Trayvon Martin’s case opens festering wounds in Chicago

Trayvon Martin’s case opens festering wounds in Chicago
A week since a Florida court declared George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, supporters in Chicago turned out by the hundreds. Photo by Juan Labreche.

One week to the day that George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, I was watching a film with clear parallels to Martin’s story. “Fruitvale Station” is a dramatized version of the shooting death of Oscar Grant by a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit cop on New Year’s Eve 2009. “Fruitvale Station” starts out with actual cell phone video footage of Grant’s shooting, and then falls back to show in detail the day leading up to the fateful incident.

As we follow Grant through the last day of his life, what we see is a young man–Grant was 22 when he was killed–playing with his young daughter, buying jokey birthday cards for his mother and teasing his girlfriend. The filmmakers don’t sugarcoat his struggles–he is desperate to get back the job he lost for being late, hoping it will keep him from resorting to selling drugs again. What makes the film so compelling is that not only do we know how the story will end, but as in most media, rarely do we see young black men engaged in the mundane tasks of daily life.

I cried for a large part of the movie. But the most revealing response by my fellow theatergoers was when the screen showed information about what happened to the BART officer who shot Martin. Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years, and only served 11 months. The theater audience let out an audible gasp as the movie revealed that Mehserle had served less than half of this sentence.

Mehserle testified in court that he had mistakenly pulled out his gun instead of his Taser, but the verdict in Grant’s death still led to protests in Oakland.

Since the May 2010 verdict, Grant’s case has come up again and again as one with echoes of Trayvon Martin’s case. And Martin’s hasn’t been the only one. In the Chicago area, the deaths of Rekia Boyd and Stephon Watts also have been highlighted by activists protesting Zimmerman’s acquittal. Here’s a list of other Chicago-area cases that have followed a troubling pattern:

REKIA BOYD

It was an unusually warm March day in 2012 when Rekia Boyd was shot by off-duty police officer Dante Servin near Servin’s West Side home. She was one of a group of people in Douglas Park when an altercation between Servin and Antonio Cross, a friend of Boyd’s, took place. Believing that Cross had a gun, Servin opened fire from his car, shooting the 22-year-old Boyd in the head. But Cross was holding a cell phone. Boyd died in the hospital 24 hours later.  The Chicago City Council approved a $4.5 million payment March 13, 2013 to Boyd’s family to settle their civil police misconduct lawsuit. The Independent Police Review Authority has forwarded Servin’s case to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office for consideration as a criminal case. As of July 30, no criminal charges had been filed against Servin.

STEPHON WATTS

Stephon Watts was an autistic teenager fatally shot by two police officers at his home in south suburban Calumet City in February 2012. Watts’ parents had called police to help calm down their son, something the parents said they had done numerous times before, without incident. The officers said they shot in self-defense, but Watts’ parents contend that their son was only holding a butter knife. The state’s attorney did not file charges against the Calumet City Police Department. In April 2012, Watts’ parents filed a lawsuit against Calumet City and the officers who shot their son.

HOWARD MORGAN

In 2005, an off-duty black Chicago Police Department officer was shot 28 times by fellow officers. Howard Morgan was stopped while driving the wrong way down a one-way street without headlights near his North Lawndale home, according to news reports. When four officers tried to arrest him, Morgan allegedly began shooting at them. The officers returned fire, hitting him 21 times in the back and seven times in the chest. The four officers suffered minor injuries, while Morgan spent seven months in recovery. But he was charged with attempted murder and aggravated battery with a firearm and faced eight years in jail. The Barber Shop Show” interviewed Morgan’s wife, Rosalind, in April 2012 about the shooting. Morgan was sentenced to 40 years in prison in April 2012.

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