He wasn’t even 18 years old, a child with his entire future ahead of him.
But his hopes, his dreams, didn’t matter; how his future might be affected by a criminal record didn’t matter either.
What mattered was that he was breaking the law.
His crime? Standing outside his sister’s apartment on the Friday before Thanksgiving 2014, giving the cops who arrested him – for the misdemeanors of loitering, prowling and resisting arrest without violence – some attitude.
Deandre Ezell couldn’t vote, couldn’t buy a lottery ticket or a dirty magazine, he was just a kid when Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s David Stevens grabbed him at the Duval County Pretrial Detention Facility later that night and slammed his head against the wall, knocking him out, according to a federal lawsuit filed in January. This in spite of the handcuffs Ezell was wearing at the time.
In the above video of the incident, Ezell lays on the floor, allegedly unconscious, while officers cuff his legs to his hands. Unconscious, handcuffed children being so threatening and all.
After Ezell was transported to the hospital for treatment for injuries sustained when his head hit the wall, Officer T.M. Helms, who’d issued the initial misdemeanor arrest, arrested him again – for the felony of battery on a law enforcement officer.
This in spite of the lawsuit’s claim – backed up by the video – that Ezell never struck the officer.
Deandre Ezell didn’t get to eat turkey with his family that Thanksgiving, instead he spent three weeks in jail before the felony charge was dropped.
The suit alleges that neither officer was disciplined or even reprimanded for their actions.
According to statistics compiled from JSO public records by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from 2002 to 2014 there were 135 police shootings, 74 of them fatal. And though only 34 percent of Jacksonville’s population is black, per those statistics, 65 percent of the people killed by JSO in that time frame were black.
I don’t pretend to know how this makes people in the black community feel. As a white person, I will never fully appreciate the bitterness, anger and frustration such statistics inspire. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but, enveloped in my white skin privilege, I initially wondered whether the #BlackLivesMatter movement was an example of what some might call “reverse racism.”
I was wrong.
I don’t pretend to know how the black community feels about the many ways in which our society is racist, classist and in denial about it.
I do know that their outrage is warranted and that it is up to all of us to try to correct injustice when we see it.
This will require us to open our hearts and eyes to the suffering of our fellow black citizens, to stop thinking of the Deandre Ezells of the world as thugs who aren’t worth saving, who deserve whatever punishment they get. Instead think of Ezell as a boy – young enough to need his parents to sign a permission slip for him to go on a field trip – who was arrested for standing outside his sister’s house then violently assaulted by a police officer while handcuffed and charged with battering the officer who assaulted him. Think of him as a teenager sitting in jail while his family tried to celebrate the holidays without him while the officer who smashed his head into a concrete wall dined on cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie before dozing off in front of the television.
Recall that Deandre is one of countless black people who have suffered similar fates – and worse, much, much worse – at the hands of law enforcement.
Ask yourself what you might do, how you might feel, if Deandre Ezell – smashed headfirst into a concrete wall in JSO custody – or David Kemp – multiple facial fractures in JSO custody – or Larue Perkins – jaw broken by JSO while complying with officer’s directives – or Vernell Bing Jr. – killed while unarmed by JSO – weren’t names on a page, strangers in a video, stories recounted in a lawsuit: What if Ezell was your neighbor, Kemp your cousin, Perkins your uncle’s best friend? How might you feel then? What if you attended a vigil in honor of your son who was killed by the police where you wept, held hands with strangers and neighbors and joined in a chorus of voices singing, “Lean on Me,” but the nightly news chose to play a clip of people chanting “Black Power,” black power being so palatable to the average viewer?
Clearly JSO is not a department of 3,000 racist, violent brutes bent on exerting unconscionable control over the black community; similarly the entire State Attorney’s Office and every single sitting criminal judge isn’t driven by desire to incarcerate black people. Nevertheless, too many statistics show that our legal system is far from color blind for us to continue to ignore or deny it.
Black people are not the enemy. Neither are the police or the attorneys or the judges. Racism is. And, like science, your refusal to acknowledge its existence doesn’t make it any less real.