A rapt audience heard stories of loss, calls for change, and clear advocacy for specific solutions before acting for reform themselves at Friday night’s town hall on police abuses in Maryland.
About sixty people packed Takoma Park Community Center’s Azalea Room to hear accounts from mothers Olubunmi Oludipe, Marion Gray-Hopkins, and Darlene Cain of their heartbreaking losses of their sons to police shootings — and the difficulties they’ve had finding justice for those deaths. They also heard from activists and public servants dedicated to restoring control over and trust in police forces by the public they’re supposed to serve and protect.
The mothers: Olubunmi Oludipe, Marion Gray-Hopkins, Darlene Cain
The first speaker, Ms. Oludipe, talked about the death of her son Emmanuel Okutuga, shot by Montgomery County police in 2011. She led off saying “I never thought it would happen to me… I raised our children that police officers are our friends. […] I strongly believe that the only thing that was wrong about that boy that day was the color of his skin.” The mysterious disappearance of closed circuit TV footage of the incident did nothing to build Ms. Oludipe’s confidence in a system better at protecting police officers than protecting her son. Oludipe:
Don’t get me wrong – there are good cops and there are bad cops. […] the bad elements out there are giving you good cops a bad name.
…and urged good cops, “if you see something, say something.”
Ms. Olubunmi’s remarks lead off this video playlist of all the speakers*:
The two other mothers of slain police victims were equally compelling. Marion Gray-Hopkins of Prince George’s County told about her son’s final essay: “My son loved to write and in his final college paper he wrote how it takes a village to bring about change. This issue requires a village. Don’t sit silent. People are power! We can make a difference.”
Darlene Cain, of Baltimore told the audience about her son, Dale Graham — a young idealist who worked for Kweisi Mfume’s 2006 Senate campaign and the NAACP’s Prison Project. The investigation of her son’s death was marred by inconsistencies and chicanery — officers couldn’t even agree how many bullets were shot, an autopsy report was delayed for months. It also seems to have been so half-hearted that the current State’s Attorney office “has no record of his death… and there’s no record of the police officer who took his life. So that’s why I’m out here more now than I used to be, because something is definitely wrong, something is truly wrong with the system.”
The audience also heard about other Maryland police abuses — for example, Deidra Squire, of Identity, Inc., related the story of young Hispanic clients who were profiled as potential gang members and compelled to lift up their t-shirts to have tattoos photographed by Montgomery County Police in 2011. The story was also reported by WAMU’s Armando Trull in two May 2011 reports.
Marion Gray-Hopkins on legislative reform
The centerpiece of police reform efforts this legislative session is “LEOBOR” reform. The acronym stands for “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights”, but its real name could be “Law Enforcement Officers Shield of Impunity” — officers get numerous important procedural advantages during investigations of officer-involved injuries or deaths, ones that often had direct effect on the stories of loss the audience heard. For example, discussing the day of her son’s death, Ms. Gray-Hopkins told the audience (full text available here):
All witnesses were taken to the station that same day where they had to provide a written statement yet the LEOBOR allows the officer a minimum of 10 days to give their statement. It also allows the officers and their attorney access to witness statements. An opportunity exists for an officer to corroborate their story around the witnesses’ statements.
Likewise, she had specific comments about the need for special prosecutors (as envisioned in SB653**) rather than inexperienced ones or ones too close to the police departments involved. The State’s Attorney for PG County, she recalled,
…chose an attorney to lead the case who had never prosecuted a murder case. […] We need an independent prosecutor who is trained and experienced in handling these types of cases if victims’ families are to be given fair and impartial treatment through the entire process.
