Last Saturday evening I had the true pleasure of being at the Hood Huggers party at the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens. A caring and creative group of folks gathered to celebrate each other, DeWayne Barton’s birthday, and the work of Hood Huggers. (For an update on Hood Huggers’ current and pending projects, click here). My soul was fed that night. I wish I could stay in that kind of space, focused on love.
Sadly, around the same time we gathered at the garden, Jerry Williams was shot and killed by Asheville Police Department Sergeant Tyler Radford. I learned of this tragedy on Sunday morning, as I read a series of painful Facebook posts by friends of mine who were family members or friends of Jerry. Emotional words of despair and the ache of loss.
In the midst of processing the reality of this tragic news, I shared an article about Jerry’s death on my Facebook page, with the following text:
“Sending condolences to the family and friends of Jerry Williams in this time of grief, I know many who are hurting today.
I also want to share this from Julie Schneyer: ‘This article fails to mention that the person this officer killed was black. Perhaps they thought it was implied, because we are so accustomed to hearing about black people being killed by people who wear uniforms and carry badges. Those uniforms and badges are powerful tools of victimization, but they would be useless without a larger white supremacist system and culture there backing them up. In the days and weeks ahead everything about this incident will be scrutinized, and those on various sides will be sure their information is more accurate and meaningful; I want to say now, before the forest becomes the trees, that no information that comes out will change the cold hard facts that racist violence forms the fabric of our society and that the police are on the front lines of that violence. Strength and healing to all who knew this man and have had to face a day that should never have come.'”
There were a flood of responses to my post, including some adversarial comments using the speculative details about what did or did not happen that night to refute Julie’s statements. All from white people. Missing the point.
I realize that developing an understanding of systemic racism is a process, and that we are deeply socialized not to see it. Rather than engaging in a Facebook comment back and forth, I wanted to write here.
As we look at the context in which Jerry was killed, here are a few statistics pulled from UNC Asheville’s State of Black Asheville research, which students compiled from the NCDOJ and the U.S. Census:
On North Carolina’s death row, 82 of 159 men are black. 22% of them named Buncombe County as their county of residence. Black men comprise less than 4% of the Buncombe County’s population.
Less than 7% of Asheville’s total population are black men, yet 39% of men stopped by the APD are black, and 32% of men who are arrested are black.
And here’s a graph from mappingpoliceviolence.org, based on national statistics from 2015, which show that blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police:
Also of note is that of 97% of all of these killings, the officer was not charged with any crime. Want to see more stats? Click here for statistics on racial disparities in criminal justice from the NAACP.
I do not have quick access to statistics on people killed by the police in Asheville. I do know of two young black men in addition to Jerry who were killed by the APD in the past few years (my neighbor’s grandson and the best friend of a friend of mine’s son). A friend just told me of a few others. I do not know of any whites that have been killed by police in Asheville in recent years.
The stereotypes that our culture perpetuates about black men paint them as dangerous criminals to fear. This causes bias within all of us, police officers being no exception. My black male friends talk about how exhausting it is to constantly be reacted to as someone to suspect – white people clutch their purses, lock car doors as they walk by, follow them in stores, etc, etc. I also have friends living in public housing in Asheville, which is mostly populated by blacks, who struggle with the nature of the police presence in their neighborhoods.
There is a great deal information out there about the history of the use of violence, the fear of violence, and incarceration to perpetuate the racist system we are operating in. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about this history and it’s current day manifestations.
The losses suffered by black communities due to disparities in the criminal justice system are compounded by other inequities… I’m sure most of you reading this know that. I also know that those of us with white skin cannot fully understand the devastating effects of generations of this kind of trauma.
Before closing this post, I must note that before he was killed, Jerry Williams was reported to have been beating a woman that was in the car with him. As we look at the myriad of ways our system fails, the violence against women encouraged and maintained by patriarchy must be addressed. As community organizers I admire say, we must advocate for change within the framework of the intersectionality of oppression if we are to achieve collective liberation.
So I turn back to love.
This morning there was a rally with the family of Jerry Williams. Amidst the anger and grief, there was the beauty of community standing together. In addition to family members, folks from a variety of groups including Asheville Black Lives Matter, Center for Participatory Change, the Residents Council of HACA, Nuestro Centro, Firestorm Books, and many others, gathered together in front of the courthouse, calling for justice. May these voices continue to ring and be heard. May healing happen.
rally photo by beth walton