Real Recognize Real: Dispatches from Minneapolis

The movement around Black Lives Matter in Minneapolis is changing shape and picking up pace. In recent years Minnesotans have seen movements around anti-war, welfare reform, the rights of Indigenous peoples, students, Muslims, LGBT people—and of course the anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests starting in 2015. With the officer-involved shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile among a host of others, people are taking to the streets and organizing.

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David Ware: a Vindication

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Illustration by Melanie Cervantes

The killing of David Ware by an Ypsilanti Police Department officer in 2007 appears, in 2016, as just a variation of a standard and sick script that plays out with regularity.

Two officers pursued Ware as he fled from the scene of a drug bust outside The Keg Party Store. Ypsilanti Police Department Officer Uriah Hamilton fired the three shots from behind Ware, killing the unarmed 29 year old. The officer’s justification: “I thought he was turning around and reaching for a gun.”

All that officers found on his body was cash. No gun. And while Hamilton and the YPD would have preferred it be a dead man’s word against their own, a witness saw the killing go down from his home.

And the witness says Ware never turned around or reached for his belt.

The short of it is clear: White YPD officer Uriah Hamilton killed an unarmed black man, who presented no threat, by shooting him in the back.

“They robbed my son of his life, and they robbed my grandchildren. I have grandkids who sit up and cry about their dad, and what can I tell them? What can I tell them to bring their dad back? We sit up and cry, and it’s like it happened yesterday,” said Ware’s mother, Maudess Marie Sutton.

The city of Ypsilanti rejected a RAW FOIA request for information on the circumstances around Hamilton’s departure from the YPD long after the shooting. It’s unclear when and why he left the force, but news articles show he remained employed after the 2010 settlement. Regardless, Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Brian Mackie never brought charges against Officer Hamilton; Sutton said the YPD never punished him; and the City’s insurance company paid the $450,000 settlement.

In other words, Officer Hamilton faced no consequences for his killing of David Ware.

The only form of justice came in a civil suit. Ware’s family sued Hamilton and the city of Ypsilanti in federal court, and in the subsequent hearings, Hamilton argued that Ware turned around. Hamilton asked Judge Avern Cohn to dismiss the suit on the grounds that there was no factual dispute over what happened: Hamilton did the right thing, and the facts support that, the defense argued.

They also pointed to forensic evidence presented by Washtenaw County Medical Examiner Bader Cassin.

Court documents show Cassin reported the fatal bullet hit Ware at an angle that could conceivably indicate that Ware turned to look over his shoulder. But, Cassin continued, it could also mean the shooter fired from an angle that caused the entrance wound.

Hamilton asserted that the entry angle proves Ware turned around.

“[Hamilton] is mistaken,” Judge Cohn wrote in his ruling.

Cohn found enough uncertainty in Cassin’s observation and a large enough gap between the police and witness’s account that he denied Hamilton’s request to dismiss the case. Faced with a jury trial, Hamilton and the city opted to settle, paying Ware’s family $450,000 for his murder.

The killing came at least seven years before names like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Aura Rosser, Trayvon Martin, and, most recently, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, landed in headlines.

What the Ware case shows is white police needlessly killing black women and men isn’t a new phenomenon. To the contrary, the case is evidence of a pattern of injustice carried out by law enforcement with some regularity prior to the age of cell phone cameras and social media.

It also provides some context for 2016 events and helps explain that the national outrage over the most recent murders didn’t appear out of thin air—the problem has always been here, it’s just documented better in 2016.

The media covering Ware’s killing failed to mention it left a family without a father, brother, and son. There was also no article on the federal judge’s concerns over the killing, or on the city of Ypsilanti and Officer Hamilton settling with the Ware family for $450,000.

The record needs to be set straight.

Making a Villain

While there’s no denying Ware was caught up in illegal activities at that moment in his life, Ypsilanti and its police department took pains to paint him as a dangerous criminal and a serious threat to the public. The media repeated this official line, noting a rap video Ware made that showed drugs and guns.

The goal of villainizing is to justify killing, yet it’s unreasonable to think that someone with a non-violent minor criminal record and a rap video is more deserving of a bullet in the back.

Ware’s family, of course, saw a different person than Officer Hamilton, and certainly not one deserving of death. His sister, Alethia Ostfeld, described her brother as “the kind of guy who would give the shirt off his back, who loved his family, and was passionate about music. Rapping was his way of transforming his passion for music into entertainment.”

