Posted: 12/22/2014 11:25 am EST
Senior Advisor, Collective Impact Forum; Innovator in Residence, Beeck Center for Social Innovation and Impact, Georgetown University; author Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up
This weekend I spent 24 hours in jail for protesting the death of Dontre Hamilton, the unarmed man shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer in a downtown park. I am compelled to write about my experience to share why I chose to join this protest and to correct the narrative law enforcement leaders in Milwaukee have used to inaccurately paint a picture of the protests and arrests.
While my conscience continues to be deeply moved by Dontre’s case and his loved ones’ grief, I came to protest because of my concerns with the larger system — that the American justice system produces different outcomes for people at every level from profiling and arrests through sentencing, parole, and killing based purely on race and class. I am not anti-police. I’ve been mugged at gunpoint twice in my life, and I don’t want to be a victim of crime again. Despite the many good officers who have helped me and my empathy for their very difficult work, I believe the system is set up to differentially enforce laws, and protect those who abuse their power to enforce the law.
Dontre’s case is one where I believe the officer should face criminal charges. At a downtown Starbucks in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park, a worker called police to complain about a man sleeping in the park (another worker criticized the call publicly and disputed that he was a problem). Police officers came twice to check on Dontre, saw nothing wrong, and left. Officer Christopher Manney, unaware other officers had stopped, confronted Dontre Hamilton and tried to pat him down. Hamilton, who had a history of mental illness, resisted and a confrontation ensued. Officer Manney tried to subdue him with a baton and Hamilton got the baton and swung at him, hitting the side of his neck. Officer Manney shot Hamilton 14 times including in the back to kill him. Police Chief Edward Flynn fired Officer Manney not for excessive force but for not following protocols in dealing with an emotionally disturbed person. He was not dangerous, did not deserve to be confronted, and certainly should not have been killed. We are waiting to find out if Milwaukee’s District Attorney will press charges.
As we all know, other District Attorneys and grand juries have not pursued criminal charges against police officers who have killed clearly innocent or unarmed African American men. One cannot look at the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, John Crawford (the man shot at Wal-Mart in Dayton), Tamir Rice (the 12 year old shot on a Cleveland playground), and many other recent cases and think that there is not a larger problem with police assuming African American men and boys are inherently dangerous. None of these men should be dead, and none of their families should be grieving.
These deaths point at the deeper, more profound problems in our criminal justice system. Fifteen years ago I read Randall Kennedy’s Race, Crime and the Law and David Cole’s No Equal Justice. They argued with vast evidence that at every level of the criminal justice system from profiling and arrests through sentencing and parole, there were substantial racial disparities. If an African American and a white person do or are alleged to do the same thing, they have extremely different consequences.
More recently, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy indict our present system of justice as inherently biased, and point to the terrible personal and community consequences of that injustice. Forty years ago, around 350,000 people were in prisons. Today, 2.3 million are, mostly for non-violent offenses. Crime did not rise seven-fold in forty years, and is in fact at record lows. More than 500,000 prisoners are serving time for drug crimes, and over 75% of them are African American despite the fact that they make up only 13% of drug users. A 1999 New York Times Magazine article interviewed police about why they were doing pretext drug stops in South Central Los Angeles instead of UCLA. The police agreed they would arrest people for more drug offenses at UCLA. If drug laws were enforced equally in white communities as communities of color, the laws would change.
Once someone has a record, it becomes a vicious cycle that prevents them from securing jobs, blocks them from receiving public benefits, and locks them up for long periods for minor offenses. And we keep reading about individuals released from death row who were innocent and ended up there only because of the system’s bias against people of color and the poor. We waste billions of tax dollars on prisons that produce desperation and crime, rather than saving money by spending smarter on alternatives that actually produce safety. The system is expensive, ineffective, and unjust.
I personally understand how my white privilege has kept me out of jail. I remember when I was 16 years old and smoking marijuana on a suburban Milwaukee beach with some friends when a police officer discovered us. We obviously reeked of marijuana, looked like stoners, and were stoned, but he listened to our excuses and let us walk away. Another time I talked my way out of a traffic stop while carrying drugs. I was always given the benefit of the doubt. Not long after that, I went to inpatient drug treatment filled with judgment about dealers and addicts from the "inner city." Through my treatment and subsequent addiction recovery, I learned they were like me in many ways and how lucky I was to be white, middle class, and living in the suburbs. If I lived in the inner city, I’d have a criminal record and not be where I am today.
I have heard too many stories from friends and colleagues of color who have been stopped, harassed, and even innocently arrested by police. I do not hear these stories from my wealthy, white, professional friends who use drugs or have violated other laws. And when it comes to property crimes and violent crimes, while I certainly hate those crimes, I believe every person should have effective legal counsel and that people of color should receive the same punishment or clemency a white person receives. Such fairness is truly the American way.
My convictions about the need to reform our criminal justice system, not a hatred of police or support for crime, led me to join the protest. Here is what actually happened:
I saw a Facebook post that there would be a rally in support of Dontre Hamilton on Friday at 4 PM. I decided to attend to show my support. I did not know we would march, and when we began walking down State Street and 6th Street, I was pleasantly surprised to find that police had blocked the streets along our route for our safety.
We then walked up Fond du Lac Avenue, and our group was split in two heading toward the Northbound and Southbound ramps. They were supposed to split us up into those who knew they may be arrested and those who did not want to be arrested. They did not tell us that, and just split our group in two. I walked with a group that saw the Northbound ramp to I-43 was barricaded by sheriff’s vehicles. We did not block the ramp, it was already blocked.
