How could the cops kill Jonathan Ferrell?

September 17, 2013 columnist Dave Zirin says the murder of a former football player by police--after he asked for help following a car accident--is emblematic of U.S. racism.

IF AFTER Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and Darius Simmons, you thought that you could be sickened by racist violence, but no longer shocked, you need to know the story of Jonathan Ferrell.

This past weekend, as the country remembered the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that took the lives of four little girls, another murder draped in racism took place--and the details, even in these jaded times, are shocking.

Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old former football player at Florida A&M University crashed his car in Charlotte, N.C. The wreck was so awful that Ferrell, according to police reports, had to climb out of the back window. He somehow stumbled in the middle of the night to the closest home and pounded on the door--"banging on the door viciously," in the bizarre phrasing of Charlotte police chief Rodney Monroe--begging for help.

According to police reports, the person inside didn't call an ambulance, but hit her alarm panic button, indicating to police that a home invasion was in progress. As the Charlotte police approached, Ferrell continued to "attempt to gain the attention of the homeowner." When they arrived, Ferrell "charged" toward them. One of the three officers Tasered Ferrell. When that did not stop his "advance," 27-year-old Officer Randall Kerrick opened fire, hitting Jonathan Ferrell three times, killing him at the scene.

Jonathan Ferrell
Jonathan Ferrell

Officer Kerrick was the only policeman to take out his gun and fire, which raises questions about their description of Ferrell as "charging" towards them after being Tasered. According to The Charlotte Observer, police actually said initially that Kerrick's actions were "appropriate and lawful." Yet the brazenness of the shooting, the absence of any evidence that Ferrell was under the influence of anything other than a possible concussion, and the fact that there was really no way to spin this meant that Kerrick was quickly arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter.

According to North Carolina law, "voluntary manslaughter" means that Kerrick acted with "imperfect self-defense." The police statement said that "the evidence revealed that Mr. Ferrell did advance on Officer Kerrick and the investigation showed that the subsequent shooting of Mr. Ferrell was excessive. Our investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter."

JONATHAN FERRELL was a member of Florida A&M's 2010 championship team. He was going to turn 25 in October and was engaged to be married. He was called "the shepherd" for the way he looked after those around him. His mother Georgia and twin brother Willie Ferrell, who also played on the Florida A&M team, spoke to CNN this morning, their shocked sadness on full display.

His college coach, Earl Holmes, was "stunned," saying, "I was saddened when they told me. They told me he was murdered. I said, 'What? Murder? That doesn't sound like him. Not the Jonathan I remembered.' The Jonathan I remembered was a soft-spoken kid, quiet and to himself...A lot of times bad things happen to good people."

But they don't just "happen." One of the reasons there was so much media and mainstream outrage around the murder of Trayvon Martin was because he wasn't killed at the hands of police. When the police kill an unarmed Black or Brown male, the media, the political establishment and even many mainstream civil rights organizations are inclined to give them a major benefit of the doubt.

One can ask the families of Ramarley Graham or Sean Bell if that sounds about right. Being stopped by police for DWB (Driving While Black) is outrage enough. Being killed by police for SHWB (Seeking Help While Black) demands a response.

When the four girls of the 16th Street Baptist Church were killed, many asked how the United States could lecture the world about democracy and human rights when it couldn't guarantee the safety of children in a house of worship. Let's update this. How can President Obama lecture the world about the "American values" the United States wants to project in the Middle East when an unarmed young man can't ask for help after a car wreck without being seen as a lethal target?

Forget "post-racial" America. We can only hope that, after Trayvon Martin, we aren't "post-outrage." The Ferrells deserve, if nothing else, our collective insistence that there be justice for Jonathan Ferrell and that such a senseless death never happen again.

First published at

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