Brooklyn: Another Young Man Beaten to Death by the NYPD. RIP Johnathan Smith
On a cold Brooklyn day in the middle of the week, the evening was spent at a candlelight vigil for the late Johnathan Smith, who died after suffering a brutal beating by the NYPD, in front of his home at 272 Wyckoff Street. The Boerum Hill neighhorhood is not unfamiliar to police violence, with the Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr. Park a few blocks away, named after 13-year old Nicholas Heyward, Jr., who had been shot and killed by housing officer, Brian George, sixteen and a half years ago. On this particular evening, nearly a hundred people from this community gathered in mourning, and in loving remembrance of a man they knew as, “Supa John.”
There has literally been no news coverage on the death of Johnathan Smith, which was witnessed by 20-30 people, on Friday, March 18th, 2011. One article was found on Channel 12 News, headlines reading, “Police: Man swallows drugs, dies during attempted arrest.” Although the article went deeper into the story briefly presenting witnesses’ points of view, making it apparent that what the police stated could not be further away from the truth, and that in fact several people witnessed John being beaten to death while handcuffed, the headline itself shows what commercial media considers as the official story. How many eyes that scanned this headline even thought to read the little blurb after the blatant criminalization of a dead man, and how many would have stopped to look deeper into the story had the headline read, “Man beaten to death while cuffed, outside residency by NYPD, 20+ witnesses.”
But this is how police continue to escape accountability, by working in concert with stereotypes associated with the black and latino population, pushing headlines that assume already the guilt of a man who can no longer defend himself. To this day, there is no government organizing body that collects comprehensive data on police brutality or its frequency, and the track record of holding officers accountable is even more telling that there is something rather imbalanced of a system that swears to have ingrained checks and balances.
Just last November, Officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to 2 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter for the killing of Oscar Grant, who was shot in his back at point-blank range on January 1st, 2009, while face down and handcuffed. The murder was videotaped by witnesses and aided in Mehserle’s conviction, and arguably is the main factor that allowed for his indictment. While Mehserle received the lightest sentence possible, the Grant trial is somewhat of an epoch in police brutality history, as roughly 2000 people, since the 1990’s, have been killed by police, with not a single murder resulting in the subsequent conviction of a police officer. While some may think the Grant case is a precedent for some sort of justice in criminal court for future police brutality cases, the questions that come to mind are: how many more must die for the sacrifice of justice?…and, is this slap on the wrist even really justice?
The wind was unkind, but the community’s people huddled together in mass, gripping white candle sticks while linking arms, laughing and crying together with the little heads of children stuck in the crevices of standing adults of all ages, their small faces full of wonderment. One young boy being cradled by his mother’s arms during the prayers counted for as long as he could to pass the time and distract his mind from the purging of pain that he knew was going on. For an hour’s time, everyone prayed and mourned the death of their beloved “Big John.” No words of the incident were spoken that night, only words of remembrance, pleas for strength and unity, and an open space for people to share their words and feelings. At the end of the vigil, a banner was unfurled, delicately airbrushed, reading, “R.I.P., Johnathan E. Smith, Every1 Loves You…” Folks passed around black Sharpies to write their last words to John on the banner. The ritual marked the beginning of a lengthy grieving period and the long, hard road of fighting for justice.
As the 3rd Anniversary of the murder of Kenny Lazo approaches, the Smith family will be faced with a plethora of questions and challenges. What will the police report as the official story? What will the autopsy report reveal, and how long will it take for the family to receive it? Will their requests for evidence and documentation be met with rejection? Will recordings from the beating lead to an indictment of the officers involved?
We are dedicated to helping expose the truth of this, one of the latest instances of the so-called protectors in our society stealing the life of another young person as the facts are either distorted and spun or omitted altogether by commercial media. There are so many similar stories, all with their particularly horrifying details, all leaving our community in shock and disoriented, injured and angered, often feeling paralyzed or inept as a result.
In the coming weeks we will be meeting with different family members, friends and associates of Jonathan Smith to add detail to the story and compile evidence as we support them to the best of our abilities in the move forward towards redress and closure. It is one thing to sympathize and another thing to act. What is needed is action. Time to continue to organize to demand accountability and the acknowledgment of our human rights as citizens of New York City, The United States and the world.
Please join us in this movement by participating: actively reading, seeing and hearing the facts from the people to the people right here as our independent media collective documents the unabridged facts through art. Stay tuned to find out about the upcoming events where we can share our minds, and hearts, mobilize and take action to make lasting change, steps towards justice. This kind of blatant abuse of our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, elders and our youth has to stop.