We walked up to the police barricade in two rows with arms linked (there are photos of us on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website), and chanted: "How many shots? 14 shots," "Don’t arrest me, arrest the police," and "What’s his name? Dontre Hamilton." There were two police officers in between the barricade and us and numerous police cars pulling up behind us. After a series of chants, the officer approached us and called for us to disperse. I was grateful when our leader – the man with the megaphone – told us to disperse. We moved to the grass shoulder of the ramp and began walking back to Fond du Lac Avenue. I then saw a police officer on his radio call out to the police behind us, "We got an order to arrest everyone," and the police jumped into action. I submitted immediately and peacefully to arrest.
After we received our arm restraints we were seated on the side of the ramp. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies were quite professional, courteous, and even funny. One said, "I understand what you are doing. You just can’t go on the freeway." One said to us, "You should go protest at the Sheriff’s house. I’ll give you their address." Another shared: "If I wasn’t doing this (policing), I’d be doing what you are doing." There was little tension. It was heartening that while we were protesting excessive force by a police officer, good officers respected us as we were – peaceful protesters who want fair and good policing.
We were arrested shortly before 5 PM, and 16 men and 10 women were taken together in a gender separated wagon to the County Jail. There, we removed our coats, shoes, and all items in our pockets and were told we would be booked and released in a few hours. We did not know how many others were arrested at this point from the other group that split off from us (or from the freeway blockers which I did not know about yet). Upon arrival, we had medical exams and my blood pressure was elevated but I felt calm. We continued to receive information that made us believe things were being processed, and I kept thinking we’d be out that night.
Around 10 or 11 PM, I was placed in a 60 square foot holding cell with seven other men that contained a toilet (I made everyone laugh when I told my fellow inmates this was a "no-shitting cell"). We were still waiting to be booked. The young men in my cell were diverse by age, race, and profession – three of us were older professionals. I actually treasure some of the deep conversations we had about politics, economics, social movements, the criminal justice system, and even feminism. I was inspired by some of their ideas about how the community could work with police to improve safety.
At around 2 A.M., tired and realizing no one was being processed, we sang "We Shall Overcome," as loud as we could and began chanting "Dontre Hamilton" to lift spirits among the other 60-70 people locked up in our wing. An officer came after about 15-20 minutes and asked us politely to stop, again expressing empathy for our cause. My fellow prisoners were polite with many of the officers as they often were with us.
Finally in the morning – 16 hours after my arrest – I was booked, fingerprinted, and had my mug shot taken. I finally was able to call home for 30 seconds, and figured I’d be out soon. By 11 AM, the first group of women protesters were released. I found the baloney sandwiches we were offered (the only food) unappetizing and started to crash from lack of sleep and food. Spending all night in a brightly lit cell sitting up against a cement wall I did not get much sleep, and it took its toll but I kept thinking I would be out soon. Shortly after 5 PM, more than 24 hours after my arrest, I was finally released to an appreciative crowd of supporters outside.
The Mayor, Police Chief, and Sheriff have provided accounts of this action that are not accurate. First, they claim that people were arrested for shutting down the freeways. The people who shut down I-43 were not part of our protest or march from Red Arrow Park, and they were NOT arrested. They got back in their cars and drove off. The people arrested were our group, which approached the barricade, and another group that marched up a ramp toward the stopped traffic (many of whom planned to be arrested for civil disobedience on the freeway but not everyone there knew that).
I think it is fair for people to be angry and upset with the individuals who blocked I-43. But civil disobedience is never convenient. People were angry when Martin Luther King marched and when students occupied lunch counters. In fact, many of the civil rights marches closed down streets and highways. This is nothing new, and as I understand it those who chose that tactic accepted responsibility and knew they may be arrested. It also did draw the attention that a simple march would not have. I hope those who criticize us go see the movie Selma next weekend, so they may be reminded that this is actually what democracy looks like.
Then there were folks like me who were practicing civil obedience. We followed a path blocked off for us by police and when the police officer asked us to disperse, we dispersed. They arrested us anyway. The warning was hollow. If they had let us walk off the ramp and go back to Red Arrow Park, the police could have removed their cars and re-opened the ramp immediately. Someone called in an order to punish us and the result was we sat handcuffed on the ramp for at least an hour, which slowed down many commuters. Police Chief Flynn was upset they had to "babysit a bunch of self-indulgent protesters" who inconvenienced hundreds of thousands. They didn’t have to do that, and at most a few thousand were slowed down and rush hours have been slowed down or stopped for much less.
Sheriff David Clarke told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the protest was steered by outside trouble makers. "Several anarchist groups led by outside persons are gathering in the Milwaukee area to plan disruptive activities…" Well, I am a tax-paying citizen of Milwaukee, a father, and a professional who has relationships with many city leaders. Everyone I met lived in Milwaukee and the young men and women who were leading us were all local people. Yes, I met some with radical views about issues and disruptive tactics, but most were thoughtful, passionate people, who want our community to be safer and fairer for all. I write often about civil rights movement history, and find it ironic that Sheriff Clarke is using the same argument the Montgomery police used when they could not believe that people like Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, and Martin Luther King were actually leading the bus boycott. "There must be outside agitators," they thought.
I am proud that I was arrested. I am proud of those arrested with me. I am glad that we lifted the name of Dontre Hamilton and our call for criminal charges against an officer who shot an unarmed man 14 times. Black lives matter, and our justice system must become more fair and just. I hope many others concerned about these injustices will stand up to support policies and reforms that will create a fairer, safer, and more just America.
Update: The District Attorney did not file charges against Officer Manney. I understand the rightful rage many feel, but the struggle for justice is a marathon, not a sprint. I hope that those who engage in civil disobedience do so in a disciplined way and that we bend, not break public opinion by lifting the collective outrage of many in our community. I also hope that city leaders, law enforcement officials, and the media properly represent those who protest the decision instead of the misinformation they spread this weekend. We must lift up Dontre and the bigger issues and continue fighting for change.
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