Strangled to death, but cops said he was the threat

June 7, 2018

The murder of a Black 22-year-old by Louisiana police shows the continued importance of anti-racist protest such as the NFL players taking a knee, writes Daniel Werst.

“We want people to be respectful of the national anthem. We want people to stand...and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe. But we were also very sensitive to players’ choices.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, May 23

“Somebody’s family actually lost a life, and I’m very cognizant of that. That doesn’t mean our officers did anything wrong, or it may mean that they did something wrong. We have to have the ability to get to that conclusion and put that to the district attorney.”
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto, May 10

NFL TEAM owners announced on May 23 that they will require all employees on the field in the upcoming football season to stand for the national anthem. If players refuse, teams will be fined.

Kneeling in protest of the epidemic of racist police murders started in 2016 with San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and peaked in September 2017 after Donald Trump called players who knelt “sons of bitches” and called for owners to silence and fire them.

Entire teams responded by publicly linking arms to show collective defense against the president’s attack, and the next Sunday, some 200 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance.

Family and friends of Keeven Robinson march alongside solidarity activists in New Orleans
Family and friends of Keeven Robinson march alongside solidarity activists in New Orleans

I can’t read about the new NFL rule without thinking about the fact that 13 days before its announcement, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO) deputies murdered a 22-year-old Black man named Keeven Robinson one mile west of New Orleans.

The NFL bosses and the parish chief of police both held press conferences where they talked about their commitment to neutrality, reasonableness, patriotism and “respect.” But it’s a strange kind of respect and reasonableness, appropriate to the novels of Franz Kafka. The word “investigate” is used for cover up, and the word “respect” for shut up.

FOUR UNDERCOVER narcotics agents say they were following Robinson on May 10 because they suspected he was selling drugs. When they tried to arrest him at a gas station, Robinson fled, first by car, then on foot He jumped over several backyard fences before the officers caught up with him.

The deputies claim that they struggled with Robinson, who was later taken to an area hospital where he could not be revived. Jefferson Parish coroner Gerry Cvitanovich announced that Robinson’s death was a homicide by “compressional asphyxia,” based on the wounds to his throat.

When asked by reporters if the trauma to Robinson’s neck implied that it was squeezed, grabbed or leaned on, the coroner called that a “reasonable conclusion.”

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto responded to the coroner’s report in a statement: “This initial medical classification does not take into account whether the homicide was an intentional act, accidental act or an act incidental to a law enforcement action.” Lopinto also told reporters that the sheriff’s office suspected that Robinson’s death was due to his lengthy history of asthma.

There is no video of the killing because the JPSO has refused to put body cameras on officers since 2015. None of their vehicles used dash cameras.

But even without any other evidence, the police are guilty of murder based on their own account of what happened.

When an armed person, with three armed accomplices close by, strangles an unarmed person, can that ever be anything but murder? Under what circumstances could someone claim that they choked another person hard enough and for long enough to cause death — and were acting in self-defense?

Lopinto promised a sheriff’s department investigation with involvement from state police and the FBI into whether the killing was justified. But the sheriff sounds like he has already reached his own conclusions.

While he said JPSO policy doesn’t ban the use of chokeholds, the sheriff told reporters, “From a policy standpoint, we don’t train someone to hit someone with a brick. But if you’re fighting for your life and the bricks are there, you hit someone with a brick.”

KEEVEN ROBINSON isn’t the first young Black man to be killed by Jefferson Parish police.

In 2016, another 22-year-old Black man, Eric Harris, was in effect executed after trying to flee arrest by JPSO police, who fired 20 bullets into his car.

At the same time, there’s a visible pro-police backlash against the message of the Black Lives Matter movement in the area. It’s common to see blue stickers, flags, signs and slogans on cars, homes and businesses praising and embracing the police. These examples of pro-flag, pro-police sentiment came in reaction to protests that rocked the area for Alton Sterling, a Black man killed by police in nearby Baton Rouge in 2016.

There are many steps on the ladder from racist police violence in everyday life up to the NFL boardroom and a national debate involving the president of the United States. But let’s not mistake that distance for real separation. The movement to make Black Lives Matter and call into question official justifications for systemic oppression has gained tremendously from open player resistance.

In response to the demand for players to stand during the anthem, the players’ union announced, “Our union will review the new ‘policy’ and challenge any aspect of it that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.”

But within less than 24 hours after the ban’s announcement, at least 10 players had criticized or outright condemned it.

Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns said bluntly, “That’s bullying.” Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins wrote that he would not give in to an attack on freedom of speech, and that the players’ protest had raised the demand “to create a more fair and just criminal justice system, end police brutality and foster better educational and economic opportunities for communities of color and those struggling in this country.”

His teammate, defensive end Chris Long, who is white, wrote, “These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it. It also lets you, the fan, know where our league stands.”

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Long suggested the owners were motivated by fear of losing profits and facing another political attack from Donald Trump.

Athlete resistance can connect to public indignation against police violence, and against connected injustices like the separation of immigrant children from their parents and widespread sexual assault and threats against immigrants who are in detention.

There’s only one answer to the labor struggle question recently posed anew by sportswriter Dave Zirin: “Which side are you on?”

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