If 2012 and 2013 were defined by the death of Trayvon Martin and the devastating (albeit, unsurprising) acquittal of his killer; 2014 by the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the international uprising that would follow and 2015 by the persistence of the movement to defend black lives. 2016 may be known as the year that was just too painful for words.
This is the year that will be remembered for it’s unabashed cruelty; such would be the case if it saw only the untimely death of Prince—a man many of us believed to be immortal (even in the wake of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston’s deaths before it). Alas, the year would take so much more away from us than just His Royal Purple Badness. While the world mourned beloved notables like Muhammad Ali, Phife Dawg and Natalie Cole, there was also yet another long lost of unfamiliar faces that became hashtags after deadly encounters with law enforcement agents.
Of course, the year’s cruelest act would be the election of petulant manchild/reality star Donald Trump. People across the world are entering 2017 with heightened anxiety as each day brings with it the announcement of a new administration pick more sexist, racist and/or underqualified than the last.
The results of the presidential election are particularly chilling when we think of those men, women and children who were killed police in 2016. While Secretary Hillary Clinton had her own complicated relationship to the criminalization of black, brown and poor people in the United States, she had also ran on a platform promising to push forward necessary reforms to the structures that help embolden police officers to make hashtags of innocent Americans.
Alas, as we prepare for an increasingly difficult fight against the system that allows police a nearly unchecked ability to brutalize citizens, we take time to remember some of those who we lost this year.
Like Brown and Martin before them, some of the victims of police violence became household names this year. In July, footage depicting the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge brought the debate over cop violence back to national headlines that were then largely focused on Clinton v. Trump. The 37-year-old was known for selling bootleg CDs; like Eric Garner, his reliance upon underground commerce that is common/beloved in black neighborhoods had made him a local fixture. Sterling was pinned to the ground while he was shot at close range by two officers standing over him.
As is often the case when women are killed by police, the May death of Jessica Williams failed to make national headlines. The 29-year-old was shot once while attempting to flee in a stolen car in San Francisco, though she was unarmed and was not driving toward officers.
When Philando Castile’s senseless slaughter was caught on a Facebook Live video this past July, it seemed like—once again—we had the moment that would force people who had either excused or ignored the #BlackLivesMatter movement to finally say, “The police have gone too damn far.” Certainly some of them did, however, the national outrage over his killing would not save the lives of the many others who died at the hands of law enforcement after him. And just this week, the black judge assigned to trying the officer who shot the beloved school employee was removed from the case.
The death of Baltimore woman Korryn Gaines divided some who typically support (male) victims of police violence; the armed 23-year-old, who was said to have had developmental issues resulting from childhood lead poisoning, barricaded herself and her 5-year-old son in her home and told officers that if they did not leave, she would shoot. With little regard for the life of her child, they opened fire.
September was a particularly brutal month. It was then that thirteen-year-old Tyre King was gunned down by a Columbus officer—a case with haunting similarity to the death of Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Both boys were killed by cops who clamed to be in fear because they were said to be carrying toy guns. Ohio is an open carry state.
That same month, Terence Crutcher was gunned down by a white female officer in Tulsa after his SUV broke down on the highway. Officer Betty Shelby fired at the 40-year-old as he walked toward her with his arms in the air, ostensibly to indicate that he was no threat.
Twenty-one year old Taiwon Boyd called 911 himself, but would be beaten by the Baltimore Police officers who responded. He died three days later at a hospital after his heart and kidneys failed.
September also saw the death of 22-year-old Levonia Riggins, killed by a female sheriff’s deputy who’d come to serve a warrant to him in Hillsborough County, Florida. The officer has admitted that Riggins was unarmed and that no weapons were found in his home. Alfred Olango, who’d fled Uganda as a child 26 years ago, was gunned down in San Diego that month as well; his family says that he suffered from mental illness and was in the throes of an episode when he was shot by officers.
Keith Lamont Scott was shot in the back by officers in Charlotte during a dispute that transpired when they approached him in the parking lot of his apartment complex. Police claim that he was rolling marijuana and carrying a gun; video and testimony from family and neighbors suggest otherwise.
In October, an NYPD sergeant killed Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old Bronx woman who suffered from schizophrenia. The shooting was immediately condemned by Mayor Bill De Blasio, the New York Times Editorial Board and even Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who was forced to admit, “We failed,” when responding to an elderly woman who was in mental distress.
As we await final numbers from this year and look toward the next, we wonder “how many more?” Will the new administration’s pro-police, anti-black/anti-brown/anti-poor approach to governance further embolden officers? How does the fight shift and change? Will Democrats pay more than lip service to the anti-police violence movement, or will they move further to the center in order to appease white voters? The future is uncertain, but our need to be vigilant is clear. The police are not our gods, not our overseers. We deserve justice and we must never stop fighting for it.
Jamilah Lemieux is a writer and the Vice President of News and Men’s Programming for Interactive One. She Tweets too often: @jamilahlemieux.