Jonathan Ferrell was young and black and showed promise. The former Florida A&M University football player was 24 years old, held down two jobs, was engaged to his girlfriend and intended to return to school to pursue a degree in engineering. Last year, early in the morning of September 14, at about 2:30 AM, not far from where I am sitting now, Ferrell was in a single car accident and crashed into a tree. After the crash, he got out of his car, walked a short distance, and knocked on the door of a stranger’s house in search of assistance.
Inside the house was a woman who was alone and frightened. She dialed 911 and three police officers responded. Shortly after their arrival, one of the cops drew his weapon and shot an unarmed Jonathan Ferrell ten times, and ended all of his plans for the future. Jonathan Ferrell was not arrested or charged with a crime. He was not illegally selling single cigarettes. He had not stolen cigars from a candy store. He merely knocked on the door of a frightened woman and was killed because of it. Other than the woman and the cops there were no witnesses.
Randall Kerrick, the young, white shooter was arrested and charged immediately after the incident and set free on $50,000 bail. At the time of the shooting, here in Charlotte, North Carolina, the mayor was black and the chief of police was as well. After the case was reviewed by a citizen’s board of oversight, and a grand jury was empaneled, earlier this week – almost a year later – the case was deemed without sufficient merit to be sent to trial. The state’s attorney general is now investigating further.
At the time of the shooting, the local chapter of the NAACP held a protest without incident. In response to the grand jury’s decision, as of this writing; there has been no rioting, no looting and no coverage by CNN or MSNBC. There were no rappers in need of visibility who flew in for the occasion. The Ku Klux Klan did not seize the opportunity to hold a Klan-a-thon. Amnesty International did not deploy a team of observers and Al Sharpton has not been invited to speak, but John Ferrell’s mother has lost her son to trigger happy policing, and the shooter is still free. This is not justice, but it is an old and familiar story, but on a national level, a new twist is now being added.
During this current spate of young, unarmed black men being murdered by cops (we could talk about less current spates, but that might engender accusations of bitterness) the importance of new technology and Social Media has emerged. The death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was murdered by strangulation by NYPD, was taped by an onlooker and uploaded to You Tube. Almost instantaneously the chilling images of Garner having the life choked out of him, while his head was forced to the sidewalk, and he was audibly yelling out, “I can’t breathe,” went viral and spread around the world. The local coroner declared his death a homicide, and pressure is mounting on the DA to bring charges. Where would we be if not for those images? After the death of Mike Brown, when mainstream media fell down on the job in Ferguson, it was Twitter that provided detailed moment to moment accounts of the oppressive police actions, that resulted in higher authorities relieving local cops of the responsibility of restoring order and prompting oversight from the Attorney General of The United States. Additionally, there was a witness who posted to Twitter while the actual murder took place
And so we have it: So many of our fellow citizens have been murdered and the murderers are set free, prosecutors don’t deliver and the courts don’t provide a remedy. It is well known and documented that the criminal justice system is unfairly rigged against minorities and the poor – it is called profiling and institutional racism. Because of this, the last thing that black folks want to do is involve police or the courts in their dealings. But if you work, send your kids to school, pay property, sales and income taxes – in other words, if you are a citizen in good standing – it is not unusual to expect equal protection under the law and due process. This is one of the underlying principles of freedom.
Like all freedoms, we must be vigilant in guarding them lest they are taken from us, and yes, on occasion we must fight to keep them. But more frequently, the opportunity to fight presents itself in small and non-violent ways. One of them is to bear witness: If you see a cop stop, search, frisk, harass or detain someone, pull out your smart phone and make a recording and upload it to Social Media. Each of us can now be our own citizen’s review board and can provide needed oversight. Recording the police while they are interacting with citizens is a federally protected right, and the democratizing effect of the Internet has been felt on a worldwide basis. Stand up, don’t be afraid – film the police.