The family spent the kids’ youngest years in Inkster, but Sutton said she wanted her kids to grow up in a better environment, so they moved to Belleville. Ware wasn’t a perfect student, Sutton said, but wasn’t a problem child either. She described him as a “normal kid” who was raised in the church. She acknowledged he made some questionable choices later in life, but said he was never the serious criminal police painted him to be.

“My son was a loving kid. He did no more to get in trouble than most kids. He really wasn’t that bad. He ended up making bad choices, but all kids make bad choices,” Sutton said. “He wasn’t a thug. He wasn’t in a drug cartel or nothing like that.”

Growing up, he struggled with the loss of his father who died when Ware was young, and he cried for his dad at night, Sutton said. While looking for a father figure, Ware turned to his older brother, Leon, who died in a car accident several years before Ware’s death.

A father of six, Ware had mouths to feed. He struggled to keep a regular job, and is suspected of having begun to deal drugs at some point in his mid 20s. His family said that because he never brought that part of his life around them, they weren’t aware of it. What everyone close to him did know, however, was how committed he was to taking care of and providing for his children.

Ostfeld added that Ware wasn’t violent and he told her he would never carry a gun because he didn’t want to get shot by the police.

But what about the rap video police pointed to in an attempt to assassinate Ware’s character? His family says that was for show, and noted that rappers everywhere make videos displaying drugs and guns, but this should give no one permission to shoot them in the back.

The officers knew Ware, Ostfeld said, and knew where he, his family, and his friends lived. They also knew he wasn’t a threat and could’ve found him the next day instead of shooting him.

“So he made a bad decision. Let him live. I would much rather have my brother alive and facing charges than dead. I don’t understand how you can justify shooting someone who’s unarmed and running away from you,” Ostfeld said. “The media made no mention of the sting that went wrong. What I got from the media was that he made a bad decision, he was involved with drug activity, he was a rapper, he rapped about drugs, so we killed him and that’s OK. This buy-and-bust sting operation was planned by the police, so they had much more control of the situation and therefore more responsibility for the outcome.”

And when he was killed, Ware and his family had little money—so little that they couldn’t afford a headstone for his grave. That’s not the type of end a kingpin meets, family members said.

Rick Ruby, an attorney who represented the family in its civil suit, said the police presented an inaccurate picture of Ware—but that’s what police do.

“He was a small-time operator, but they acted like he was a major kingpin. It was ridiculous,” Ruby said.

Shot Him in the Street “Like a Dog”

The events leading up to the murder aren’t disputed, and are laid out clearly by Judge Cohn in federal court documents.

A LAWNET team that included YPD, Michigan State Police, and Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office personnel set up Ware and his cousin, Maurice Moore, in a sting operation. Cohn wrote that the deal went down in The Keg parking lot. Immediately after the exchange of money for cocaine between Ware and an undercover officer took place, police moved in.

Moore started driving away, so WCSO Deputy Sam Wallace fired three shots at the driver’s side window. That prompted Moore to stop, jump out of the car, and drop to the ground, court documents show.

But Ware jumped out, threw his drugs, and started running down nearby Arcade Street.

Judge Cohn wrote that Michigan State Police LT. Jerry Cooley yelled, “Don’t make me shoot!” as Ware fled. Wallace began to give chase, but slipped on ice.

Hamilton then began chasing Ware down Arcade Street, and told the judge that he thought Wallace had been shot. But Wallace clearly had not been shot as he quickly joined the chase. Both officers reported yelling, “Police! Stop!” as they pursued Ware.

Jerry McCullough, a then 17 year old who lived with his family on Arcade Street, heard the commotion. He looked out his window, Cohn wrote. and saw Wallace and Hamilton running side by side, though Hamilton claimed he didn’t see or hear Wallace.

Officer Wallace told the court he saw Ware looking back over his shoulder, but “did not see a weapon and did not feel he was in imminent danger, so he did not fire his gun,” Cohn wrote.

McCullough’s version differs there, Cohn continued. McCullough reported Ware “ran straight down the street” and he was “positive” Ware did not look back over his shoulder, and that Ware was “just running.”

Hamilton told the court he saw Ware look back over his right shoulder and saw Ware’s hand “reach into his waistband.”

But, Judge Cohn noted, “[Hamilton] later said that he did not know if he actually saw Ware’s hand.”

