2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

Black and Unarmed: Men Without Weapons Killed by Law Enforcement


There are countless sad stories that prove it’s nothing new for a Black man without a weapon to be killed. The chronicles several such tragic murders.

The killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood-watch captain who deemed him “suspicious” and claims that he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense has started a heartbreaking national conversation about race and justice. His story is all the more tragic because it follows a familiar pattern. The Root reviewed incidents in which black men and boys without weapons lost their lives to law-enforcement officers or others who decided that they were dangerous enough to die.

Ervin Jefferson

There are still unanswered questions about this case, unfolding a month after Trayvon Martin’s shooting. But police have confirmed that the 18-year-old Jefferson was shot and killed by two security guards — also African American — outside his Atlanta home on Saturday, March 24, 2012. His mother says he was unarmed and trying to protect his sister from a crowd that was threatening her.

Amadou Diallo

In 1999, four officers in street clothes approached Diallo, a West African immigrant with no criminal record, on the stoop of his New York City building, firing 41 shots and striking him 19 times as he tried to escape. They said they thought the 23-year-old had a gun. It was a wallet. The officers were all acquitted of second-degree-murder charges.

Patrick Dorismond

The 26-year-old father of two young girls was shot to death in 2000 during a confrontation with undercover police officers who asked him where they could purchase drugs. An officer claimed that Dorismond — who was unarmed — grabbed his gun and caused his own death. But the incident made many wonder whether the recent acquittal of the officers in the Amadou Diallo case sent a signal that the police had a license to kill without consequence.

Ousmane Zongo

In 2003 Officer Bryan A. Conroy confronted and killed Zongo in New York City during a raid on a counterfeit-CD ring with which Zongo had no involvement. Relatives of the 43-year-old man from Burkina Faso settled a lawsuit against the city for $3 million. The judge in the trial of the officer who shot him (and was convicted of criminally negligent homicide but did not serve jail time) said he was “insufficiently trained, insufficiently supervised and insufficiently led.”

Timothy Stansbury Jr.

Unarmed and with no criminal record, 19-year-old Stansbury was killed in 2004 in a Brooklyn, N.Y., stairwell. The officer who shot him said he was startled and fired by mistake. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly called his death “a tragic incident that compels us to take an in-depth look at our tactics and training, both for new and veteran officers.” A grand jury deemed it an accident.

Sean Bell

In the early-morning hours of what was supposed to be 23-year-old Bell’s wedding day, police fired more than 50 bullets at a car carrying him and his friends outside a Queens, N.Y., strip club in 2006. Bell was killed, and two of his friends were wounded. The city of New York agreed to pay more than $7 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by the family and two friends of Bell. The three detectives who were charged — one of whom yelled “gun,” although Bell was unarmed — were found not guilty of all charges. Just this March, the NYPD fired four of the officers involved in the shooting for disobeying departmental guidelines on the scene.

Orlando Barlow

Barlow was surrendering on his knees in front of four Las Vegas police officers when Officer Brian Hartman shot him in 2003. Hartman was 50 feet away and said he thought the unarmed 28-year-old was reaching for a gun. The deadly shooting was ruled “excusable.” But a federal investigation later revealed that Hartman and other officers printed T-shirts labeled “BDRT,” which stood for “Baby Daddy Removal Team” and “Big Dogs Run Together,” and that they’d used excessive force during two separate investigations.

Aaron Campbell

In 2005 Campbell was shot in the back by Portland, Ore., police Officer Ronald Frashour, who said he thought the unarmed man was reaching toward his waistband for a weapon. Witnesses said the 25-year-old was walking backward toward police with his hands locked behind his head moments before the fatal shot was fired. A grand jury cleared Frashour of criminal wrongdoing but sent a letter to the county district attorney’s office condemning police handling of the incident. Campbell’s mother received a $1.2 settlement in the family’s federal wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Portland.

Victor Steen

In 2009, 17-year-old Victor, who was riding his bicycle, refused to stop when chased by a police officer in a cruiser in Pensacola, Fla. In response, the officer aimed his Taser out of the driver’s window and fired and then ran over the unarmed teen, killing him. The deadly incident was captured on video. A judge ruled that no crime was committed.

Steven Eugene Washington

Washington was shot by gang-enforcement officers Allan Corrales and George Diego in Los Angeles one night in 2010 after he approached them and appeared to remove something from his waistband. The officers said they’d heard a loud sound in the area and the 27-year-old, who was autistic, was looking around suspiciously. No weapon was ever recovered.

