Gunned down for being Black in Walmart

October 8, 2014

Anti-racist activists were sitting in at the Beavercreek, Ohio, police station as this article was published October 8, in a dramatic protest against the police murder of John Crawford III and the failure of a grand jury to indict the officer responsible.

The story of Crawford's murder in a Walmart in a suburb of Dayton has gained national and international attention--but apparently not enough to convince authorities to press for an indictment against the cop who killed an innocent, unarmed man in cold blood. So activists are stepping up their struggle with their indefinite occupation in Beavercreek.

On August 5, the 22-year-old Crawford was walking through the aisles of the store and chatting on a cell phone with his girlfriend while holding a pellet gun sold by the store. Another customer called 911--officer Sean Williams arrived on the scene with his gun drawn, and proceeded to open fire only a few seconds after confronting Crawford. According to his girlfriend Lee Cee Jackson, Crawford's last words were: "It's not real!"

A recently released surveillance video and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's own investigation show that Crawford was completely innocent.

The 911 caller, Ronald Richie, falsely claimed that Crawford was waving a loaded rifle around and pointing it at children. Williams can be seen on the footage racing into the store with his gun drawn. He claims he started shooting after Crawford made an "aggressive move." Richie says that Crawford "turned and pointed the rifle at the officer" after being told to "put it down, put it down." But nowhere in the video can Crawford be seen pointing the gun at anyone or aggressively charging police. Rather, he was clearly moving away from the police at the time he was shot.

Despite this clear-cut evidence, however, a special grand jury in Greene County refused to indict either Williams or David Darkow, the other officer on the scene, for anything in connection with Crawford's deaths.

Crawford's murder took place just a few days before Mike Brown was gunned down on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., leading to weeks of mobilizations to demand justice. The two cases have become joined in people's minds--along with those of Eric Garner in New York, Trayvon Martin in Florida and many others--in exposing the deadly violence of militarized police and the racism of a society that considers young Black lives disposable.

This reality has hardened the resolve of those willing to stand up for justice--as we saw in Ferguson, and again in Ohio. Anti-racists leapt into action after Crawford's murder, with the Ohio Student Association (OSA), part of the Freedom Side network of youth of color, taking the lead. Through marches and demonstrations, sit-down meetings and social media, OSA has organized a core of dedicated activists willing to see the struggle though.

On September 22, OSA organized an eleven-and-a-half-mile march--which organizers called a "pilgrimage"--from the Beavercreek Walmart where Crawford was killed to the Dayton courthouse where the grand jury was deliberating. The march was followed by workshops and trainings outside the courthouse that lasted until September 24.

After the grand jury refused to indict, activists escalated the struggle. At their occupation of the Beavercreek police department, begun on October 6, protesters are demanding that Sean Williams be fired; Ronald Richie face criminal charges for lying to the 911 dispatcher; and police training be overhauled to end the "shoot first" practice. The occupiers expect to remain at least until a meeting with the chief of police at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

A few days before the sit-in, Darsheel Kaur, an OSA community organizer and Beavercreek resident, Aramis Sundiata, the OSA programming director, talked to Pranav Jani and Verbz--and provided the inside story on the organizing to win justice for John Crawford.

WHEN YOU heard that the grand jury would refuse to indict the officers, what was your reaction?

Darsheel: For me, it was really intense. I was hurt. It was like they were saying they didn't even care. But at the same time, I wasn't surprised. I held that inside of me throughout this whole process--that it's quite possible they won't indict, given the history and what I know about the police. I hoped that since we were bringing national attention to it, maybe that might change something--but apparently not.

At the same time, this solidified what I knew and why we've been organizing. We organize even when there's no national attention. We organize because it's a structural problem that's not just going to go away, and we have to keep at it.

Aramis: As my comrade Darsheel was saying, we were not surprised. We know that the occupying force of the police, the occupying force of the justice system, never renders justice for the colonized. We the people often have this narrative about justice--but the police and the law are really about "law and order." That's the primary objective they want to see through.

Protesters march against the police murder John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio
Protesters march against the police murder John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio (Ohio Student Association)

So when the decision came, it was no surprise, but it made the narrative clearer. There is no question to us that it was immoral, when you see the tape. But for them, there's a manual for the proper procedure for the police to follow, and if you read it, it does look like they followed proper procedure.

Our objectives were clear: we wanted them to release the tape, we wanted national exposure, and we wanted an indictment. And we won on two levels. But you must really understand that if we are fighting for this thing called justice--well. there is no "justice" under this system, there's "just us."

TELL US more about Beavercreek. What are the demographics? What's the political climate?

Darsheel: Beavercreek is something like 96 percent white. It's a suburb of Dayton created during the period of "white flight." They soon made themselves their own city, and through the 1990s and early 2000s, it's been building its own malls and shopping centers. So it's getting bigger every year.

So the demographics in Beavercreek are changing. It's not just the people who live there, but who go to school and work there.

A year ago, there was a big controversy in Beavercreek when our regional bus company, the RTA, tried to put in bus stop in front of Fairfield Commons, near the mall where Crawford was shot. Right across the street, across the highway, is Wright State University, where there already was a bus stop. But it's not safe to cross to get to the mall for people who work and shop there.

Local Beavercreek residents fought tooth and nail against the bus stop. People said things like, "We don't want that riff-raff from Dayton coming down here."