“No one ever saw a gun, warned each other that there was a gun, or is sure that he was going for a waistband,” Judge Cohn wrote.

Still, Hamilton fired three times.

Cassin reported the fatal bullet entered the right side of Ware’s back while he was upright, and the next two entered while he was supine. “Wallace said Ware was on his stomach and Cooley turned him over, at which point money flew out of his left hand,” Judge Cohn wrote.

“The Question”

“The question is: Did Hamilton have probable cause to believe that Ware posed a serious danger to him or others while Ware was running away from the scene of a cocaine-bust?” Cohn wrote in his order.

Hamilton and the City argued that Hamilton believed Ware was armed and had shot Wallace. The defense also asked the court to ignore the eyewitness account, and argued that medical examiner Cassin’s testimony and forensic evidence proved that Ware had turned around.

Judge Cohn disagreed.

“Hamilton’s erroneous belief that Ware was armed and had shot Wallace is not sufficient to create probable cause when Ware was fleeing at the time he was shot,” Cohn said.

He added that forensic evidence “supports both Hamilton’s and [the Ware estate’s] versions of the facts.”

Hamilton further argued that probable cause may exist to shoot a suspected felon who is unarmed and fleeing if there is a reason to believe that he poses an immediate threat to himself or others.

“While this legal premise may be true, it cannot be applied to Ware, who posed no threat to anyone as he ran down Arcade Street,” Judge Cohn responded.

Bottom line, according to Judge Cohn: “Ware posed no threat of harm when he was shot.”

With all the unclear facts surrounding the shooting, Judge Cohn wrote, the case should go to trial.

Attorney Rick Ruby underscored the importance of a witness catching the killing.

“Our witness, McCullough, is an independent guy. He has no dog in the fight. The cop is going to say what the cop is going to say—they have to come up with something to justify killing,” Ruby said. “McCullough said, ‘No, it didn’t happen that way,’ so that created a question of fact.

“Now, if we didn’t have McCullough, then we don’t have any evidence, and we’re out of there. McCullough is a game changer,” he added.

Prosecuting Attorney Mackie: Killing Is Justified

In a statement to RAW, Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie said previous case law establishes that it is justifiable homicide to prevent a fleeing felon from escaping by killing them.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Tennessee V. Garner (1985) that police can’t shoot someone who is fleeing without first determining if they present a threat. However, that was a civil case, and Mackie cited the case of the Michigan Supreme Court V. Couch (1990), in which police killed a fleeing a man. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that police killing a fleeing suspect doesn’t open an officer to criminal charges, though a civil case can go forward.

“I have to follow the law,” Mackie said.

But not everyone fully agrees with Mackie’s assessment. Civil rights attorney Bill Goodman called the Couch ruling a “nasty opinion” and noted there was dissent. He also pointed out that the suspect killed in the Couch case first tried to grab an officer’s gun before fleeing, so he did present a threat at one point. In a case like Ware’s, in which a threat never existed that opinion shouldn’t necessarily apply, Goodman said.

He pointed to the Malice Green case as proof that police officers can and should be charged for misconduct.

“It seems to me, to say as a blanket matter … that there can be no consideration of a criminal case is wrong,” Goodman told RAW.

Regardless, Mackie never brought charges against Officer Hamilton, the Ypsilanti Police Department never punished Hamilton, and the City’s insurance company paid the $450,000 settlement.

A Family Still Grieving

When yet another police killing stokes national outrage over police treatment of people of color in the U.S., Ware’s family experiences flashbacks.

Ostfeld, Ware’s sister, says she doesn’t hate police officers, but believes fear and a lack of cultural proficiency among officers leads to problems in their interactions with black people.

“Some police don’t value their lives. They don’t feel like black men bring value to the community, or they are a valued person in society, so no one will care if they are killed. That’s how I feel when I read these stories, and that’s how I felt when my brother was killed,” she said.

“Some officers look at it as one less black man to deal with. That was my impression of the officer who killed my brother. Uriah Hamilton didn’t see a brother, a father, a man who loved life and loved his family.”

Ware’s mother, Maudess Marie Sutton, says she’s still angry and struggles to move on.

“I don’t want to look at the picture of my son because I hurt so bad. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. I don’t know. I’m still looking for the answer,” she said, fighting back tears.

