Speaking on behalf of the family of Jerry Williams, who was fatally shot by an Asheville police officer on July 2, civil rights activist John Barnett of Charlotte called today for an end to the excessive force that he said often results in the deaths of black men at the hands of police.
“America is very excited about cutting checks for the souls of African-American men,” Barnett said at a press conference in Pack Square Park, citing settlements following the deaths of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Tamir Rice and Charlotte’s Jonathan Ferrell. Barnett also listed Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a private citizen, George Zimmerman.
“So we ask today that the police in Asheville be very sensitive to the loss of life,” Barnett continued. “I don’t know if there was a gun pointed at the officer. Maybe he had a gun.” Even when a person is guilty of a crime, using excessive force is unjustified, Barnett continued. Later in the press conference, Barnett and family members also questioned whether police officers rendered appropriate aid to Williams after the shooting.
According to a statement released by the Asheville Police Department, officers were first dispatched to Pisgah View Apartments after 911 callers reported hearing shots. Police officers identified the vehicle and followed it into Deaverview Apartments, witnessing during the chase “a struggle with a female passenger.” When Williams failed to follow police commands and “displayed a weapon,” the department’s account continues, “deadly force was used.”
Police Chief Tammy Hooper later released a second statement to clarify what she called misinformation in the community: “Mr. Williams was armed with an AR-15 assault rifle. Shell casings were recovered in Pisgah View apartments where the initial call for service for shots fired originated and the weapon was recovered from Mr. Williams at the scene in Deaverview.”
Barnett asked Kecia White to speak about the 2006 death in Asheville of Lacy Pickens, III, who White said was killed by police officers as he was attempting to drive away from them. After shooting multiple rounds into Pickens’ car, White said, police officers “…put him in handcuffs and gave him a last shot to the back of the head to be sure he was dead.” White said that Pickens was the father of her children.
Williams’ aunt addressed the crowd on behalf of his mother, Najiyyah Avery. “My son was not a man of violence. He was a hardworking American who took care of his children,” she said. “[Williams] would not have ever pulled a gun on a cop,” his aunt said on behalf of his mother. She also said that no member of the police department or the city administration had spoken with Avery to explain what had happened.
Avery also spoke briefly and with emotion. “They told me that I couldn’t see him,” she told the crowd. “They didn’t think that the way that I would see him would be the image that I would want to be the last image of my baby. When my baby was born, he was covered in my blood. When they shot him down in the street, he was still covered in my blood.” Avery cried, “I want to see my baby. I want to see what you did to him.”
Asked about city policies for connecting with families affected by police actions, APD Public Information Officer Christina Hallingse responded by email: “Yesterday afternoon Chief Hooper, and other representatives from the Asheville Police Department, met with members of the Racial Justice Coalition, Inter-Denominational Ministerial Alliance, Baptist Ministries Union, NAACP (Asheville Branch), Christians for a United Community, Residents Council and the Stop the Violence Coalition. During the meeting Chief Hooper asked members of these organizations who are in touch with the immediate family of Jai Williams to help facilitate a meeting with them when they feel ready to discuss the incident with APD. We are awaiting a response at this time, and will be available at their convenience.” Hallingse also attached a copy of the department’s policy for providing services to victims or witnesses to crime.
Barnett explained that Williams’ body is now in Wake Forest. At 3:48 p.m., Barnett sent out a text message saying that the SBI had notified the family that Williams’ body is ready to be returned to Asheville.
In response to a question asking whether the family was disputing the police department’s account of the altercation between Williams and the female passenger, Barnett said he had not discussed the issue with them. “I do know it don’t take so many bullets to kill someone,” Barnett continued. “The truth of the matter is there is a form of excessive force that goes on in this country. One bullet is enough. That’s what we’ve been disputing. We haven’t really been disputing what happened prior to that.”
Asked about bystander videos, Barnett said he had seen three or four videos filmed after Williams had been shot. In one, he said, the police rolled Williams’ body over and Williams took his last breath. Press conference attendees stated that when officers approached Williams to turn him over, they also placed a rifle near his body.
Summarizing one of the videos he had viewed, Barnett said, “A woman was screaming,’Why aren’t they doing something?’ You know, life is precious. So even if somebody was doing something wrong, if they are on the ground, gasping for air. I mean, every police officer is trained in CPR … On the video, they just rolled him over and the lady saw him take his last breath. And the hospital isn’t that far away. What did it take, 30 minutes, for them to get there?”
Barnett announced that attorney Christopher Chestnut, who represented the family of Jonathan Ferrell in a Charlotte case that led to a $2 million settlement, is reviewing Williams’ case. Barnett also said that, if the State Bureau of Investigation report fails to satisfy Avery, he will be asking the federal Department of Justice to intervene.
Several local advocacy groups were represented at the meeting, including Black Lives Matter, the Center for Participatory Change, Showing up for Racial Justice, Thug Life, We’re Not Invisible and the Save Our Children Movement of Gastonia. Barnett announced a justice rally on July 7 at 6 p.m. at the Nazareth First Baptist Church at 146 Pine St.
Tami Forte Logan of the Center for Participatory Change closed the press conference with a prayer. Logan called on God to help those affected by Williams’ death heal from the hurt they were feeling. “And not just this hurt,” she continued, “but the daily hurt that we experience as black people. We need healing. Only you can heal us. We need our white brothers and sisters to confess. We need them to be willing to reconcile with us and we need to be willing to reconcile with them.”