Seeking justice for Shantel

August 27, 2012

Peter Rugh reports on the ongoing fight to win justice for Shantel Davis in New York.

"NORMALLY, I don't like to wear sunglasses when I talk to people," said Harold Davis, in a pair of dark rims. "But I won't let my enemy see my tears."

It was a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn on August 4, at the corner of Church Avenue and 38th Street. Here, Harold's 23-year-old niece, Shantel, was fatally shot by Phillip Atkins, a New York City narcotics officer with a history of brutality.

Every Saturday since Shantel was killed, members of her family, clergy and a group of committed activists have gathered at the location of her death, marching from there to the nearby 67th Precinct. The Davis family is channeling the pain of their loss into a struggle for justice.

Like Shantel, Officer Atkins is of African American descent, but Harold and many of those who consistently gather in East Flatbush see her killing as part of a racist system, of which her killer was but a servant. However the racial composition of the NYPD has changed over the years, they maintain, those who bear the brunt of the force's violence remain black and brown.

Protesters stop traffic to remember Shantel in the Church Avenue intersection where she was murdered
Protesters stop traffic to remember Shantel in the Church Avenue intersection where she was murdered

"On this spot," declares Harold, whose height allows him to speak over the heads of those in the crowd, "Shantel cried out what our ancestors for 300-years-plus been crying out: 'Don't shoot me, don't kill me!'"

On the afternoon of June 14, Atkins and his partner began following Shantel. She was driving a gray Toyota Camry that they allege was stolen, a claim disputed by members of the deceased's family. After a brief pursuit, Shantel crashed the vehicle into a parked minivan. The Camry's airbag opened on impact, trapping Shantel inside.

Gun drawn, Atkins attempted to manhandle Shantel out of the car as she pleaded for her life with her hands in the air. Atkins eventually dragged her out, but not before putting a bullet in her chest.

A witness snapped a BlackBerry photograph of Shantel's last moments that has since gone viral online, indicative of a city growing notorious for police repression. It shows Shantel lying face down against the pavement, blood streaming from her body.

At the time of her death, Shantel was facing charges of attempted murder and kidnapping, but she never received a trial before a jury of her peers. Instead, critics charge that she was executed in broad daylight in the street.

"If an individual commits a crime, that's what you have a legal system for," said Brooklyn social worker Iyeisha Witherspoon, who has been part of the weekly vigil to support the family. "[When] execution becomes the way we do policing, every time a crime is committed you become a person that is liable for the death penalty as a person of color."

SHANTEL'S KILLING comes amid heightened racial tensions in New York and across the United States. The death of teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman is just the most famous recent case of an racially motivated killing.

According to a report from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), during the first half of this year, a Black person has died on average every 36 hours at the hands of a police officer, security guard or vigilante. In 1892, when lynchings reached their peak in the U.S., a Black person was strung up on average every 54 hours.

"There is a human rights crisis that's facing the black community," said Nadia Alexis, an organizer with MXGM, at the site where Shantel Davis was shot. "We have police officers and we have vigilantes, like Zimmerman, that are going out and killing us."

Neighborhoods in all five New York boroughs have been organizing against the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which statistics show has targeted hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino men for searches and pat-downs without evidence of wrongdoing. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 350,000 people--the vast majority of them people of color--were stopped and frisked in 2011 for "furtive movements," as well as 31,000 for "wearing clothes commonly used in a crime."

Three days after Phillip Atkins put a bullet in Shantel Davis, some 20,000 people marched to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's residence demanding an end to the policy that many see as part of a wider system of mass incarceration akin to Jim Crow that targets and criminalizes black skin, sometimes with deadly results.

Earlier this year, a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in front of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother after busting down the door to the family's home in the Bronx. Officer Richard Haste claims he thought his life was in danger when he fired his weapon, despite the fact that Graham, who had been a target of a stop-and-frisk shortly before his death, was unarmed.

As with Shantel's family, the Grahams have been organizing weekly protests to hold the NYPD accountable. Pressure brought by family members and supporters has paid off in the Graham case. The week of Shantel's death, Haste was indicted on manslaughter charges.

Indicating the deep divide that exists between the blue uniform and the Black community, police officers clapped in support of Haste when he appeared before the judge. They could have been taking a clue from their boss, Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has consistently defended policies critics decry as racist, including stop-and-frisk and widespread spying on Muslims.