“Every day I wake up and I don’t think, I grieve. I don’t know what to do with it. It’s a mental thing. It’s something that I can’t explain, that I don’t have words for. I don’t know what to do with something like this. I’m afraid to think about it, Lord keep me.”

Sutton stressed that she’s not prejudiced, but she said she doesn’t see white people killed as frequently as black people.

“My son got a raw deal. He got shot in the back by Uriah Hamilton. My son did not have a gun, and they shot him down in the street like a dog.”

“God will have the last say so. I have forgiven Uriah Hamilton, but I’d like to ask him one question: How would you feel if your son, who was unarmed and running away, was shot in the back by a police officer? What happened to my son shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

Vigilante Privilege

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A group of anti-racism activists participating in a demo outside City Hall on August 4, had a posse of YPD officers descend upon them after a call by Haab’s patron Steve Pierce, an Ypsilanti landlord, anti-taxation activist, surveillance afficionado—and COPAC president.

A few things stand out for us from this experience:

—Officer Brendan Harrison, whom some of us recall for getting in our faces hysterically at the very first RAW demo, about two years ago—he parked one of us into our spot at the library parking lot, and wanted to know why we don’t protest “black on black violence”—once again had much to say. When Jeff Clark refused to shake his hand, he called Clark rude, in spite of the fact that Clark is more than justified in having no desire to shake hands with a known harrasser of activists. Harrison asked, again, why Clark wasn’t out protesting “violence on the southside.”

—Is it a conflict of interest, or merely nepotism, when the president of the Community Policing Council calls the police to snitch on a Black activist, and a bunch of cops very quickly pull up to harrass activists, question them about the political theory on which their movement is based, then dramatically arrest one of them?

—If a Black woman called 911 to allege that Steve Pierce was doing X, Y, or Z, would 5 cops roll up, hassle Pierce, and then arrest him, based solely on the verbal testimony of this Black civilian? This question is rhetorical.

—Pierce called the cops to allege the activists were painting on the surface of the road. City Manager Lange angrily stated, once it had been announced to the Council meeting that YPD officers were outside arresting a protester: “Yes I know who Steve Pierce is. He organized the defeat of the Water Street millage!” So let’s get this straight: Pierce is militantly against initiating a tax to help keep Ypsi in the black; he’s president of the cop council; the cop council’s website is hosted by Pierce’s own servers; Pierce has got surveillance cameras hanging up around town; he dislikes street art; he appears to have a direct line to the YPD, or at least to Harrison, who is the YPD’s DDA cop . . . this reads like a poster for paranoid, vengeful, smalltown America.

—When Clark went in to Haab’s to try and converse with Pierce and his wife, to let them know that surveillant vigilantism such as Pierce’s has real-life consequences for Black activists and artists (read: the kind of people we love and support), they both seemed irate, hostile, threatening.

—Speaking of outspoken haters: they are the flipside to the very coin whose frontside is occupied by the roughly 12,000 white Ypsilantians who have not yet done a thing to advance or assist the movement for Black Lives. Which side are you on?

Dignity over Malice, Racism, and Ignorance

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Jim Anderson

In over six years, Sergeant James Anderson had never told this story publicly until last Monday at the Ypsilanti “Police-Community Relations/Black Lives Matter Task Force” meeting at Ypsilanti High School. A tall, slim, elderly man with glasses wearing a yellow-and-white short-sleeved shirt, he explained that he could not speak too loudly because he can’t help crying every time he talks about the incident.

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Other Voices

An estimated 450 people attended Monday’s monthly meeting of the Ypsilanti Police-Community Relations/Black Lives Matter Task Force. The task force consists of members of the Ypsilanti City Council and the Human Relations Commission (HRC). Chief DeGiusti also sat at the table with the task force, though he is not a member, and Sheriff Clayton was invited to speak.

The task force began in September 2015 in response to an ongoing campaign by local activists demanding accountability for police misconduct, though this history was never mentioned by the task force. Most of the monthly meetings have been under-publicized and have had very low public attendance, and therefore little public input. Monday’s assembly proves that many people would have had an interest in speaking on these issues if the task force had reached out to the community more actively. At some monthly meetings, there has been no representative of the YPD in attendance.

Below is a selection of some of the more RAW voices heard at the meeting, which lasted for 3½ hours. Watch this space for features of some of the stories shared, coming soon. Conspicuously absent was any mention of wanting more policing in people’s own neighborhoods, or fear of criminals in the neighborhood (besides police), or fear of gangs (besides police).