Neal Carter, Elsa Lakew, Nathaniel Lucas
Maryland activists like Neal Carter (among those steering the new Maryland Coalition for Justice and Equality, MCJE) and Elsa Lakew of Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition (MCCRC) urged the audience to take a hand in pushing for police reform. Up next in Annapolis: Thursday, March 12 House Judiciary committee hearings on the LEOBOR reform, anti-racial profiling, and other bills — assuming the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee doesn’t vote against them before then. (Call Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee chairman Bobby Zirkin at 410-841-3131 and urge him to schedule a Senate vote on SB566 or other police reform bills after the March 12th House hearings.)
Carter noted how intentionally grueling the Senate hearings were — yet another reminder of how long it can take to get justice after police shootings:
“…we were there for maybe six or seven hours. They ended up pushing our legislation, our hearing to the end of the day — which was intentional. They wanted to basically dwindle our numbers.”
- SB0566 / HB0968: Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights reform
- SB0653 / HB0112: State prosecutor for police-involved deaths**
- SB413 / HB0339: Race-based traffic stops (profiling) policy and reporting
- SB0482 / HB0627: Police body cameras
In her remarks, Elsa Lakew recalled a friend’s comment when it was announced Darren Wilson wouldn’t be indicted for Michael Brown’s death: “I’m not surprised, and neither should you be. How did you expect a system to work for us, when it was never built with us in mind?” It’s time to assert control of that system, she concluded:
“Something solid has to come out of this movement, and it is here, in this room, it is in the hands of every single individual present here today–that these changes can be made. We must urge those who we have elected in office to pass responsive legislation to reinforce a system of accountability.”
In addition to state legislation advocated by MCJE, she noted that our group, Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, advocates the federal “End Racial Profiling Act” as well as county and city-level “Civil Rights Restoration Acts.“
Nathaniel Lucas gave the audience a well-researched history lesson on police brutality in America, recalling the Orangeburg Massacre (1968), the Rodney King beating (1991), and the death of Oscar Grant (2009) — shot in the back while prone by BART police — as preludes to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases of last year.
He also noted the Maryland cases of Calvin Kyle (2012) and Tyrone Brown (2010): yet more cases where officers seemed to feel entitled to resort to deadly force with very little provocation. (While both officers involved were convicted of crimes, that’s little consolation to their victims.)
But perhaps above all, Lucas spoke for the deceased sons of all the mothers addressing the audience:
“As a young African American male, I would like to feel safe knowing that officers are here to ensure our safety, and not play judge, jury, and executioner on the spot.”
Delegate David Moon, Delegate Will Smith
We were honored and fortunate to have not one but two members of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on hand to talk about police reform and related concerns of mass incarceration, second chance legislation, drug policy, and asset forfeiture, to name a few.
Delegate David Moon noted that “we need civilian review and we will be working very hard to try and make that move.” Moon emphasized that not all police officers are bad, but some are, which had to be recognized “for the health of the system”. Regarding body camera legislation, Moon pointed out that there are several competing bills of varying perspectives; he suspected this would be a “multiyear conversation.” He also commented,“we can’t have a conversation about police abuse without talking about the war on drugs,” noting the racial disparity in marijuana-related arrests in Maryland, and indeed in Montgomery County as well, with a black arrest rate three times that of whites.
Stressing that “participation in Annapolis is key. It really is,” Moon also urged audience members to come to Annapolis on March 12th.
Delegate Will Smith talked to the audience about his work on the issue of mass incarceration, including the “Second Chance Act,” HB244:
… it’s my top priority this year. The Second Chance Act shields nonviolent misdemeanor crimes from public view. So you can get back on the on-ramp to society, you can get a job, you can get a student loan … a business loan. That actually happened this week — and I think it’s going to pass this year.
He also discussed his own bill, HB1047, titled “Enterprise Zone Income Tax Credit – Economically Disadvantaged Individuals – Qualified Ex-Felons”:
…In MD, our recidivism rate hovers between 40 and 50 percent in three years when folks get out. Know what it is in VA? It’s less than 20. …So we’re trying to arm ourselves with tools that give people ways to get back into society, so I have a tax credit bill that incentivizes businesses to hire returning citizens.
