By Dr. J. A. Salaam
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
BERKELEY, Mo. – This small town just two miles west of Ferguson, Mo., has become another flashpoint for anger and protests over police shootings of young Black males.
Despite its Black mayor’s insistence that the police shooting death of 18-year-old Antonio Martin was justified skepticism abounds. Protests have mounted and clashes between police officers and demonstrators have occurred.
“My anger is coming from the fact that how he was treated afterwards, he was left on the ground for over a half an hour and could have been saved. There’s a hospital less than a half a mile down the road. I feel they were making a point like sending a point across, like don’t mess with the police,” said Sylvester Dixon, 24, who described himself as a good friend of the shooting victim.
Police officials say the young man and another person were approached by a police officer about a theft but Mr. Martin pulled a gun and pointed it at the officer. The officer fired his weapon in response and videotape shows the encounter, officials said. Yet a body camera issued to the officer involved was not on, nor was a dash cam. Critics also contend a third video clearly showing what happened has been withheld by police. Two grainy videos are proof the Black teen was armed and dangerous, and a weapon was found at the scene, officials said. Doubts remain and the victim’s family insists he was not armed.
“The way they left him and picked him up and put him in a van and drove off with him I think that’s totally disrespectful. If you shot him that’s one thing, okay the situation was under control,” said Mr. Dixon, who stood near a makeshift memorial to his friend.
“He just sat there and bled out, he moaned and he grunted, and moved around and we sitting here looking at him. It just hurt. They put him in a minivan and drove off with him. I believe he would still be alive if they would have rushed him to the emergency room that’s less than a mile down the road. I kind of understand where the officer is coming from. It wasn’t my little brother’s fault. He’s a Black male, him being a young Black man it just makes him a little more dangerous and made the police more cautious but it’s not his fault the color of his skin. The officer may have just seen him and got scared with all this stuff going on with the cops being killed and it could have been handled better.
“Everybody just mad because he just sat there and bled for hours and no one treated him. They didn’t treat him like a human being. They treated him like evidence,” said Mr. Dixon, who is also from Berkeley.
Antonio Martin was the fourth young Black man killed by a White police officer in the St. Louis metropolitan area since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in early August, setting off a wave of anti-police misconduct and police accountability protests that have spread across the country. Kajieme Powell, 25, was shot and killed Aug. 19 by two St. Louis police officers for allegedly approaching them with a knife. Vonderrit Myers, Jr., was shot to death Oct. 8 by an off-duty uniformed St. Louis police officer who claimed the 18-year-old fired a weapon at him.
The Dec. 23 killing of young Martin was described as justified by St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmer at a press conference shortly after the shooting, where he declined to show the entire video clip of the incident.
“There’s no reason for the family of this young man to see the rest of this video,” said Chief Belmer. “The individual produced a pistol with his arms straight out pointing at the officer across the hood of the police car. The officer was standing by the driver’s door of the vehicle and the suspect was on the other side where the passenger’s headlight is counter corner from the officer. When the officer was encountered with the pistol, he quickly moved backwards. He eventually loses his balance and falls backwards,” said Chief Belmer.
However, another camera view appears to contradict the chief’s account. It clearly shows the two men standing on the driver’s side of the police car and not where Chief Belmer said they were. The video also showed Mr. Martin reaching in his pocket and pulling out an object that had a glow to it. He extended it and walked toward the officer. The other young man standing there with him didn’t appear to be affected by Mr. Martin’s actions. But when the police officer fires at Mr. Martin, the companion jumps back and runs.
Several hundred people quickly gathered at the shooting scene and demanded medical assistance for Mr. Martin. Chief Belmer said it is standard procedure to leave a body on the ground for an extended period of time at a crime scene.
Berkeley EMS responded within five minutes, examined the teen and pronounced him dead, said the chief.
Witnesses, however, contend that after two and a half hours no EMS tended to the young man.
After several attempts by The Final Call to verify the actual time of death, Berkeley police dispatcher Henny redirected calls to the St. Louis County Police department, which is handling the initial investigation. Police Officer Schellman of media relations was not available to answer questions at Final Call press time.
As the crowd grew to more than 300 people the night of the shooting, some 50 law enforcement vehicles surrounded the area trying to get the angry crowd under control, said eyewitnesses.
The situation grew more tense and confrontational, said Paul Muhammad of the Peacekeepers, a group that has tried to keep order during demonstrations. Mr. Muhammad said he stopped an officer from attacking his wife, a co-founder of the group. The Peacekeepers typically position themselves between police and protesters.
“The police officer went and assaulted and pushed my wife and was about to swing and hit my wife so I went over to her defense. I pushed the police officer off her and he came at me and told the other police to ‘go get that bitch.’ So my wife was actually able to get away. So he came for me, grabbed me and put me in a chokehold and about four or five other officers came, grabbed me and jumped on my back, held me in a chokehold for about 10 seconds and threw me to the ground. He hopped on top of me and got in my ear, started punching me in my eye and talking in my ear. He busted my head. He started calling me ‘nigger bitch, I told you I was going to get you, you nigger bitch.’ He then went on to say he was going to kill me and he asked for my ID. He said he was going to come to my house, but I didn’t have my ID so he wasn’t able to get my information. Then they tried to hogtie and cuff me. Then a brother from the county police department came named Damier. He didn’t stop them but he came and made his presence and got close to me and actually grabbed me and pulled me out the situation. And he stayed by me the whole time with his hands on my shoulder until they were able to pull me over to another position and put me into the police van. The brother was very helpful and keeping me from getting hurt any further and I asked him to keep me safe because I was in cuffs and vulnerable at that point and he told me he would.
“He got my keys and my phone and gave it to my wife and the brother showed me a lot of respect and love he just couldn’t say much. The racist officer that assaulted and threatened me was B. Fisher of the St. John’s police department. We were out there intervening to keep the peace as we always do, to keep our people accountable and to keep the situation as peaceful as possible given the circumstances and emotion and passion and anger. But we were deescalating the growing chaos and the police were cognizant of who we were,” said Mr. Muhammad.
“They just were not happy and agitated that our people were out there expressing their dissatisfaction for the continued killing and murder of our young brothers and sisters. Yet we were not doing anything to create chaos, instead we were trying to diminish the chaos. And we were making the police accountable and stopping them from attacking our people.
“We told them we don’t want you to indiscriminately hurt our people so step back and we will deal with our own, we’ll police ourselves. So they got aggressive with us and actually three of the Peacekeepers got arrested that night, all of the brothers out there got arrested. … The brother didn’t get any medical care and was moving for a while and I have a picture of the medical van and license plates that picked him up and took him away. I understand that not to be protocol and they never sent an ambulance at all.”
During the time of the shooting, the officer did not have his body cam attached to his uniform and the dash cam was not on.
When Chief Belmer was questioned about the dash and body cams, the chief responded, “the dash cam is activated by the red lights and weren’t on at the time.”
The officer did not get his body cam assigned to him at roll call and it was handed off to him during his shift, the chief continued.
When the officer was asked why he didn’t have it on he claimed he was doing something and clipped it on somewhere in his car but intended to put it on, Chief Belmer said. “Sometimes there’s imperfection with the technology we have, in affect we are not used to it all the time,” he added.
The mayor of Berkeley told the media, the small department, just five officers only had three body cams, and time was needed to download video between shifts, but that had not happened. He appealed for donations of more body cams.