While the nation has been riveted by the killing of young Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch vigilante in Florida, another case has been percolating in New Jersey with scant national attention. In the small, working class city of Garfield in northern New Jersey some residents have been calling for justice in the case of Malik Williams. The 19 year-old city resident was shot and killed by Garfield police after he fled a police station during his processing on a minor charge. Malik had voluntarily surrendered to the police on an outstanding warrant related to a domestic dispute with his girlfriend. Video captured in the police station show a calm Malik, who was mysteriously left unrestrained after having been handcuffed, dart out the door, past three police officers. He had been frisked when he came into the holding room. He was unarmed but wound up shot dead by the officers in pursuit.
Since his death on December 10, 2010 the Garfield police have been mum and the Bergen County prosecutor has provided little by way of guidance as to details about the shooting. The incident has left Malik’s family distraught, his friends understandably angry, and the Black and Hispanic residents of Garfield calling for justice. Tomorrow supporters of Malik will gather in Garfield for a March and rally. I will be among them.
It is important to recognize that violence against young men of color is not unique or restricted to southern states such as Florida. It is a common occurrence in places like New York and New Jersey, where the media conveniently dismisses these acts as isolated incidents, counter to the narrative of a progressive north. Sadly, New Jersey, a state rife with small town justice, has had many such incidents. In the Garden State there is a particular oppressive dynamic between local police and young Black and Hispanic men. It is a state where “local” rules, in the tight confines between New York City and Delaware there exists over 500 municipalities, with most having their own police force. It ranges from big city Newark to tiny Teterboro where you can miss the town if you blink while driving through. While racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police was put under the national spotlight, the questionable use of force by local police has evaded similar scrutiny.
Like the case of Phillip Pannell, a Teaneck, New Jersey 16 year-old killed by police in that town in 1990, the reaction to the killing of Malik Williams in Garfield has drawn the usual denials by many local residents. Whenever a young Black or Hispanic man is killed by police the victim is quickly typecast as a troublemaker, any minor offense he may have committed is treated as a felony, and his family is blamed and painted as dysfunctional. In the case of Phillip Pannell, the police made certain the local daily newspaper used his mug shot from a minor offense until I led a group of community leaders into a meeting with the editors of The Record and they agreed to stop using the photograph. The police? They were merely doing their job; and discharged their weapons in fear of their lives. Somehow, a group of professionally trained law enforcement agents never trade upon their expertise in these encounters with young Black men and choose to shoot first. This defense of police misbehavior and wrongdoing reminds me of a question a youth posed at the funeral of Phillip Pannell: The police are supposed to protect us, but who is protecting us from the police?
I am tired of the diplomatic response that all cops aren’t bad. No kidding, but some are and some are downright rotten. What is most disturbing in the Malik Williams case is the arrogance of the Garfield police and the attitude that this young man was not worthy of living because he ran out of a police station. We will never know what Malik was thinking or why he bolted. Maybe it was the bravado of a teenage boy. Maybe it was anger over being detained. Maybe it was because the police made it easy to escape; in fact, I question whether his being unrestrained was intentional as a way of justifying the use of force against him. No matter what the reason, we do know he was searched and unarmed, but still wound up shot dead.
Malik Williams deserves justice, as does Trayvon Martin and the many young Black and Hispanic men who have been gunned down across the country. I met Phillip Pannell when I saw him laid out in his coffin, a 16 year-old who looked like he was 12 while in eternal rest. I never met Malik Williams but feel a connection to him nonetheless. He deserves justice.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.