Defending Who?

I hate a lot of things about the criminal in-justice system. One of the reasons I wanted to be a lawyer was to reform the system. I don’t think I’ll ever come close to actually doing that, but if I practice law one day, it will be as a public defender. I think people should be held accountable for their crimes against others, but not treated as less than human, either in prison or out. I absolutely agree with Michelle Alexander and the premise of her book “The New Jim Crow”: the criminal justice empire is modern day American apartheid. The other day, I tweeted my support for the prisoners in Pelican Bay who are enduring a hunger strike to protest their living conditions in prison. It looked like this:

while i’m not a prison abolitionist, i am for humane treatment. indeterminate solitary confinement is cruel & unusual.
7/18/11 7:53 AM


I tweeted this on the same day that this young black man was shot to death by the San Francisco Police in the middle of the afternoon in the Bayview, a small but solid population of black folks: (WARNING: THIS IS VERY GRAPHIC – IT SHOWS A PERSON DYING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET)






The original reports were that the young man was unarmed, running from the police because he didn’t pay his $2 transfer fare on the bus. The early reports, and certainly what was believed by the people on the street at the time, was that the police shot the boy for no reason whatsoever, simply because he was running. The scene, caught of course on cell phone video, was reminiscent of the New Year’s Day killing of Oscar Grant, and brought back to memory for all black folks (and I’m sure others) of the racial tensions between Bay Area Police and a small, but present, black minority population.

Evidence quickly came to light, however, that this young man’s death – 19 year old Kenneth Harding – may not have been the work of trigger-happy racist police. A witness – a black man – came forward with a cell phone video in which a small silver gun could be seen only 25 feet from where the man lay dying after being shot by the police. The police allege that the man shot at them first as he ran, and the video appears to confirm that there was a gun at the scene. He also had gun residue on his hand. The video also shows another man picking up the gun at the scene, perhaps in an attempt to hide it. Later, however, the police recovered the small gun. Witnesses have said that they saw the young man shoot at the police from a gun he held under his arm, and technology that measures gun shots recorded, at the time of the incident, a single shot fired, followed 2 seconds later by 9 shots in rapid succession, evidence that the young man got one shot off before the police took him down.

Furthermore, reports say that the young man was wanted as a person of interest in the murder of a woman in Seattle from just the week before, giving some credence to the idea that he would have a gun, and would also run and shoot at police in an attempt to not be apprehended.

The thing is, it seems that none of this evidence against calling the police racist pigs really matters to anyone. At first, there was this outpouring of anger coming from everywhere. My twitter timeline was filled with angry tweets about how unjustified this killing was, how the police are racists pigs, how wrong it was for them to just stand by and watch the boy die. I got emails from colleagues, the whiter the more angry, who in no uncertain words expressed empathy for black communities like the Bayview, and how it was now all too clear why certain communities can’t trust public institutions like the police, or even schools. But once people got more information, instead of continuing the conversation, what did I hear instead?

Muthfvcking crickets.

This bothers me, despite my natural inclination to cast a wary eye toward the justice system. Why? One, because in my heart of hearts, I do believe that had this man been white, he would have been shot too. In my experience, living in a big city: You shoot at cops, you get shot. Period. The end. Would the cops have let him lay on the street and die? It’s hard to say, because I don’t know if the black folks in the community would have rallied around saying, “Fvck the police!!” and “Your career’s is over!” and “Where’s the gun?” Perhaps the cops would have been able to attend to him had there not been the making of a riot around his dying body. Would the mayor be forced into having a community meeting with the Bayview community about this shooting, of someone who is not even from the community, if this had been a white man where there is ample evidence that he shot at the police first? I doubt it.

And what really bothers me the most is this: Where is the outrage that this young man thought it okay to whip out a gun at 4:45 in the afternoon and start shooting in a crowded transit area? Where is the outrage that someone tried to cover up the real facts in this case, by removing the gun and shell casings, attempting to create more animosity between the people of this community and the police they desperately need to protect them against their own people who are trying to destroy them? Why are we not thanking the police department 1) for trying to keep Muni fares low by making sure everyone pays like they are supposed to and 2) for shooting a man who had no such regard for anyone else’s life as evidenced by him pulling a gun to save HIMSELF in the middle of the damn afternoon?

