I’ll never forget the sadness I felt on June 17, 2015, when, after inviting himself to a prayer service at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, 21-year-old Dylann Roof murdered nine black members of the church. Roof was motivated to commit these murders after adopting white supremacist ideology, and as a black woman I was especially horrified by the particular choice of Mother Emanuel, the desecration of the church and the callous murder of the prayer circle.
When Roof was found the next day in Shelby, North Carolina, images began to be released of his arrest. He wore a white T-shirt and despite having murdered nine people the day before, he was held by only one officer as they walked to the car. Later, when Roof was escorted from the courthouse, his white T-shirt was covered in a ballistic vest. This vest would continue to be seen whenever he was outside of the jail.
Shelby Police Chief Jeff Ledford described Roof to the media as very quiet and calm. “He was not problematic at all,” Ledford shared, adding that, after arresting Roof, police stopped at Burger King to get him a meal before taking him to the station. Roof was on the run for almost 24 hours and armed, but to many, myself included, his treatment by police did not match the seriousness of the crimes he committed. If we lived in an America where all people were treated with care until their day in court, maybe Roof’s arrest experience would not have been so jarring, especially to so many in black communities, who were still reeling from the emotional trauma of Roof’s actions. The entire situation left the perception among many in black communities, myself included, that some people are treated very differently than others in their interactions with police.
Wednesday, a few days shy of the fourth anniversary of the Charleston massacre, hundreds of people filled the streets of the Frayser neighborhood in my hometown of Memphis following news of the death of Brandon Webber, a 20-year-old black male. A direct comparison between how Roof and Webber were treated by authorities is impossible, especially since we simply know more in retrospect about what happened with Roof. But the perception, that race is a determining factor in how things proceed when people are confronted by police, is undeniable to me and to many others.
Early reports said that US Marshals shot Webber multiple times while they were attempting to serve him with a warrant for aggravated assault, conspiracy and armed robbery. Authorities say he rammed them with a car before they opened fire. Immediately, journalists and online observers started investigating Webber’s background. Photos of him with stacks of money and videos he had posted of himself smoking marijuana began to float across the internet.
On social media, he was called a thug and people said he got what he deserved.
A standoff between Webber’s community and the Memphis Police Department ensued that night. On one side, rocks were thrown, and windows were broken. At least 36 officers were injured, police said. On the other side, a line of officers stood in riot gear and eventually released tear gas on the crowd. Protesters were injured as well. Unexpected rain was the only thing that could calm the ever-growing crowd.
Frayser is a part of the district I serve as a Shelby County commissioner. That night, I implored those from Memphis and around the country watching events unfolding in Frayser not to dismiss this community’s emotions and to try to understand the pain residents were feeling after this shooting. I received messages in response claiming this statement is anti-police and that the crimes Webber is accused of committing justify his death.
Mourning, protesting and decrying Webber’s killing is not the same as proclaiming his innocence or or trying to justify the crimes he may have committed. It does not erase thrown rocks or police injuries. These reactions, however, must be understood as a symptom of continued racial inequity in the justice system.
The warrants in Webber’s name were for serious crimes and anyone who commits them should see their day in court. But Brandon Webber will never see his day in court. He will never be described as “calm.” He will never be seen as “not problematic.” No one will grab a Whopper for him on the way to Memphis’ Bailey Justice Center. Instead of a bulletproof vest, Webber received multiple bullets.
There is no body camera footage available of this shooting to confirm police accounts, as US Marshals aren’t required to wear them, a spokesperson for the US Marshals service told CNN.
Ava Duvernay released “When They See Us” on Netflix on May 31, 2019. Since its premiere, the miniseries – which tells the story of the five black men known as the Central Park Five or the Exonerated Five – has been the most watched series on the platform. In Episode 1, the actress portraying Linda Fairstein, a New York prosecutor in 1989, tells police, “Every young black male who was in the park last night is a suspect,” leading to the NYPD raiding homes, separating children from parents and coercing stories with physical violence. Fairstein has disputed how she was portrayed in the film.
The retelling of the Central Park Five story has America once again discussing the implications of racial bias in policing. We cannot continue to deny the difference in treatment between black and white communities because it does more harm than good. Dylann Roof, currently on death row for the Charleston murders, should have been taken straight to the courthouse. Brandon Webber should not have been shot multiple times. The Exonerated Five should have received due process.
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Until we have a fair and balanced criminal justice system, communities such as Frayser will continue to fill the street in pain and horror when one of their own ends up dead instead of getting their right to a day in court.