OP-ED: Why Do Atlanta Police Killings Get Overlooked?
On March 31, 31-year-old Oscar Cain was killed by an Atlanta police officer. Reportedly someone told the officer that Cain was near the interstate with a gun. According to the officer’s report, Cain ran off into the woods. The officer followed him on foot and shot him dead. Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Natalie Ammons implied that the officer discharged one fatal shot.
“Cain did not comply with verbal commands and the during the incident, Cain reportedly brandished a firearm,” reads the statement. “The officer discharged his weapon, fatally wounding Cain. A firearm was found at the scene.”
Local resident Jorge Flores recalled hearing three shots. A firearm was found but the only indication that it posed a threat to the officer, who is, of this writing, still unnamed and “was not injured during the incident,” according to Ammons’s statement, comes only from the officer himself. So far there is no evidence that Cain fired the weapon.
Experience tells us that, if there was any evidence at all that Cain fired on the officer, we would be hearing about it nonstop.
Now that it’s been discovered that Cain was a social justice activist who traveled to Ferguson to join the protests that erupted after police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, Jr. and also served as the Atlanta organizer for the League of Young Voters, his death is attracting some attention thanks to Twitter.
But, the fact that his death marks the 26th officer-involved shooting in the state of Georgia in 2019, and we aren’t even half-way through the year, has made barely a ripple.
When police murders like Cain’s occur in Atlanta, they rarely capture the national headlines. It’s almost as if Atlanta is shielded from such scrutiny. Perhaps that’s due to its branding as the Black Mecca, supported by it being Dr. King’s birth city, its long succession of Black mayors and the prominent HBCUs Spelman and Morehouse. It also doesn’t help that there are relatively few mass protests. A recent vigil for Oscar Cain attracted less than a hundred people, according to one attendee.
Days before the Super Bowl, NBC News ran an article raising questions about the big game and social justice in light of two officer-involved shooting deaths of two other young Black men. On January 22, 21-year-old Jimmy Atchison was gunned down by Atlanta police officer Sung Kim, who was serving on an FBI task force. The rapper, a member of The OTG Gang, and father of two was unarmed and holding a cell phone when shot. According to witnesses, Atchison ran to keep the police from shooting around his kids and was hiding in a closet when Kim shot him in the face, killing him. His family has questioned why Atchison was not just arrested. Kim was not wearing a body camera. Also, two citizen complaints against the officer have been uncovered, as well as six internal investigations, including Atchison’s murder and an excessive force accusation.
“Regardless, if you’re chasing him, if he’s running, there’s no need to shoot him,” Atchison’s aunt Tammy Featherstone told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A week earlier, on January 15, plainclothes Atlanta police officer Oliver Simmonds, a member of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ security detail, fatally shot into his unmarked police car when he claims 18-year-old D’ettrick Griffin tried to steal the vehicle. Griffin’s father Courtney told Atlanta NBC-affiliate 11Alive that, when he went to where his son was killed with pictures of him, police refused to confirm his death for four hours. ‘My son was sitting in the cold for four hours, dead for four hours, and nothing? It took my soul away from me,’ he told the news station. In February, the family filed a $5 million wrongful death suit against the City of Atlanta.
At the end of January, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP called for a meeting with both Mayor Bottoms and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields to discuss the police killings. According to Domonic Brown, a member of the NAACP Atlanta chapter who is known as “the Local Activist,” those calls to meet were never answered. It is why he joined with other activists to crash the town hall meeting of about 1200 people Mayor Bottoms and Police Chief Shields held at Cascade United Methodist Church in late March.
“It’s no reason that we should’ve had to crash the town hall just to get an answer from the mayor,” says Brown. “We had been reaching out to them since the Super Bowl.”
“We’d much rather sit down and have a real conversation and see how we can fix this.”
Police killings of other Black men have brought national and international scrutiny on cities less prominent than Atlanta. Yet, despite blistering national headlines, Atlanta has remained relatively outside of the spotlight’s glare on police violence, even as its rappers and other prominent residents spoke out in support of Colin Kaepernick and his stance against police brutality that upstaged this year’s Super Bowl. In a city known as “the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement,” that is a curious development.
So, why is Atlanta, which has had a straight succession of Black mayors since Maynard Jackson broke that glass ceiling in 1974, not at the forefront of addressing police killing Black people in its own backyard?
“Atlanta is very image driven; it’s Black Hollywood” explains Brown. “People want to keep certain images of themselves and of their friends but it’s real life out here. There’s a host of people in Atlanta that don’t care anything about that. They’re just trying to make it safely throughout their day and these people are being ignored.
“You don’t hear stories about Jimmy Atchison; you don’t hear stories about Oscar Cain,” continues Brown. “You don’t hear these stories because, once again, certain people in certain places make sure they’re suppressed.”
Are Black people so invested in a “Black Mecca,” especially as our communities continue to vanish in a tidal wave of gentrification across the nation, that any perception of imperfection is overlooked? Baltimore also had a succession of Black mayors yet the city exploded after Freddie Gray died in police custody.
Perhaps Atlanta hasn’t suffered the same fate because its brand is built as the manifestation of “Black Excellence” and not just its potential. As many have bragged, Atlanta is as close to Wakanda as any place in this country can get. But is the perception of Wakanda more important than actually being Wakanda? If the police killings of D’ettrick Griffin, Jimmy Atchison and Oscar Cain just this year alone can’t provoke mass outrage, what can?
Here’s a list of other people killed by police in the Atlanta metro area this year:
Veltavious T. Griggs, age 19, 4/1/19, Union City, Ga.
Erick Cruz Ramirez, 32, 3/21/19, Sandy Springs, Ga.
Steven Louis Goins, 22, 3/5/19, Decatur, Ga.
Johnny Weeks, 68, 2/2/19, Buford, Ga.
Rodney Hamilton, 62, 1/14/19, Gainesville, Ga.
Darion Jones, 26, 1/7/19, Decatur, Ga.
Robert Daniel Barger, 26, 1/1/19, Stone Mountain, Ga.
Chicago native and longtime Atlanta resident Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies.