Andrew Brown Jr Son April 26 2021
Andrew Brown Jr.'s son describes what he saw on police video
05:37 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: William J. Barber, II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He delivered words of comfort at Andrew Brown, Jr.’s funeral. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion, an education center in Durham, North Carolina. The opinions expressed here are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The morning after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder for choking the life out of George Floyd, a SWAT-like unit of sheriff’s deputies arrived in full tactical gear to serve a warrant for Andrew Brown Jr. at his home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Within seconds, Brown was shot in the back of the head while apparently trying to flee in his car.

William Barber
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

A week and a half ago, a North Carolina judge issued an order to allow Brown’s immediate family to see about 20 minutes out of two hours of body camera videos of his fatal encounter. After watching a dash cam video and five body camera angles with audio Tuesday, Chance Lynch, an attorney representing the family, said that the killing was “absolutely, unequivocally unjustified.” (CNN reported that Pasquotank County Chief Deputy Daniel Fogg said the video showed officers trying to serve the arrest warrant, as well as officers’ attempts to provide Brown medical care after the shooting. The district attorney said officers fired when the car Brown was driving moved toward them.)

While Floyd’s murder forced Americans to ask whether an officer of the law can be held accountable for abusing his power, Andrew Brown’s blood cries out from the ground of Eastern North Carolina with a deeper question. What potential threat necessitated this military-style assault on Mr. Brown and his community? When advocates of “law and order” encourage their fellow citizens to “back the blue” without question, what order are they asking us to defend by any means necessary?

Elizabeth City sits on the northern shore of the Albemarle Sound, just south of the James River, where the first recorded enslaved Africans arrived in 1619. The rich soil, which stretches between these two bodies of water, is the delta where America’s plantation economy was first established. Here Black bodies were claimed as human property by people of European descent who imagined that their Whiteness conferred a divine right to own other people and the land beneath their feet.

The unequal order of this system could not be maintained by the power of plantation owners alone. Establishing slave patrols in the 18th century, the founding fathers of the plantation order invited local Whites to take a personal oath “as Searcher for Guns, Swords, and other Weapons among the Slaves in my District.

More than three centuries after slave patrols began in colonial North Carolina, law enforcement has evolved into professional and integrated county sheriff and city police departments. The women and men who serve their communities in local law enforcement today do not pledge to uphold the plantation system. But the inequalities that were established by the plantation system persist as the normal order of life. Twenty percent or more of the population in many counties in Eastern North Carolina are poor, despite North Carolina having, in 2018, the 11th largest economy by GDP in the US.

While poverty disproportionally affects African Americans nationally, the majority of poor people in North Carolina are White.

Though they are no longer asked to serve on slave patrols, their political representatives, who are also overwhelmingly White, do ask them to support “law and order;” too often this effectively pits poor White people against poor Black people by suggesting that Black criminality is the problem in their communities.

Where local White people once flew the Confederate flag to demonstrate their allegiance to an unequal order, today they also often fly the banner of the “thin blue line.” Black people in Eastern North Carolina understand that any disruption of the local social order renders them suspect in the eyes of many White authorities.

Since 2014, five Black men from Eastern North Carolina have been exonerated of murder charges falsely pinned on them by local law enforcement. The men – Dontae Sharpe, Charles Ray Finch, Henry McCollum, Leon Brown and Joseph Sledge – know too well how Black men become scapegoats when tragedy disrupts the order of communities in Eastern North Carolina.

But Black people have not only been falsely accused in cases of violent disruption. As Zoe Chace documents in her recent podcast “The Improvement Association,” the 2010 election of the first Black sheriff in Bladen County, North Carolina, elicited from White Republicans immediate charges of “election fraud” against a local Black political action committee. Though no evidence of these charges was ever produced, the accusations fueled a Republican-backed voter suppression bill in the North Carolina’s statehouse.

Because the bill was passed after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which invalidated the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance requirements for voting law changes, the impact of the law on Eastern North Carolina counties like Elizabeth City’s Pasquotank was not subject to review by the Justice Department.

After four years, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s ruling, which noted that the law had targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.” False accusations of Black voter fraud in Eastern North Carolina were used to justify the disenfranchisement of Black people across the state for two election cycles.

This is the state of order that Black and White people are challenging in Elizabeth City when we demand the public release of body camera footage that shows what happened when local law enforcement stormed a Black neighborhood to execute an arrest warrant while wielding assault rifles.

We do not know all of the details of how Mr. Brown responded in the moment when officers confronted him outside his home. But we do know that this law enforcement action and the district attorney’s subsequent unwillingness to – publicly and with dispatch – show what happened fits within a long history of White authorities in Eastern North Carolina treating Black people and the Black community as a threat.

We must see all the video and hold any officers who may have abused their power accountable. But justice demands more than that. The Justice Department must also conduct a pattern-and-practice review of law enforcement in Pasquotank County. Congress must pass legislation to ensure prosecution, imprisonment and financial responsibility for law enforcement when they kill Black people while using the law to prop up an unequal social order in which too many people do not have what they need to survive.

As Black and White sons of North Carolina, we join the community in Elizabeth City that is challenging this unequal system because we know it does not benefit most of us. We are not anti-law enforcement, but we refuse to allow the mantra of “law and order” to obscure the way Black people and communities have been scapegoated by those who want to hold onto power in an economic and political system where many are struggling to survive.

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Our demand for transparency is a statement of faith that a new order is possible where each person is equal under the law and the benefits of our common life are accessible to every citizen. As we work for justice in this case, we also pledge to organize every community to elect representatives who will pass policies that lift poor and low-income people out of the inequality that the plantation system established.

If George Floyd’s murder helped Americans see that some officers who abuse their power can be held accountable, then Andrew Brown Jr.’s death must reveal how the plantation system that denigrated Black lives set up systems that harm us all. Until we work together to change those systems, none of us can call ourselves free.