Democratic candidates silent on police shootings of black men

African Americans, who make up 13 percent of the country’s population, were the victims of 31 percent of police shootings last year.
Image: Protesters gather outside the home where Atatiana Jefferson was fatally shot by police in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 13, 2019.
Protesters gather outside the home where Atatiana Jefferson was fatally shot by police in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 13, 2019.Smiley N. Pool / The Dallas Morning News via AP file

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By Curtis Bunn

In the weeks since Sens. Cory Booker Sen. Kamala Harris, both African American, dropped out of the Democratic presidential race, nary a word has been said by the remaining candidates about an issue critical to African American voters: the police shootings of unarmed black men.

Data from a range of sources indicate that 2019 was another disturbing year for officer-involved killings of African American males. According to Statista, an online statistics portal, blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but were the victims in 31 percent of police shootings last year. Two-hundred-and-five black people were shot by police in 2019, while 149 Hispanics and 312 non-Hispanic whites were.

Additionally, The Washington Post, which began documenting police shootings after Michael Brown was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, found that 21 percent of the African Americans slain by police were unarmed and that blacks are three times more likely to be shot by cops than whites. The Post reports there were 1,004 total police shootings in 2019, up from 992 in 2018.

Yet it has not been a consistent talking point on the Democratic presidential campaign trail.

"Over all, the attention paid to these issues during this campaign cycle has been disappointing,” Kailee Scales, the managing director of Black Lives Matter Global Network, told NBC News. “(We have) been working consistently to center the conversation of racism, unjust systems, and the resulting police violence against unarmed black men—and women and youth—throughout this entire campaign cycle, with every candidate.”

“Current candidates must do a better job at addressing these racially biased systems, and creating policies to transform our communities,” Scales said.

Black Lives Matter surveyed its supporters in January, asking if the candidates were addressing issues most important to black Americans, including police shootings. “The results were unsurprising,” Scales said.

Seventy-eight percent of participants said that none of the candidates talked enough about police shootings, and 83 percent said they wanted to hear more about the candidates’ plans on criminal justice reform and racial injustice.

“Sadly, whenever the topic comes up about police officers unlawfully shooting black people,” Mario Williams, a civil rights attorney in Atlanta, said, “some people make ignorant reference to black-on-black crime rates, ignoring the issue at hand: the near 100 percent success rate of officers escaping liability for patently unlawful shootings of black people.”

Williams added: “When the conduct of the officer is patently unlawful, anger also sets in, along with a feeling of disbelief that without video, no matter that all the circumstantial evidence demonstrates an unlawful shooting, the officer escapes accountability.”

Rhanda Dormeus, whose 23-year-old daughter Korryn Gaines was shot and killed by police officers near Baltimore in 2016, said the experience was “devastating.”

“You’re broken,” he said. “It’s unimaginable, made more difficult when no one is held accountable.”

Harris and Booker, who dropped out of the race in December and January, respectively, routinely raised the issue of police shootings of black men as part of their platforms. Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts and the only remaining African American in the Democratic race, has been less vocal about the issue and is polling at less than 1 percent.

“The black vote is either ignored or assumed,” Williams said. “Trump is a good example. He puts out a commercial, , out of context, about a black woman who should have never been put in jail and, suddenly, black people should vote for him?” he added, referring to a commercial the president’s re-election campaign ran during the Super Bowl featuring Alice Marie Johnson, who was freed after 21 years in prison when her life sentence on a nonviolent drug conviction was commuted by Trump in 2018.

“There has never been a sustained commitment to the black vote with respect to serious discussion and action that increases opportunities for black people. Legislation and actions almost always center around control of public image and self-centered political desires,” Williams said,

Black voters have traditionally played a significant role in determining the Democratic presidential nominee, and this year is shaping up as no different. Biden supporters say his support among African Americans will help him in the later primaries in states more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire, while the other front-runners in the polls, particularly Buttigieg, have struggled to attract black support.

The reasons for those struggles are obvious to many black activists.

“We need candidates who will see the connections between racism and poverty, housing access, poor education, prisons,” said Karlene Griffiths Sekou, leader of the Boston branch of Black Lives Matter. “And black deaths.”