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EXCLUSIVE: Many Open Wounds: Akron Protests the Police Killing of Jayland Walker

EXCLUSIVE: Many Open Wounds: Akron Protests the Police Killing of Jayland Walker

Akron, Ohio — There’s a Dostoyevsky line that often finds its way into the transcripts of American courtrooms, “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens, but by how it treats its criminals.” But what happens when a society fails to distinguish between these two classes? What if the lawman’s badge could blindly consecrate a criminal attack into a blitz of justice?

If Dostoyevsky were to roll the footage and examine the national reactions to the murders of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, George Floyd, and a list of others, he’d likely find his categorizations too rigid and optimistic. Because this is America, a nation ununited around the definitions of its criminal and courageous citizens. A nation that consistently chokes and guns the life out of the unarmed and unsuspecting while wrapping Presidential Medals of Freedom around the necks of men like Henry Kissinger, Rush Limbaugh, Barry Goldwater, and Strom Thurmond. 

The United States has always lived up to its reputation as the land of abundance, making no exception for police brutality and its defense of it. Throughout the past two weeks, the familiar counter-cries backing its outstanding citizens—its law enforcers—again fly high: “Well—was the suspect disobeying? And they shot him? 60 times? Well—if he wasn’t listening.” A very Stalin-ish position to hold: No man—no problem.

This time, the conversation around law enforcement is the Akron Police Department’s shooting of Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old Black man from Akron, Ohio.

Footage of Walker’s death was released on July 3rd. The bodycam video is graphic, made more shocking by the sheer excess of it. But shocking though it is, the manner in which the events unfolded was all-too-recognizable. 

The police attempted to stop Jayland Walker for an unspecified traffic and equipment violation on July 27th. While the Akron Police Department has yet to provide any apparent reason for the attempted traffic stop or footage of that moment, the rest of the timeline remains generally clear. Walker didn’t comply, and as he fled in his car, authorities claim a single gunshot was fired in an unknown direction. After a car chase lasting roughly six minutes, Walker slowed to a roll, exited his vehicle unarmed, and ran. During the footrace, one officer attempted firing his taser at Walker, failing to make contact. In total, there were 13 officers at the scene. After a short race on foot, Walker ran into a parking lot along with eight police officers. A broadside of bullets erupted, and moments later, Walker lay dead with over 60 wounds to the body. 

The Akron Police Department later stated that the eight officers, seven of whom were white, fired upon Walker at least 90 times collectively. Tallying the time, the squad fired for about eight straight seconds, unleashing pounds of lead. After the shooting, Walker’s body was handcuffed and flipped over as officers attempted to resuscitate him. At a press conference on July 3rd, Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett claimed, “When you see it in real-time, it’s very hard to distinguish what Mr. Walker is doing. In the still photos, it appears to all of us that Mr. Walker is going down to his waist area.” 

And that’s it. The justification. And admission from the Chief that, in the heat of the chase, what could be seen was not clear, but Walker may have put a hand near his waist area.

Protests Surge in Akron

The Akron community not only mourns the loss of Jayland Walker but quickly grapples with the aftermath of his tragic end so that his name might become a symbol of lasting reform. 

On Saturday, hundreds of Akron’s citizens, community organizers, and protestors gathered in Akron’s downtown area to stand and march in unanimity with the Walker family in their outrage against the Akron Police Department. Attending the protestations were relatives of Jayland Walker, as well as Samaria Rice and Jacob Blake Sr., parents of Tamir Rice and Jacob Blake. Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy, was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014. Jacob Blake was shot seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconson, in August 2020, leaving him paralyzed from the waist below. 

Speeches began in the late afternoon near Akron City Hall. The tenor of the speakers and audience rang with frustration, a bitter sense of loss, and urgency in demanding change. Surrounding the premises sat large orange dump trucks, set up as makeshift barriers by the Akron municipality, while armored SWAT vehicles crept along the streets. A thick maze of metal barricades sat in front of the Akron Police Department, where suited officers could be spotted on the building’s upper floors, peering down on protestors.

Samaria Rice opened with a severe indictment, “Keep in mind that the Police are the biggest gang in America.” Just days before, news broke that a Pennsylvania State police department unlawfully rehired the officer who shot and killed her son. Since it became public, the officer has been let go.

