David was stolen from us

February 19, 2016

Adrian Orozco and Gus Bova report on the struggle to win justice for an unarmed African American teenager who was killed by police in Austin, Texas.

"OUR CHILD was stolen from us by the police." Those words come from a statement by the family of David Joseph, who were begging for answers about why their 17-year-old child was killed by Austin, Texas, police on February 8.

David, a bright and cheerful high school senior and popular athlete at Connally High School, was killed by Officer Geoffrey Freeman in broad daylight in the suburb of Pflugerville, just north of Austin.

Police admit that the teen was naked and unarmed at the time of his death, begging the question of what sort of threat he could have posed that required his death--and why the officer chose to shoot rather than use some other means of subduing David.

David's family was notified of his death just an hour before the a police department press conference about the killing--a day after their son's murder, with headlines on local news stations describing a naked "aggressive" teen being shot after supposedly "attacking" a police officer.

According to reports, police responded to a call that someone in the neighborhood was being chased. Freeman arrived on the scene, but was initially unable to find any suspects, and reported back to the dispatcher that he had given up. Then, while driving, Freeman allegedly noticed David lying naked in the street, pulled up to him, exited the squad car and issued an order. The police allege that David was "non-compliant" and began to charge Freeman, who then opened fire.

Austin residents demanding justice for David Joseph send a message outside City Hall
Austin residents demanding justice for David Joseph send a message outside City Hall (Gus Bova | SW)

Although the officer's dash cam captured the initial encounter with David, it failed to record the moment he allegedly charged at Freeman or the shooting itself.

The circumstances surrounding Joseph's death are suspect. While the media cited his supposedly "aggressive behavior," the police department refused to comment on how many times Joseph was shot. Some witnesses report there were at least "two loud sounds."

Outrageously, the media has speculated without any evidence that Joseph may have been using drugs and had "superhuman strength" as a result.

The department also has been quick to raise to questions about David Joseph's mental state, but at an emergency response meeting following the shooting, some neighbors claimed to have seen him walking just minutes before, fully clothed. They say he was undressed by the time EMS personnel arrived on the scene.

FOLLOWING DAVID Joseph's killing, an emergency meeting called by the Austin Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter saw multiple organizations--including the Austin Justice Coalition, the People's Task Force, the International Socialist Organization, the Green Party and more--join to collect demands and plan a response. More than 150 people attended, with friends and teachers of Joseph testifying to his character.

On February 11, a crowd of some 30 people gathered outside of Austin City Hall at 9 a.m., holding signs and chanting "No justice, no peace!" and "Same story every time: Being Black is not a crime," as they demanded justice for David. A drummer with "Legalize Black" inscribed on his kick-drum kept the energy high throughout.

Perhaps the most powerful moment came when one organizer pulled everyone into a circle and asked them to say David Joseph's name for his mother, his father and his community--hammering home the humanity of this teenager now lost. Four Black women then formed a die-in at the center of the crowd and, with a light drumbeat throughout, performed a lament for David, saying at one point: "A child, naked, cold and confused, dying in the street--I just can't understand it."

Later that morning, an organizer for the Austin Justice Coalition asked everyone to move inside, where participants held a silent protest during the Austin City Council's weekly meeting. Protestors formed a ring around the edge of the room and took seats throughout, still holding their signs.

By coincidence, the City Council happened to be discussing an affordable housing development in a subdivision of Northwest Austin, near where David Joseph was shot. During the discussion, a parade of representatives from the nearby neighborhood association streamed up to the microphone to argue that their neighborhood was a bad location for an affordable housing development because the residents would "lack access" to essential resources--essentially arguing against affordable housing in their backyards.

A City Council representative compounded their argument, claiming that because "it is prohibited to perform criminal background checks on teenagers," the family development would inevitably bring crime into the neighborhood.

At noon, the protest moved back outside, where Mayor Steve Adler followed to address the group. At this point, the crowd had swelled to around 80 people. Adler spoke supportively of the protest, expressing grief over Joseph's death and stating that "Black lives do matter"--but the crowd was not entirely appeased, with one activist shouting, "Prove it!"

When the Austin Justice Coalition delivered its demands--including a prompt investigation, with an independent manager selected with the coalition's input, and an audit of Austin Police Department policies on mental health and use of force--the Mayor responded that they were reasonable measures which he supported. He left, however, amid questions of why it took him so long to speak out on Joseph's death, and the crowd began chanting, "No justice, no peace" again.

THE MURDER of David Joseph clearly and painfully echoes the murder of Tamir Rice in its instantaneous terrorism--a two-second reaction in which every Black child, teen and adult is viewed as a threat.

The justification of Joseph's death by police officials recalls the murder of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown in its manufacture of horror, in which we are expected to believe unarmed Black teenagers--whether wearing hoodies on the sidewalk or jaywalking, or supposedly naked in the street--are more dangerous than the police that routinely harass, attack and murder them with an arsenal of military-grade weaponry.

It is no coincidence that David Joseph took his last breath in Pflugerville, a suburb north of Austin.

The city's historic displacement of people of color, beginning with a 1928 city plan to move Mexicans and Black people out of downtown by denying them basic social services, has been amplified a thousand-fold by land zoning that entrenches the poor in the most industrial or distant areas; disparities in school funding that leave public education without resources and consign poor children of color to underserved schools and charters; and infrastructures that create economic and racial barriers in access to transportation, education, social services, and relief from natural disasters.

Meanwhile, the widespread gentrification that disenfranchises thousands to create a tax haven for wealthy technology companies requires a growing police force to secure its expanding boundaries.

The arming of the Austin Police Department and the growth of its numbers enforces the reach of the developers into Black and Brown neighborhoods; the capture and deportation of 19 immigrants a week; the harsh anti-vagrancy laws that hide the city's towering economic inequality; and the routine patrol and assault of people of color.

All of these interests aligned with capital set the poor and people of color in the crosshairs of the police, the sharpest edge of the criminal "justice" system, and perpetuate the conditions under which David Joseph could be murdered in broad daylight at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning.

He joins others in Austin alone--among them, Larry Jackson, Byron Carter, Nathaniel Sanders and Sofia King.

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement across the nation has led to demonstrations, rallies, protests, vigils, port shutdowns, highway takeovers, City Hall sit-ins, and numerous other manifestations of a revitalized fight against racism and police brutality.

In Austin, a sober confidence has swelled in the community, built painstakingly in the course of our own fight for justice for Larry Jackson and solidarity actions in response to police murders abroad. Although many painful roadblocks have been endured, a broad network has formed to respond and hold the city accountable in every instance of police brutality and misconduct.

Officials will likely attempt to pass off David Joseph's death as an "unfortunate accident." Should this occur, activists are prepared to remind Austin's wealthy and their protectors that our community will continue to struggle in the fight for justice.

That the Mayor was forced to say that "Black lives matter" and that he is cooperating with a local activist group is a testament to the powerful organizing that has swept the U.S. since the murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and so many others whose deaths gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ultimately, however, we in Austin cannot relent and trust our elected officials to deliver justice. If David Joseph's killer is brought to justice, it will be because we continue to organize, fill the streets, and force officials to prove that Black lives matter.

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