Why does someone have to die – and in this case, perhaps “justifiably” because police must protect themselves in order to protect us and our children – in order for us to rally and hold folks accountable, including ourselves?

While I understand the hurt and pain of the long legacy of police brutality in this country, sometimes wrong is wrong. That’s what we should be teaching our children, no matter what color they are. I was so glad my children were far away from our morning ritual of watching the news Monday morning. I couldn’t have them see Black people yelling at Black cops while a Black man lay in the middle of the street dying because he pulled out a gun and shot at police. So much is so incredibly wrong with that picture, both on the surface and below it.

8 thoughts on “Defending Who?

  1. Thank you for saying what is hard to say and asking us to think about the complicated problem of protecting poor black men from an unjust criminal justice system intent on locking them up versus protecting poor black communities from violent crime, most often committed there by young black men.


  2. And there’s the rub. We want to protect our community ~ jump to their defense when we feel they’ve been wronged but we’re slow to criticize when the fault lies with them. People within the community need to own the good and the bad, when you pull out a gun and start shooting at cops in broad daylight, you’re wrong and whatever happens to you happens. Anyone could have been shot ~ a kid could’ve died.


  3. Thanks for your comments.

    The police chief held a meeting tonight and could hardly speak as a few in the crowd caused a commotion. People wanted to hear how the chief was going to make the community safer, while some folks were asking about incidents from several years ago. The man left after only 15 minutes because he couldn’t get a word in. He used to be the captain overseeing the Bayview so he knows the community.

    Last night, there was a protest and 43 people were arrested. Do you know that only ONE person arrested actually even lived in the Bayview?? The people living there seem to know what’s up. The rest of us need to move out of the way so these people can make strides to reclaim their community, instead of inciting mayhem.


  4. Well, Latoya, with this post we are on common ground! I really hate to read things like, “They shot my baby for no reason at 2am in the morning on the corner of …”
    Right is right and wrong is wrong. We should not even want to defend irresponsible behavior.


  5. the silence that you write about is the same silence that surrounds black women and girls when they try to talk about the sexual violence that black men and boys commit against them. it is so difficult for our community to have an honest and sustained conversation because it is hard to admit that there are those in your community, who for a variety of reasons, can and will hurt you. many people want simple answers to very complex and complicated problems.


  6. LaToya, I’m chiming in way late, but I wanted to comment today after listening, watching, and reading since day one, while I question the way Denika Chatman raised her two sons, 19-year old Kenneth Harding and 21-year-old Ondrell Harding (who has now been connected with the beating death of 50-yar old Anthony Matthews in Seattle, Washington), disagree with her hiring of Civil Rights Attorney John Burris because she wants “the truth” about her younger son’s death, and thinks she’s in denial about her son’s recent past activity of pimping a minor by glossing over it and saying “he (Kenneth) was going to college and becoming a rapper” as means to press through her family’s demons and curses, I don’t think the people of Bayview-Hunters Point voices are being accurately painted here.

    Being a resident of the Bay-area and having two brothers of mine harrassed by police officers on several occasions only to offered a glance instead of an apology, (one whom the campus police questioned his rights to be in the library of UCB where he was an undergrad at that time) I hear the frustrations from this shootout from an up close ear range. In listening to the BHP community, most, if not all expressed this sentiment, (and I quote from a newspaper article) “not that people were upset that this had happened Harding, a Washington state resident, in particular. Instead, people expressed outrage that police had gunned down yet another African American youth, and that unless some complicated and ong-standing issues were addressed, it could happen again–to anyone.” Also, people from the community expressed concerns about Muni fares and the way the police handle African Americans in violent manners. I read several articles, one well written piece by Rebecca Bowe of The Guardian guardian in which someone from the community voiced this, “40 damn years, people have been getting gunned down in this community.” Folks are tired of the police abuse of power and fear no one is safe from the police. I understand you are a resident of the EPA area, and so I am sure you comprehend the concerns many of us have because we are the parents of African American male gender. This is the anger being expressed within BHP and other surrounding communities.

