A couple of years back, the world heard of Ferguson, Missouri.
You remember the story: A guy stole some cigars from a convenience store, roughed up a clerk, then got into it with a cop, who ended up shooting him until he died.
Some say he was surrendering as he walked toward the cop, hands up, approaching him; some say that he still posed a threat.
That divergence in narrative, in interpretation, made all the difference.
Riots for a week. Violence. Looting. Lawlessness. Tear gas and riot shields. People picked sides. The flash point for a clash of cultures came when one dude decided he wanted to roll some blunts, and things escalated from there.
It didn’t take much.
Because it was so close to the surface.
How close is it to the surface here and now?
Consider the Vernell Bing Jr. killing last month.
Some facts are indisputable. Bing had a record. He was driving a stolen car at breakneck speed through a residential neighborhood. He hit a cop car head on. He staggered out. And got gunned down.
The FBI? Looking into it, another indictment on Jacksonville’s ability to handle its own business, in no small part because a significant portion of the population feels targeted by law enforcement, feels commodified by an educational system, a social welfare system, and a legal system that values them more as chips toward contract fulfillment at private prisons than people with agency and rights.
We can pretend that’s not the case. We can pretend that we don’t have the biggest prison population in the world. And we can pretend that those prisons don’t make money. And we can pretend that money isn’t made by stuffing the prisons wall-to-wall with black men from the South.
But the truth is that justice is still different in the old Jim Crow South than it is in other places.
Yet it’s pretty similar to Ferguson.
At Jacksonville City Council last Tuesday, we saw local activists Diallo-Sekou and Rev. R. L. Gundy filibuster public comment, arguing for civilian review boards, body cameras, and a cut of the pension tax for NW Jax.
It was a long public comment, complete with a couple of minutes of men standing silent, arms locked in protest.
It was a demonstration of solidarity, a demonstration that people are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Jacksonville dealt with protests during the spring of 2015 after the police-involved shooting of Devanta Jones.
I met Sekou at the protests at Cleveland Arms. As he walked me through the complex, he described the shooting of Jones as an example of “generational and systemic” targeting.
What would have happened since 2015 to change his mind? If one sees a pattern in police shootings of civilians, it boils down to a victim who has learned that he has nothing to lose, and a cop who has no problem with icing his adversary.
Jacksonville law enforcement was overstretched in 2015. It’s still overstretched in 2016. They’ve got old, busted-up equipment: buggy computers, TASERs at the end of usefulness, aircraft from the Vietnam era that they can’t even give away. And they have a lot of people working a lot of long hours, who might be more prone to make a controversial decision, like shooting a guy in the middle of the street or at an apartment complex.
Sekou, Gundy, and most every community leader in NW Jacksonville wants a civilian review board. This was an issue in the 2015 campaign, and both guys in the runoff campaign for sheriff demurred from making that call. As does, more currently, the Fraternal Order of Police, which told the Daily Record, “A civilian review board … holds no standing beyond an additional opinion that can be manipulated for political purposes.” And “a civilian review board, if misused, would only serve to create more divisiveness.”
It’s better, clearly, to have the JSO and the State Attorney’s Office walk hand-in-hand.
It’s great to have good working relationships as long as you believe in the organization’s ability to police itself. Which many in this city don’t.
We are a poor city and getting poorer. From Windy Hill to Pickettville. From Soutel and Moncrief to 103rd Street. There are Third World pockets of poverty. Overstretched cops, compelled to maintain the simulacrum of a collapsed social order. People who don’t trust JSO, don’t trust the SAO, and live in a war zone. They feel like they’ve been lied to for 65 years. They won’t have a pension. They may struggle to keep the lights on.
And that’s why they yearn for civilian review boards, for body cameras, for accountability.
The divergence in narrative, in interpretation, makes all the difference.
Jacksonville is going to have to adopt meaningful accountability reforms now. There will be another Vernell Bing Jr. There will be another Devanta Jones. And the difference between Ferguson and the maintenance of social order may well be reforms that give citizens bargaining parity with those who stand guard over them.