S. E. Williams
Contributor

Bearing Witness to Injustice: From Ron Settles to George Floyd, Nothing’s Changed

May 31, 2020 | Commentary, Community

At the risk of appearing redundant, I want to mirror what others have said in response to the recent series of deaths involving one Black woman and two Black men in three separate incidents at the hands of police or vigilantes, as well as the hundreds of other Black men and women murdered under the color of authority. 

Those most recently gone too soon, #blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, include Ahmaud Arbery who was stalked, ambushed and shot to death by vigilantes in Georgia in February while jogging though his story did not gain national attention until early May.

In mid-May, EMT Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her bed by police in the state of Kentucky as they served a no-knock warrant at her home in the middle of the night. They were seeking a suspect who not only did not live there, but the person police officers sought was already in their custody.

And more recently, George Floyd was choked to death on the streets of Minnesota in the most inhumane way by a cabal of police, one of which performed the execution by placing his knee on Floyd’s neck and bearing down with his full weight for more than nine minutes, smothering the life out of him while other officers abetted or stood guard during the execution.

What troubled me in addition to the inhumanity of Floyd’s death was the maniacal expression on the face of the officer who deprived him of the breath of life. 

“My, God!” I screamed in the depths of my being, as millions of others probably did when viewing the tortuous death of George Floyd’s death for the first time. I must stop here, to applaud the courage of young 17-year-old Darnella Frazier who bravely stood her ground and recorded the tragedy, allowing the world to bear witness to what occurred.

The Black community is weary. It has grown tired of a double-standard-democracy that has not and is not treating Black Americans with the respect and full rights of citizenship paid for by their ancestors, while many who sit in judgement over them, are given theirs, for free.

The nation has witnessed far too many unjustified Black deaths at the hands of police and White vigilantes.  And like others of my generation—I’ve witnessed too many and walked in too many demonstrations against the injustice of it all.

My first demonstration against police brutality occurred long ago when I joined a march against the Signal Hill Police Department in the City of Long Beach demanding justice and accountability for the death of a 21-year-old college football player named, Ron Settles, a promising running back who played for Cal State Long Beach in 1981.

Settles was taken into custody by the Signal Hill police for allegedly speeding on his way to work one day. Two hours later, he was found hanging in his cell, dead.

During that era, the Signal Hill police were accused more than 40 times of excessive violence and/or false arrests. In the Settles case, the public would later learn he was repeatedly beaten in the head during his intake, yet officers claimed he committed suicide by hanging himself.

Blacks and others did not believe the police officers’ story and their doubts were soon confirmed when a coroner’s report stated Settles had, “died at the hands of another.”

Settles was one among hundreds of Black men who lost their lives at the hands of police across the country that year. The story of what happened to him at the hands of Signal Hill police that day, may never be known. There were no police body cameras or cell phones to record the event and the truth was never revealed by the officers involved beyond their insistence, Settles was uncooperative. No one was ever charged with his death.

I was a young mother when Settles was killed, concerned about injustice, saddened by his murder, and worried about what the future might hold for my own 10-year-old son. 

In response, I joined the protests demanding police accountability and justice for the Settles family. On Saturday afternoon of the first demonstration while my husband worked, I took my two children and we made our way to the Signal Hill Police Department—my daughter was still in a stroller on that day more than 41 years ago.

During the protest, a woman next to me motioned to look up as we stood in the courtyard in front of the police station. I did and was suddenly gripped with panic, terror, and fear. 

I watched as police stood shoulder to shoulder on the rooftops of city buildings surrounding the courtyard with high powered rifles trained down upon us.

Despite my fear, I stayed. Not for myself, but for Settles family, for my ten-year-old son and the sons of other Black mothers. And, unknowingly, I stood for the two grandsons my own son and his wife would bring into my life years later.  I stood because I knew if we as a people do not stand for us, who will?

After that day however I never took my children with me. It was too dangerous. I share this story of an example of why we as a people grow weary. I now understand what my heroine Fannie Lou Hammer meant when she said in 1964, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Despite the dangers and negative incidents marring their efforts to send a message, I am proud of the young people standing today. I will not waste my keystrokes apologizing for the destruction occurring in the streets by some, and instead stress what we know, violence rarely leads to a constructive solution. However, I must say for the record, if the FBI could identify the September 11th hijackers within hours, it is hard to believe they cannot identify who is creating the trouble in these protests.

In the meantime, we must not lose focus regarding why people across the country are protesting—a Black man was viciously murdered with brutal and excessive force by police in broad daylight—Floyd had no weapon and the officers were merely investigating an alleged “nonviolent” crime related to a counterfeit $20 bill.

To date, only one of the four involved has been arrested and charged, not with first or second, but third-degree murder. That is not enough. They should all be arrested, charged, tried, and although innocent until proven guilty—convicted. 

Regarding the case that moved me to action years ago, I remain filled with the same passion for justice that propelled me to the streets in the early 1980s.

I am inspired by the passion and commitment of the young people taking to the streets today demanding a better future for themselves and generations to come. This is the legacy of Black people in America. Must it continue to be our destiny?

It has been forty years since racists police viciously stole the life of young Ron Settles and in the African tradition, I continue to call his name—”Ron Settles.” I also say his name in honor of the thousands who have suffered similar fates at the hands of police over the past four decades, in recent weeks and months, and over the past 400 plus years, for that matter. 

Martin Luther King Jr. said he was once asked, how long it would take for the nation to be fair and just to Black people. He replied, “Not long, because no lie can live forever.” Yet, he too recognized that power concedes nothing without a demand.

Taking to the streets to demand justice during a worldwide pandemic is a risk these young people appear willing to take in hopes of a better tomorrow. They should not have to risk their lives to demand their right to life—#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real. 

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