was pulled over by Los Angeles police for a busted taillight and was later put into a chokehold.
“Years later when Lyons sought an injunction to limit the use of the chokehold, the Supreme Court held, 5-4, that he lacked standing to challenge the practice that had nearly cost him his life. Why? He couldn’t demonstrate that he, personally, was likely to be choked again by an LAPD officer,” wrote CNN national political writer Brandon Tensley in a Aug. 26 article. “What utter speculation, the Supreme Court seemed to say, even when confronted with evidence establishing that of the 16 people who had died as a result of LAPD officers’ use of chokeholds since 1975, 12 were Black men.”
Police unions also play a role in this saga of abuse against Black people, as they often protect the officers who are at fault.
“They sure are not bringing in good fruit in their policing efforts. Vicious men and you in the police union, you are the worst ones. You are worse than the killers in blue,” Minister Farrakhan said in his July 4, 2020, message. “You sit behind a desk and find a way to absolve them of the guilt that you know they’re guilty of. You are no good at all. So, we’re not going to get rid of bad police and leave a no-good police union in place.”
Is real police reform possible?
“Real police reform is possible, but what kind of reform are we talking about? Are we talking about just reform in terms of okay, we’re going to go and send you to sit and listen at a seminar?” Demetric Muhammad asked. “Or are we talking about a fundamental restructuring of police departments, such that number one, no one is allowed to police in the Black community without having a thorough knowledge of the Black community and of the Black community’s unique challenges as well as the Black community’s history of contributions to America.”
He authored the book “How to Police the Black Community,” where he argues that police officers need to learn about Black history and the greatness of Black people. He said police officers need to be trained on the knowledge of who Black people are and how the Black community came to be what it is today: a community that is deprived of resources, people who have been miseducated and people who have had their strong political and spiritual leaders assassinated.
He also explained that Black people need to establish conflict resolution centers to eliminate much of the need for police.
Minister Farrakhan teaches that freedom, justice and equality is conferred by Allah (God).
In a Final Call article titled “Justice is the Joy of Freedom,” he said, “I read in the scriptures that God said: ‘Vengeance is Mine.’ Because justice is a ‘weapon,’ though the judge and the jury and the prosecutor all may be in bed together—and don’t think much of our lives, nor do they think much of the principle of justice—God sees the injustice that is carried on, and vengeance is with Him.”