Alonzo Ashley

Police say that 29-year-old Ashley refused to stop splashing water from a drinking fountain on his face at the Denver Zoo one hot day in 2011, then made irrational comments and threw a trash can. The responding officers, who didn’t dispute that he was unarmed, killed him with a Taser, saying he had “extraordinary strength.” No criminal charges were filed against them.

Wendell Allen

Allen was fatally shot in the chest by officers executing a warrant on his house on March 7, 2012, in New Orleans. The 20-year-old was unarmed, and five children were home at the time of his death. Police found 4.5 ounces of marijuana on Allen after they killed him. An attorney for the family says that New Orleans police are investigating whether Officer Joshua Colclough was wrong to pull the trigger.

Ronald Madison and James Brissette

In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, five officers opened fire on an unarmed family on the east side of the Danziger Bridge, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four others. Next, officers shot at brothers Lance and Ronald Madison. Ronald, a 40-year-old man with severe mental disabilities, was running away when he was hit, and an officer stomped on and kicked him before he died. In a federal criminal trial, five officers involved in what have become known as the “Danziger Bridge Shootings” were convicted of various civil rights violations, but not murder.

Travares McGill

In 2005 in Sanford, Fla. (the same county in which Travyon Martin was killed), the 16-year-old was killed by two security guards, one of whom testified that Travares was trying to hit him with his car. But evidence showed that the bullet that killed the teen hit him in the middle of the back and that the guard kept firing even after the car was no longer headed toward him.

Ramarley Graham

In 2012 Officer Richard Haste shot and killed 18-year-old Graham in the bathroom of his grandmother’s Bronx, N.Y., home after a chase while he was attempting to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet. Police did not have a warrant to enter the house, and Graham had no weapon.

Oscar Grant

Oakland, Calif., transit-police Officer Johannes Mehserle said that he accidentally used his gun instead of his Taser when he shot Grant on a train platform on New Year’s Day 2009. The 22-year-old was lying facedown with his hands behind his back, being subdued by another police officer, when he was killed. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to only two years for taking Grant’s life. He was released after 11 months.

We can be sure about one thing as we try to understand the Trayvon Martin case: There will be other Trayvon Martins. Maybe tomorrow or next week or next month, other young black men will die under ambiguous circumstances at the hands of law enforcement — or, in Martin’s case, law enforcement’s surrogate: an overzealous neighborhood-watch volunteer. Unless we want this tragic history to keep repeating itself, we have to change the fundamental relationship of people of color to the police.

What’s really unusual about the Trayvon Martin shooting is not that it happened but the degree of public attention that it has received, with national news coverage, a Million Hoodie March in New York and the entire Miami Heat basketball team posing in hoodies to show solidarity with the victim and his family. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating. President Obama, normally cautious on matters of race, said that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon.” And CNN’s Soledad O’Brien hosted an hourlong town hall discussion on CNN about the case and its implications on March 30.

Most incidents involving the death of young black men at the hands of the police, even if well covered, don’t get the widespread sympathy that the Trayvon case has triggered. Just this past February, a NYPD officer shot and killed Ramarley Graham in his bathroom; the 20-year-old had run home, apparently to dump his stash of marijuana. In October 2010 there was the case of Danroy Henry Jr., a 20-year-old Pace University football player shot by a policeman while trying to drive away from a disturbance.

On March 23 one New York City police officer was fired and three others resigned in the wake of the shooting death of Sean Bell, killed the day before his wedding day in 2006 in a hail of 50 bullets. Of course we remember Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant shot 41 times on his doorstep in 1999 because NYPD officers mistook his wallet for a gun. (See The Root photo gallery Beyond Trayvon: Black and Unarmed.)

But we’ll stop seeing more Trayvons only when we stop pretending that such confrontations are just about crime. Instead they reflect the lingering role that the police have played since the founding of this nation: enforcing the racial status quo. This began with slavery — capturing and returning runaway slaves — and continued through Jim Crow and on to our time.

By: Joel Dreyfuss

For complete coverage

DMU Timestamp: December 02, 2014 04:14

0 comments, 0 areas
add area
add comment
change display
add comment

Quickstart: Commenting and Sharing

How to Comment
  • Click icons on the left to see existing comments.
  • Desktop/Laptop: double-click any text, highlight a section of an image, or add a comment while a video is playing to start a new conversation.
    Tablet/Phone: single click then click on the "Start One" link (look right or below).
  • Click "Reply" on a comment to join the conversation.
How to Share Documents
  1. "Upload" a new document.
  2. "Invite" others to it.

Logging in, please wait... Blue_on_grey_spinner