    As a stakeholder within the Bay-Area Temescal Area, I respect my brother as he now matriculates as a Graduate student in Criminal Justice at UCB and talks about his reasons for his thesis Masters-Ph.D work, and I listen to him discuss Adante Pointer’s position of the Harding investigation. I also listen to him and agree that the community isn’t silent as “crickets” because the table seems to have turned and the police appear to not have been the culprit “this time” as it appears to have been an accidental shooting of the gunman himself from his own gun. The communities (those who are walking the walk) are vocal, do scream “wrong is wrong” when it is our own young men of color committing the “muthfvcking wild wild west isht.” The communities do continue to seek ways to rid itself from the injustices not only within the BHP community, but within many urban communities within Bay Area–starting with changing the mindsets of this whole Post-McDre Community of lost dreamers and visionaries. The real community has not gone silent—they just aren’t on social medias discussing it but are gathering in cell groups pounding out ways to make the streets safe if not safer (something we’re seeing in some of the Oakland communities with the new major). All is not silent nor inactive. Like the folks down in whoville, “we are here, we are here, we are here”. . .but is Horton hearing — or at least those in blue uniforms, wearing badges and carrying tasers and guns?


    1. BKA – thanks for sharing your perspective. I was writing from the perspective of where was I hearing the loudest voices, which falls into what you are saying about the Whos in Whoville.

      However, I do still stand behind the feeling that we shout the loudest when we feel that someone outside of our community has harmed us. “Instead, people expressed outrage that police had gunned down yet another African American youth, and that unless some complicated and ong-standing issues were addressed, it could happen again–to anyone.” My problem with this statement is that the police had not “gunned down” another black youth in this situation, but instead had responded with appropriate force against a person who shot at them first. My problem with this case is that we have ignored the FACTS in support of an ideology against police brutality. The issue of brutality by the police against black communities is a complex matter, and by making a case like this seem so black/white, cut and dry, really hurts the cause rather than helps it.

      I do live near EPA and grew up in Philly which is 40% black, the largest group of folks in an urban environment. And I have a black son, a black husband, a black father, and a black brother, the last three of whom have been unfairly harassed by the police at some point in their lives. So I very much do care about black communities and relationships with the police. But I think that we are ignoring the fact that more black men are killed by black men in our community than are killed by the police. To me, if we are going to have community meetings to discuss the issue of black boys dying, I want to start with the biggest issue. The police could be our ally in that fight. The police have been gunning down black men for 40 years in this community?? The number who have died at the hands of the police is BHP or EPA or Philly is NOTHING compared to the number who have died at the hands of another black man.

      This case is not a good case to highlight the issues of police brutality. That’s most of what I am really trying to say.


  7. Latoya, I’m nodding my head in agreement with you regarding what the biggest issue and problem of the day truthfully is the Black on Black crime (hate crime) that has taken over the lives of our urban communites. You see what happened to Paris Powell “Brother John” and his family in Oakland this past Wednesday/Thursday. So no, I’m not disagreeing, I just needed to get the “people” voice (those who are armed with action) voice out there. Because I’ve witnessed police and the quickness to abuse their power on a just because basis that many people of non-color don’t seem to understand why the anger and frustation. Yes, it’s frustrating when the loudest voices suddenly go dumb and move into their corners of “talking loud and saying nothing” as the Prophet James Brown speaks on.

    I think one of the reasons many (not most) shout the loudest when death happens from the outside is because not only does truth hurt (acknowledging we have a problem and the problem is that we’ve pushed the moral boundaries out of our cultural innerbeing), but truth requires application of WORK that many are not willing to put in nor are willing to become selfless workers in order to be the change because of lack of community responsibility. . .not giving a “yopp.” Me, I’m always pushing, praying and praising our young men (and now young women) to value themselves and others in order to turn the destruction around and experience the beauty that comes from ashes. I’d rather use my energy screaming, “self-worth” than “killa-cop”

    BTW, I’m familiar with Philly as I have family who lived the Camden life for a few years hopping their investments in the downtown property would pay off but sadly, hasn’t…yet. . .so yes, outside of my life in Ethiopia, I’m a die-hard urban-innercity-dweller; therefore when it comes to our African men relatives, I know you feel me as I hear and feel you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s