Dr. Menna Demessie, Leighton Watson, Deidra Squire
Dr. Menna Demessie (Congressional Black Caucus Foundation), Deidra Squire (Identity, Inc.), and Leighton Watson (HUSA) brought wider national and cultural perspectives to the discussion. Despite the national scope of her work, Dr. Demessie emphasized the importance of grassroots action: “There’s so much power in local efforts.” She also pointed out that just looking at the panel gives the lie to the canard that young people aren’t engaged. She added,
“I think the rest of the community across [this] country need to stand up. [… ] “We need to sort of carry the torch to others to say that–it’s time for us to join our young counterparts.
Leighton Watson — whose father is a police officer — talked about the perspective that gave him on the issue:
One of the things that we want to address is the underrepresentation of African Americans within police departments. It’s very difficult to teach people about cultural sensitivity, that fundamentally don’t understand the culture.
Just as practically, he pointed out, “Literally no one knows the number of individuals who are killed every year by police, that’s scary to me.” It’s true; just discovering the facts within Maryland has proven to be a difficult task; please continue to submit your own stories here.
Deidra Squire — a Maryland attorney and program manager of the Youth Opportunity Centers of Identity, Inc., a Latino youth service organization — told the audience, “Our communities are being ravaged by the very guards of our safety through excessive force and a broken accountability system. […] I am deeply aware of the broken relationship between police and minorities. . . . The blood of our minority youth has dripped upon American streets and sidewalks far too many times, making an absolute mockery of our Constitution and the rights defined and guaranteed therein.”
Like other speakers, Ms. Squire urged the audience to demand remedies from state legislators; she, too, was critical of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR), which she characterized as a
policy … that provides due process standards for officers that far exceed the due process rights of … citizens.
Ms. Squire closed with poetry by Langston Hughes – “Let America be America again“:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Acting for reform; Q and A
The event was live-tweeted by Merlin Sula (@chakasula) of Montgomery County Young Democrats. Her reporting nicely conveyed the energy of the event — including a five-minute “action for reform,” when many audience members made use of a handout with telephone numbers and bill numbers to urge State Senate Judicial Proceedings chairman Bobby Zirkin and Maryland legislators to support SB566, the LEOBR reform bill, and other police reform legislation.
A lively Q&A session followed the mini-phoneathon; among the topics were whether and how allied groups could be productive allies, rather than seeking to control or co-opt #BlackLivesMatter and allied movements. Other audience members raised the issue of how many of the police shooting victims were also disabled or challenged physically or mentally, and that Hispanic citizens often faced the same profiling and police violence that African Americans do.
We’re all pleased and proud to have helped bring such great speakers to a local audience — first live, and now online — about an issue that’s both about civil rights, and literally about life and death. Our next goal: to help make the House Judiciary Committee hearings on Thursday, March 12 a success for police reform with citizen activism, lobbying and testimony.
Individual speaker links
- Olubunmi Comfort Oludipe (video; web)
- Neal Carter (video, MCJE legislative brief; web: MCJE)
- Marion Gray-Hopkins (video, text)
- Leighton Watson (video; web)
- Darlene Cain (video; web)
- Elsa Lakew (video, text; web)
- Nathaniel Lucas (video)
- Deidra Squire (video, text; web)
- Dr. Menna Demessie (video; web)
- Delegate David Moon (video; web)
- Delegate Will Smith (video; web)
(“Text” means remarks as prepared rather than a transcript.)
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* Links to videos of the individual speakers and, when available, the text of their remarks and/or web sites are provided at the end of this post; speakers’ names are also linked to their individual video throughout the post. A second video stream from a central angle will also be made available. Finally, in interests of not delaying this post any further, notes of some speakers’ remarks will be added over the next few days.
** Unfortunately, the SB653 state prosecutor bill hearing did not take place; the sponsor decided he wanted more input. Neal Carter said that there’s hope of rescheduling a hearing before the end of the session.