A child asked, “Mom, if I get stopped, should I turn on the camera right away?”

Ex-police officer: “You can’t train an individual to not be racist. You cannot train an officer to not be sexist. No way you can train people not to racially profile.”

“The police pulled me over and my grandson started crying and said, ‘Don’t hurt my nana!’”

“Are officers cleared for mental illness?”

“None of this is going to change until we deal with race, class, and ethnicity…. It’s going to get worse.”

“What does cultural competency mean? … How transparent are you going to be? … Can an officer fail?”

A young Black woman reported that she’s frightened for her 20-year-old brother and drives him everywhere. She was pulled over and falsely accused of not stopping at a turn. She talked back and the officer said, “Why would you give me attitude?” Then, she said, she really had attitude. “I’m afraid for my brother, but I’m not afraid…. Know the law, know your rights. Tell your kids. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, if you’ve done nothing wrong. You can be angry, mad, sad, hurt, anything you want to be.”

“[Police] just follow orders, they’re not critical thinkers. We need to be critical thinkers…. If we were more involved, they wouldn’t get away with this.”

A woman reported that her 18-year-old nephew, who is Black, was falsely accused by a high-ranking officer of taking something from a white girl’s party. She accompanied him to the police station to work it out, but said they were treated with hostility and disrespect. “We’ve been here since Emmett Till. We are still in the same place. How do we figure out which one of these police is rogue? … Police always deal in a hostile manner with the Black community…. Police officers are being dismissed, and they should be held accountable.”

“I am sick of being treated like any other criminal because of the color of my skin.”

“That was no mistake when a man was shot on the ground. That was racism…. There are things that go on in police departments that you should not allow.”

A 23-year-old Black man, a husband and father, said he has had many encounters with police and never once had a good experience. He reported that he has been tricked on numerous occasions by police to put himself in danger. For example, an officer once asked him, “What time is it?” and when he reached in his pocket the officer reached for his gun. “I don’t trust y’all, at all—not the politicians or the police officers…. I know you get paid enough.”

“Black people are traumatized. We know when we wake up that we’re not white. Do you wake up and think ‘I’m white’? No…. You have to get uncomfortable because we’re uncomfortable every day…. You have to give up some of what you haven’t earned.”

Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and Vietnam vet, reported that he was assaulted by white kids dressed in “red face” who threw a full beer can at him. The police wouldn’t do anything. Later three white kids falsely reported to the police that Nathan had stolen a lawnmower and he was arrested and his lawnmower confiscated. Now the prosecutor wants him to plead guilty, including to assaulting an officer, which he would never do. “The last time I came to a meeting, the Chief [DeGiusti] said, ‘We’ll come like the cavalry.’ I don’t want to be nobody’s enemy.”

At Heritage Fest, a white woman saw two officers push about 50 Black kids out of the protected pedestrian area into a high-traffic area at curfew. About 10 white kids remained and weren’t touched. “I didn’t know who to call.”

A mother’s 13-year-old son was waiting at the school bus stop, as usual, when a cop car pulled up, claiming a neighbor said he looked suspicious. The cops put him in the car, did not call his home, took him to school, and did not tell the administration. Her son texted, “I’m okay, police are taking me to school” and “I didn’t reach for anything.” “Now I have to tell him, it’s not about reaching for anything anymore.” The school counselor called her to say he wasn’t doing well, that he was terrified. “Where was your community building when you had the opportunity? These are people and they have families just like you.”

A white woman asked, “What can the white community do?” An audience member yelled, “Stop calling the cops on us!”

“I’m so tired of hearing people say the cops aren’t all bad. It’s Black men that are getting killed…. We’re not paying you to kill our sons and our daughters…. My mother wouldn’t even come to this meeting because she said she is exhausted from having to say the same thing over and over…. We are demanding change. We are demanding respect.”

“How can you build trust when you can lie to people? … Who do we allow to be officers?”

“I think what brings most of us here tonight is the fear that there’s no accountability.”

“The system is not broken. It’s working the way it was designed.”

Sue Melke, a former HRC member: “When you started the task force, I sent you email and video of people being intimidated [by police]. Not one of you said you watched it.” Sue reported that the task force rejected her suggestions for publicizing the meetings: “It’s like you didn’t want the community involved.”

“Treat us like we’re real people.”