He was murdered, and it’s on tape. These words haunt us as a society more often than not. The nightmares and the trauma are real, seeing a Black man or woman murdered, captured either by a bystander or the body cam of a policeman, like the January 13th killing of Lymond Moses in Philadelphia earlier this year. Or that of the murders of Eric Garner or Ahmaud Arbery or Philandro Castile or George Floyd.
But right now, I am talking about another unarmed Black man from Chicago — Daniel Prude. He was 41 years old, half-clothed, handcuffed, placed in the middle of the street with a spit hood put over his head after he spat at police, and had his face smashed into the cement when he tried to get up. Just two minutes later, he stopped breathing. He lay dead there on the streets of Rochester, New York on March 23, 2020, while in town visiting his brother.
Nearly one year after his murder, New York State Attorney General Letitia James handed down the grand jury’s decision on February 23, 2021. The jury failed to bring an indictment against any of the officers involved in Daniel’s murder. It was a murder caught on tape, deemed a homicide by the medical examiner, and still, no one has been held accountable. It sounds unreal, but it’s what’s been happening for far too long — so much so that we have become desensitized to it all. We can expect no one to be held accountable for the deaths of Black and brown people, even when it is caught on tape.
Letitia James explained the grand jury’s decision not to indict any of the officers in an extremely heartfelt, televised statement, which lasted 11 minutes. In it, she states, “The criminal justice system has frustrated efforts to hold law enforcement officers accountable for the unjustified killing of unarmed African Americans, and what binds these cases is a tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could have been avoided.” She goes on to say, “History has unfortunately repeated itself again in the case of Daniel Prude. The criminal justice system is badly in need of reform.”
Every word she said in this 11-minute statement deserves to be considered, heard, and enacted. Her words, her commitment to helping to bring about laws and changes within such a broken system, all to help hold police officers accountable — especially when they’ve murdered someone they were in charge of protecting. She delivered her statement with confidence, compassion, and an awareness that it will not be easy to fix a system so radically flawed, but she will not give up.
Her statement is a dark contrast to how another Black Attorney General, Daniel Cameron of Kentucky — who agreed with the grand jury’s decision in the Breonna Taylor case — delivered the announcement on September 23, 2020, that again, no charges would be brought against the police involved. He was stiff, his delivery matter of fact, his message clear: the evidence did not provide a reason to indict the officers in question. He is accused of mishandling the case by Breonna Taylor’s family. An NPR report of the case states, “Although the attorney general initially did not answer questions about which charges he had presented to the grand jury, upon imminent release of the court recordings, Cameron said that he did not recommend any charges against the officers for killing the 26-year-old Black woman.” Breonna Taylor’s death was caused by “multiple gunshot wounds of the body.”
Every decision made by grand juries to not indict officers, to not hold anyone accountable, sends a clear message — that Black lives do not matter. From 2015 through February 2021, the rate at which Black Americans were fatally shot by police officers was 35 per one million people, compared to 14 fatal shootings of white Americans by police officers.
When both decisions were handed down after the deaths of Breonna and Daniel, there were protests and outcries for change, for justice. We had two Black Americans who were dead, their families in mourning, and no arrests made — zero accountability. People were angry and upset, including me. I knew that we were living in a time just like the one my grandparents grew up in, when their lives weren’t valued. I feared for my own life even more so after no charges were brought against the officers. My anxiety grew to a whole new level; I looked out of my living room window constantly with each headlight that passed through during the night. Was it a cop? Would they have the wrong house? Would I end up like Breonna? The more I really sat with what was happening in our country — the constant racial profiling, the killing of unarmed Black people, the lack of charges being brought down by prosecutors — the more I believed that history was indeed repeating itself.
When I listened to Daniel Cameron’s words and the way he delivered the announcement, I was enraged. When I listened to Letitia James’ announcement following the grand jury’s deliberation, I was sad and worried. I found myself in a kind of mourning for two people I didn’t even know.
But despite my rage at the situations, I also felt for Daniel Cameron and Letitia James, for the roles they were charged with playing, being the face tasked with delivering such unbelievable news. I cannot begin to understand how challenging their jobs are and what kind of hurdles they must face on any given day. There is no doubt that their jobs are challenging and stressful. These Black Attorneys General must believe in the system in order to do their jobs. But they cannot change their skin color, they cannot change the story of American history, and they must fight for justice within the parameters they are given. I feel in my heart that the fight of a Black attorney general, especially in cases such as these, must be a little harder.
The facts are the facts, and what we have is a police force in need of an overhaul, better training, and who understand that using their gun is an absolute last resort. I think our police force is a reflection of our society; racist people exist and so do racist cops. There are people who understand what it looks like when someone is in a mental health crisis and when someone is not, and there are people who do not. There are people who try to understand others with compassion and empathy, and then there are those who do not. The police are people too, working within a broken system that other people (including the police themselves) must fix.
There are many new strategies the police force across the country can put into place to make for better policing, starting with having two separate policing teams: those with guns, and those without. Every situation, every call for help from the cops, should be responded to by a group of people dedicated to keeping people alive and holding people accountable without shooting them first and listening second.
We need laws and training in order to be able to hold the right people (including the police) accountable for the wrongs they commit against society — for the lives they’ve cut short, just like Daniel Prude’s.