A federal court was going to sue Beavercreek for discrimination. There's been a bus stop for one year, which is very relevant because it was all about Beavercreek people having fear of "the outsiders" coming in. The day after the shooting, people were saying, "See I told you, RTA brought in these Dayton people."

THAT SURVEILLANCE tape coming out made a huge difference. It changed the minds of a lot of people who were just following the corporate media or hearing the lies about Crawford, and it also put national attention on Beavercreek. What many people don't know is that you had been pushing for the release of the tape for a long time. What sorts of actions were you involved in?

Darsheel: It started off a week after the shooting happened. There was a community meeting called in Dayton, and a lot of OSA members from Columbus and Dayton were present. We helped organize a national moment of silence two days later through the Freedom Side network and started taking action all around the state, calling on the Beavercreek police and Mike DeWine to release the tape--which the family had not even seen.

We had an action the following Monday [August 18] in Columbus in front of DeWine's office. The next day, Crawford's parents were showed six minutes of the tape, and DeWine scheduled a last-minute press conference announcing that there would be a grand jury. He acted like he did it because [laughing] he felt deep in heart that he needed to share the video with family--that it was the right thing to do.

THEY NEVER acknowledge activist pressure, do they? Tell us about the Freedom Side network.

Aramis: The Freedom Side comes out of the long struggle to get organizations of youth of color together. When we went to Boston last year to discuss Freedom Summer, we met with groups like United We Dream, Dream Defenders and the Black Youth Project. We may have differences in our analyses and conclusions, but we realized we have the same objectives and narratives for power--liberation for the people.

After attending Freedom Summer this year, sharing stories and learning about our struggles, we saw we all had common objectives in our various states. Through Freedom Side, we want to show our strength, that we're not just college kids who are out there just doing stuff, that we're really about this organizing life for real--to show the strength of numbers, to show the strength of coalition, to show the strength of our objectives.

LET'S TALK about the organizing--the march, or pilgrimage, sounded amazing. Can you talk about the pilgrimage and how you organized?

Darsheel: A lot of people along the way kind of doubted us and told us that we shouldn't do it, that it was too long. We knew it would be really difficult, but on the day of the pilgrimage, we had about 85 people ready to go. The oldest was 70 or so, and the youngest was a 6-month-old baby, so people were from all ages and different backgrounds. There were people from San Diego, New York City, Kentucky and all around Ohio.

Eighty-five people walked, but so many people helped make it happen. People opened up their churches for us to lodge. We had organizations and individuals helping us with food and transportation for three or four days. We had cars following us all the way, giving us water. We had a church opening up their doors so we could have a pit stop there--that pastor came to us before the walk that morning and said, "You know our church is on the route if you'd like to stop by there.

Before the walk, we [Aramis, Darsheel and OSA Political Director James Hayes] had a meeting with the chief of police of Xenia, Ohio. They had never seen anything like this before, and they were pretty nervous. They didn't know what to expect, seeing these organized people of color. Things had changed due to our actions, we were getting national attention, and they weren't sure what to expect.

We asked if they could follow us and protect us, because when we did an action in Beavercreek to demand the release of the tape, they didn't help us at all. We almost got hit by some cars, and the police didn't do anything.

[After those discussions], we actually got them to have a car in front and behind us. At one point, we took half the street for six miles. We were at walking pace, with cars lined up behind us.

LET'S GO back to Attorney General DeWine, and what you found about him that raised questions about his objectivity.

Darsheel: DeWine is from Greene County and his daughter is a prosecutor in the county. He has a long-term relationship with the Beavercreek police. That's why the family wants the federal government involved, and we backed them--because we have no faith in Mike DeWine to conduct an objective trial that was result in some sense of justice.

We had actions across the state at local statehouses to get the Department of Justice involved. In response, DeWine had another press conference where he announced a special prosecutor.

You can do a simple search and find that the special prosecutor, Mark Piepmeier, has his own issues. He was involved in the Lucasville prison uprising, where he helped send people to death row, and the Timothy Thomas case in Cincinnati in 2001, [another police murder] which ended up in race riots. In other words, Piepmeier has been involved in some of the biggest cases in the recent history of Ohio that have not led to justice.

SO WHERE do you go from here?

Darsheel: In the next week, we're going to have actions to see what we can do to get accountability directly for John Crawford's death. We want to see someone be held accountable.

There are two lenses here: OSA as a statewide group and OSA as part of a national coalition. We want to use our momentum to make structural changes stateside and nationally.

In the upcoming elections, we want to be active [in voter registration] so we can show our power when we're together. This is not about power through an individual vote. It's about the fact that when we are together, we can use our power.

As part of the national coalition, we want to connect our experience to a national narrative. The dots need to be connected--between here and Ferguson and New York City. We want to shift the relationship between our communities and law enforcement.

DO YOU have any final words to send out to other activists elsewhere?

Darsheel: Being able to connect these larger narratives to local experiences--we have to be vigilant about both things, and really it comes down to relationships. We want to use this opportunity to bridge a lot of gaps, and have local discussions to enable local healing and a greater sense of community in the greater Dayton area instead of staying in our silos. Because you can have the analysis and the narrative, but it doesn't mean anything unless you have the relationships to actually build that power.

Aramis: Ready for revolution!

Further Reading

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