Meanwhile, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn has held on to his job after the Gothamist recently published photographs of him wearing blackface and simulating prison rape behind bars.

Like the Grahams--who have occasionally joined the Davis family in the streets of Flatbush--Shantel's survivors hope to see an indictment issued by the DA's office, which has been lethargic in its response.

MARCHING FOR Shantel, her niece Sierra led the way to the 67th Precinct. The bullhorn she clutched with both hands magnified her 10-year-old voice. "What do we want?" she hollered. "Justice!" the marchers responded, loudly and firmly.

Protesters blocked traffic, but no horns could be heard. "Fight Back Against Police Brutality! Shantel Davis Today, Who Tomorrow?" read the banner up front. People emerged from the doorways of apartment buildings and shops to watch the procession. Some joined. One woman in a blue Associated Market vest tagged along for a bit, until one of her co-workers caught up and reminded her that she was on the clock.

This was Shantel's neighborhood. Those who knew her spoke of a woman who would walk your dog for you or help you clean your house, and who once aided in the care of a neighbor who had suffered a stroke. Not exactly someone who fits the New York Post's description--coupled with a grimacing headshot--of a "witchy woman" and "career criminal."

Shantel's killer also has a reputation around East Flatbush. Locals call him "Bad Boy" Atkins. A pattern of abuse, illegal searches and false charges emerges upon examination of his 12-year career.

Six federal civil rights lawsuits have been brought against him. One victim was awarded $50,000 from the city after Atkins struck him over the head with a walkie-talkie. In another suit, a woman said Atkins strip-searched her after she was arrested for marijuana possession. The city has paid out $130,000 in settlements regarding Atkins.

"People come in here complaining about him all the time," said a local bodega clerk who identified herself as "Rose Smith," for fear of police retribution. "One guy told me he put a gun to his head. I don't understand how they gave him a badge. He's supposed to protect us."

Smith's concern for her safety when criticizing the NYPD is not unfounded. Veteran Harlem activist Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, known for videotaping stop-and-frisk activity in his neighborhood, is facing third-degree weapons charges after police uncovered a pen knife and mini-replica baseball bat during an illegal search of his car. During the search, one of the officers, whom Hayden had previously filmed, told Hayden that they "knew him."

Silence, driven by repression, has given the NYPD near impunity to harass, strip-search, spy on, brutalize and kill, but tectonic shifts appear to be occurring behind the scenes in the city's police apparatus, as marginalized communities gather together to shake things up.

In June, Bloomberg announced the city would scale back on the number of stop-and-frisks, and data released at the beginning of August shows the numbers of those patted down have fallen 34 percent as compared to the same time last year. The voice of the street appears to be breaking through to the higher echelons of society.

In the Davis case, the family had a meeting at the Brooklyn DA's office on August 16 and were told that Shantel's death was under investigation. District Attorney Charles Hynes even apologized to the family at the meeting. Two months after Shantel was killed, he is the first representative of the justice system to do so.

Afterwards, Harold Davis seemed pleased. Though he does not want to disclose where he lives for fear that "dirty cops" will follow him home, he has been driving two-and-a-half hours into Brooklyn and back multiple times each week to help with efforts to mobilize East Flatbush for Shantel. Without community pressure, Harold believes, his niece would be just another statistic, another of the forgotten slain. But activists have helped keep her memory alive in struggle.

Still, Harold sees a long road ahead: "The police are using the streets as a feast. It's time for the mayor and his crony Commissioner Kelly to get out of office. Enough is enough already." Harold said the weekly protests would continue and urged supporters to "come out and speak out."

Following their meeting with the DA, the family held a press conference. Local news reporters strained to hear the words of Shantel's grandmother, Louise. The elderly woman fought back tears as helping hands led her to a bouquet of microphones. In a voice with the strain of a scream, but as low as a whisper, she told the cameras, "I loved my baby and I miss my baby. I want justice for my child." Justice for Shantel is a demand that, as of yet, remains to be satisfied.

After snowballing through the neighborhood, the Justice for Shantel march on August 4, arrived at the 67th Precinct. Two police officers stood on the steps leading into the station, arms folded, looking down at the crowd below. But no one was intimidated. "What the NYPD has done," says Harold Davis, "has made us a family. It has brought us together in ways we weren't before."

First published at Waging Nonviolence.

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