WASHINGTON — It’s rush hour in Washington, and a small group of friends are standing on the corner of 16th Street, holding signs that read: “Black Lives Matter” and “Honk for Justice.”
In response, the horns of passing cars blare, and drivers and passengers of all races wave their arms and raise their fists out of their windows in a show of support.
“We come out every Thursday night from 5:30 to 6:30 and hold up signs … that have the names of black people that have been killed by police,” Danna, a 35-year-old white woman, told MintPress News.
On Thursday, they were out in remembrance of Samuel Shields, who was killed while in police custody last year in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
The gathering on the corner is sparse — just five people — but it’s how this group of white women from the Washington Ethical Society has decided to express their frustrations at the hundreds of predominately black people who are killed by police each month in the United States.
It’s also a way for them to voice their solidarity with the movement against police brutality and other forms of racism that’s still taking shape all over the country.
Shaun King reported via Twitter on Friday that 118 people were killed by police in the United States in July. He added: “Highest month of 2015 … One day left.” King is a board member for Justice Together, an organization that works to end police brutality in America, and a columnist for Daily Kos, a political blog and news site.
Will there be justice for Samuel Shields?
Samuel Shields died in June 2014 while in police custody at Prince George’s County Detention Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, approximately 12 miles from Washington, D.C.
Speaking to MintPress in February, one of his stepsons described Shields as jovial and charismatic, but his death seems to be yet another tale of extrajudicial execution by authorities of the state, who will not see the hand of justice avenge those they’ve killed.
Shields was arrested at Addison Road Metro Station in Walker Mill, Maryland, on June 17, 2014, brought to the detention center and beaten to death by guards. They were large men, weighing in at over 200 pounds, Billy L. Ponds, the lawyer for Shields’ wife, Regina, told MintPress.
Ponds, who obtained video footage of the incident but has not yet released it, said Shields was beaten continuously for 15 minutes. In February, he told MintPress: “It wasn’t like he died of natural causes. It was that the excessive force was the causation that caused him to die of a heart attack, and that’s clear.”
“They were beating him. He was screaming. You could hear the hits. You could see the large size security guards once they left the cell. They were dripping with sweat because they’d been beating him simply to try to get him into a uniform when they knew he was already suffering from medical issues, and that he had not received his medication for some psychological issues he had.”
He said the video is something the public should see.
“It’s absolutely egregious for any county employee, or state employee, or city employee to beat a person causing their death!” he exclaimed.
Guilty for being black and mentally ill
Shields had schizophrenia, which may have been why he was not cooperating with guards at the prison after being arrested, according to his wife. Symptoms of his condition are also likely what prompted his arrest.
On that June day, Shields had gotten onto a bus in Washington without paying his $2 fare. When he arrived at Addison Road Metro station, he exited the bus and sat down. The bus driver called transit police, who arrested Shields and charged him with “theft less than $100.00” (a bus ticket).
Shields’s immigration attorney (Shields is from Jamaica), Jaye Lowe, told MintPress in February that she believed the arrest was directly related to his mental illness. And she argued police and jailers should have recognized that Shields was experiencing some kind of psychotic episode.
He had become unresponsive after getting off the bus. Later, Lowe said, staff at the county jail “saw a plethora of medications” in his personal belongings.
Ponds explained to MintPress that after entering the jail, Shields was not answering guards when asked what his name was. Ponds said this infuriated them to the point that they became physically abusive toward Shields.
Lowe said: “For the life of me, I can’t understand if you ask somebody what their name is, and he’s confused, and he says, ‘I don’t know.’ You’re going to beat him up? Beat him in his head?”
“That’s what I understand happened.”
She concluded: “They should have recognized that this man was ill and in a psychotic state.”
Danna and her friends from the Washington Ethical Society have held their signs on 16th Street every Thursday since May this year, as well as a few times in 2014, to raise awareness about how often black people are being killed by police and the many different types of situations in which these killings occur.
“Part of the reason we have people’s names on signs is that we want people to know that it wasn’t just Freddie Gray and it wasn’t just Mike Brown,” Danna said. “It’s hundreds of people a year.”
Beth, one of the people joining Danna, described their organization as a humanistic religious community. “We’re not theistic but in many ways we’re like any religious congregation. We meet on Sunday, have Sunday school, but we care more about how we are in the world as opposed to worshipping a supreme being,” she said.
Beth, who is 63 years old, explained that she woke up to the ruthlessness of police brutality against black Americans when she heard the story of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was killed by Cleveland police while playing with a toy gun in a park in November. Police dispatch was informed prior to the officers’ arrival that the gun was “probably fake” and that Rice was “probably a juvenile,” but Rice was still shot and killed within two seconds of Officer Timothy Loehmann’s arrival on the scene.
“Because of his age, I can just imagine in our gun culture how many little boys might be playing with a toy gun, and so it seemed really believable and horrifying at the same time,” Beth told MintPress.
“I’m getting more and more mystified by why this keeps happening,” she added. “It’s as if they’re hiring trigger-happy people.”
Loehmann did indeed suffer from many deficiencies as a police officer, and was even terminated from a previous position with a police department in Independence, Ohio, which recommended he never be employed as a police officer again.
Fifteen months after his termination, however, he was hired by the Cleveland Police Department.
Eight months after that, Tamir Rice was killed.
‘This matters to us’
“I think like a lot of white Americans I didn’t really realize … the extent to which there was still a major problem,” said Ellen, 67, who was holding a sign that read, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
Ellen told MintPress she didn’t know what to do to express solidarity with those who are protesting and pushing for change around the country, but she wanted to do something, so she followed her fellow ethical society members out onto 16th Street on Thursday night.
Reflecting on her whiteness and what role that plays in society, she said, “I think part of white privilege is having the privilege to not have to think about these things.”
Kathryn, who was standing a few feet away with her 3-year-old daughter, said: “I feel like there’s a major problem with white silence in general.”
The 34-year-old mother said she wanted to stand on 16th Street to let people know that not all white people are ignorant about systemic racism and the many ways it affects black people in the U.S.
Danna told MintPress she feels it’s her duty to push back against the white privilege she says she benefits from, but she also doesn’t believe standing on the street is really an effective way to do that.
“For me, whenever I hear about yet another person who’s been killed,” she said, “I have a strong sense of both sorrow and anger that keeps me motivated to do things.”
“As far as effectiveness, I know this is not really pushing back against white privilege, but like I said before it’s bringing people’s awareness that there are many white people who actually care about this,” she said. “It lets people that are driving by, many of whom are people of color, know that this matters to us.”