Thursday, September 29, 2016

A response to police arrests becomes a tutorial on race, class and policing in Little Rock

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 5:54 PM

SCHOOL'S IN SESSION: John Walker and Omavi Shukur talk about race and police in Little Rock. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • SCHOOL'S IN SESSION: John Walker and Omavi Shukur talk about race and police in Little Rock.

John Walker, the 79-year-old civil rights lawyer, and his associate, Omavi Shukur, 29, a young lawyer devoted to criminal justice reform, talked to press this afternoon about their arrests Monday by Little Rock police for supposedly obstructing governmental operations in observing and attempting to film a routine police traffic stop.

The next day, the police announced they'd drop the charge against Walker and apologized. Today, Prosecutor Larry Jegley said there wasn't sufficient evidence to charge Shukur either and dropped that charge as well.

In a roomful of cameras and backed by a number of prominent lawyers, Walker and Shukur talked about their arrests.

It is too early to say if any lawsuits are planned, though Walker and Shukur made it clear they hope to see changes in police procedures.

Walker said it was clear the police had violated the law that protects citizen filming of police activities. Shukur said he hoped their experience would at least educate others about their rights to observe and even record police. The video of the event shows the filming upset two veteran white police officers who initiated an argument with Walker and then arrested him and Shukur.

Funny note: Walker called his office and asked Shukur to join him to be sure some video was made of events. Walker was attempting to make a video with his camera, but he confessed he had poor skills and he actually took no video that day, though he held the camera up as if he was.

It was an occasion for Walker and Shukur, who came home after education at elite schools to work on a justice reform project, to talk about their passion for representing poor people and people of color and the divisions that exist in the city.

Walker acknowledged that he was likely treated with more deference because of who he is and because he has experience dealing with the system. He won a landmark case after an arrest in Pine Bluff for photographing officers.

But he said there was a different reality for poor people and black people, particularly those who live south of I-630 and east of Shackleford  Road. More police respond to their arrests; more police patrol their neighborhoods; the residents don't enjoy the same respect and freedom afforded people in higher income neighborhoods.

Shukur talked of how he'd come home to Little Rock after college, something that's often urged for others, and remarked how his treatment might discourage that. He and Walker both said they'd made few comments and done nothing wrong in the events leading up to their arrests, while officers had called Walker a "race baiter" and 20-year "thorn in the side" of Little Rock police. It is profiling, Walker said, and the police do it not only as a matter of course but of training.

Walker noted that the officers who arrested him were training young officers, including black officers, and schooling them to be on the lookout for people like Walker. This infects Little Rock at every level, he said. He included City Manager Bruce Moore and Police Chief Kenton Buckner, both black men. Black people can discriminate on a racial basis, too, Walker said. But he also said the problem began "at the top," with the City Board and the business community. The policing, by an overwhelming number of white officers who don't live in the city, represents a broader pattern, he said.

Shukur noted, as Prosecutor Larry Jegley had earlier, that officers had escalated the situation with Walker by crossing a street to challenge him. 

Should officers be reprimanded? "When police officers disobey the law, as clearly they did, there  should be consequences," Walker said. But he said society was to blame, too, for feeling that police can do no wrong. They are humans, said Walker. They bring prejudices to the job.  He said the issue of city residency needed to be addressed. As it is, he suggested, too many police officers look at the black community as criminals.

He was asked about a police report that quoted Walker at the jail as saying he only wanted to file a complaint against white officers. He didn't deny that. He said the black officers on the scene had not said anything, but the two white officers had.

Shukur said "more vulgar" than his arrest were some of the things he'd encountered at the jail, filled mostly with black inmates. He said there was blood on a sheet used as a backdrop for mugshots and one inmate complained bitterly of not being fed. He spoke of his work and his finding of a growing Arkansas prison population, aided by hundreds of arrests for minor offenses.

Walker said jokingly that, if he was a troublemaker, he was happy to welcome another one in Shukur, who he expected to carry on his advocacy for the poor and brown and black people after he was gone.

A reporter asked what he'd say to those who said Walker was trying to start a race war. Walker bridled. He said they'd done nothing hostile, had merely done something that was within their rights.

Shukur observed that one officer, Jason Roberts, was involved several years ago in the fatal shooting of a mentally disturbed person moments after responding to a call from a distraught relative hoping to de-escalate a situation. Monday, he caused another escalation of conflict, Shukur said. "In another world, he'd be called a recidivist, but because he has a badge that's not the case."

Walker chimed in that, what's more, Officer Roberts is training others in his ways.

UPDATE: I asked for a copy of a note Chief Buckner sent to the police force Wednesday, before the second charge had been dropped.

Here's what he said.

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