In the last year we have been inundated with media coverage on police brutality; particularly police brutality against the Black and transgender community. A handful of names have made it into the collective conscious, but they are representative of thousands of lives that have been extinguished by what is essentially discriminatory state-sanctioned violence. These deaths were caused by excessive use of police force rooted in racism. What we haven’t heard as much about is the kind of brutality that occurs against Black persons while in police custody. Until Freddie Gray.
On April 12, 2015, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested on a weapons charge in Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez acknowledged that Gray “gave up without the use of force.” When Gray was placed inside a police van, none of the six officers on the scene used force and Gray was still able to speak. However, when Gray was later taken out of the police van, he could neither speak nor breathe. What happened to Gray during the half hour he spent in that police van? How did he suffer a severe spinal cord injury that caused him to fall in and out of a coma until he died a week later on Sunday, April 19? The circumstances of Freddie Gray’s death are certainly suspicious and they have added to the larger movement against police brutality in the Black community. But Freddie Gray is certainly not the first suspect who died in police custody under suspicious circumstances.
Freddie Gray is a recent addition to a growing list of suspicious deaths, which occur because of abuse during police custody:
- Phillip White, 32 from Vineland, NJ – arrested on 3/31/15, died on 3/31/15.
- Two eyewitnesses reported that police attacked Phillip while he was already in handcuffs and allowed a police dog to attack him as well. Phillip became unresponsive on his way to the hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival.
- Victor White III, 22 from New Iberia, LA – arrested on 3/2/14, died on 3/2/14.
- Upon arrival at the police station, Victor reportedly refused to get out of the police car. The officer requested assistance from other officers and in the ensuing struggle, they allege that Victor produced a gun and shot himself in the back while still in police care, despite having already been frisked and handcuffed. The Autopsy report revealed that Victor was actually shot in the chest, though his death was still ruled a suicide.
- Jorge Azucena, 26 from Los Angeles, CA – arrested 9/6/13, died on 9/7/13.
- Jorge had asthma and died after being chased by police. He repeatedly told them he could not breathe, but was ignored by officers. Jorge was so weak the officers had to carry him to the station’s holding cell and left him face-down on the floor of the cell. By the time paramedics arrived, his heart had already stopped beating.
- Jesus Huerta, 17 from Durham, NC – arrested 11/19/13, died on 11/19/13.
- Jesus also reportedly died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back of a police car. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation found that “Huerta was wearing gloves and that his gloves had a saturation of gunshot residue on it.” Officer (Samuel) Duncan revealed that he had no gunshot residue on his hands. Jesus’ family have brought forth allegations of foul play by police.
- Kelly Thomas, 37 from Fullerton, CA – arrested on 7/5/11, died on 7/10/11.
- Kelly was homeless and diagnosed with Schizophrenia. He responded too slowly for police officers. A video recording shows Kelly unarmed while officers beat him with batons as he begged for help, telling officers he couldn’t breathe. Officers then had him lay on his stomach with hands behind his back. By the end of the video Kelly is lying in a pool of his own blood.
These are just a handful of instances that remind us that police brutality takes multiple forms. These names have caught national media attention, but they are just a few representations of hundreds of instances of corrupt policing that we never even hear about. They are also representations of a greater, systemic problem with the militarization of police forces, police brutality and largely race-based, class-based, state-sanctioned, violence. These names can’t fade out of our collective memories. Their memories must be honored through progress. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter are instrumental in drawing attention to these issues and in raising the level of awareness and the caliber of the conversation. They are instrumental to change.
And until we see change, we will continue to write and recite this ever growing litany of names, because there will be no peace until there is justice:
Freddie Gray, Kelly Thomas, Jesus Huerta, Jorge Azucena, Victor White III, Phillip White, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, John Crawford III, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, Lamia Beard, Kandy Hall, Mia Henderson, Ty Underwood, Kimani Gray, Jonathan Ferrell, Trayvon Martin, Kendrec McDade, Kenneth Chamberlain, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Ezell Ford, Eleanor Bumpurs, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Miriam Carey, Shereese Francis, Shantel Davis, Sharmel Edwards, Tyisha Miller, Pearlie Smith, Kathryn Johnston, Gabriella Nevarez.*
*These are just a few of the names of the lives lost to our corrupt “law enforcement” system.
Written by Naji’a Tameez