Rice continued, “We are demanding answers. We are demanding to know these officers’ names. We are demanding that they get fired immediately.” 

Such demands for a more fulsome explanation of Walker’s killing was a uniting theme throughout the day’s many speeches. Questions surrounding protocol, training, and officer conduct. Who are the eight officers that opened fire? What are their records? Are there patterns of racism and the use of brutal force? What was the reason for handcuffing Walker after he had been shot? How, by who, and when will these officers be examined, tried, and judged? 

Jacob Blake Sr., who was hospitalized in Akron during protests on July 6th, took the podium, saying, “We understand what the Akron Police Department represents. We posed no threat the other night, yet they pummelled Mike Harris till he was about to faint with their fists, then they stomped him with their feet. They beat me into a seizure. I don’t know what happened next. When I woke up at the hospital, I woke up more determined than ever.”

Additional tension builds around the Akron PD’s response to the protests, which, while claiming a few windows and the contents of a dumpster, have remained peaceful and nonviolent. Despite this, the Akron PD deployed tear gas, used what many call excessive force, and is on video restraining and beating the aforementioned Mike Harris and harshly detaining Blake Sr. 

The protests mobilized through the downtown streets of Akron, stopping next at Grace Park, a few blocks away. Armed civilian peace-keepers created a perimeter around the protest. Here, Walker’s cousin, Demetrius Travis Sr., spoke, “Jayland Walker was the third killing by the APD since December. I’m Angry.” 

Travis responded to a public announcement from Akron’s Mayor, Dan Horrigan, on July 6th that stated, “I continue to urge peace in our city and ask that if you see threats or instances of violence, that you report them.”

Travis continued, “I was here with you, I saw you protesting peacefully, I saw him here with the military. Swat teams on the roof, tear gas, cops punching people in the face. And you want me to tell them to be peaceful?… If he wants peace, he better start showing peace. You killed my peace. You killed his mom’s peace. His sister’s peace.”

The protests returned to the foot of Akron’s Police Department building. As the crowd marched, one protestor spoke with the Current Affairs Times, “It’s the same shit. Same story. There are too many instances. In Cleveland, I was recently pulled out of my car and put on the ground for going too slow in a school zone. That’s its own thing, but nobody deserves to be shot 60 times.”

In front of police headquarters, the crowd gathered. Local activist known as Big Frank was the last to speak before the protests broke for the evening. He stood in front of the barricade, addressing the crowd, “That was one of our sons, one of our brothers, one of our kids, one of our cousins…Over 90 shots—as many as 120 shots. They killed Bonnie and Clyde like that. They hit them with 130 shots. But they killed people. They went across America, robbing and shooting and killing. Jayland didn’t do that.”

Searching for Justice

In 1966, James Baldwin published an essay in The Nation titled “A Report from an Occupied Territory.” Baldwin’s solemn account of the brutal injustice of Harlem’s police force is an unfortunate and uncomfortable reminder of America’s institutional incentives to remain unchanged:

“I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once—but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself. But it cannot be allowed to be answerable only to itself. It must be made to answer to the community which pays it, and which it is legally sworn to protect, and if American Negroes are not a part of the American community, then all of the American professions are a fraud.” 

In Northeast Ohio and throughout America, community oversight of its policing remains a desperate point of concern. A Community Police Commission was established in Cleveland in 2015 to involve community voices in the judgment of accusations of excessive force policing. Akron, however, is without such a commission, although the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation has launched an independent investigation.

Returning to the speech of Walker’s cousin in Grace Park on Saturday Afternoon, Travis’s concluded his address, directing his attention to the wounds that marred his cousin and his determination that they will be answered for:

“Jayland got killed because of something that happened 500 years ago. Even if those dudes never were racist, their ancestry came out of them the moment they couldn’t catch him… A 140-pound kid, flipped by bullets. Face mutilated. I don’t know if his mother is going to do this or not, but I hope she leaves that casket open so that every Akron police officer that was shooting can have nightmares and see what they did to my little cousin and his family.”

Walkers’ funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, July 13th. 

Image and Thumbnail Credits: Nathan Rizzuti

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