Since the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2014, I’ve stood with hundreds of families impacted by police violence. With few exceptions, justice for them has been a fleeting mystery. The law is working against them. District attorneys are working against them. Bigotry and the undeserved esteem of law enforcement over everyday citizens is working against them. And yet, each new family whose loved one is mowed down in a hail of bullets hopes against hope that they will be different: that they will be the exception to the rule, and that they will be ones who finally get some tiny measure of justice.
Moments ago, that hope was just realized when Amber Guyger was found guilty for the murder of Botham Jean, who was killed by Guyger, a Dallas police officer at the time, when she entered his apartment and shot him dead. They were neighbors, and Guyger claimed she thought she had gone into her own apartment and that Jean was an intruder. No verdict balances the scales of what Jean’s family has suffered and lost, but this semblance of justice is both rare and necessary. It took not only a skilled team of organizers and activists, but a world-class legal team, a committed district attorney, a fair judge, and a racially diverse jury to get what so few families impacted by such violence ever do.
While activists and organizers are exhausted by the sheer volume of carnage and the subsequent denials of justice left in the wake of America’s police brutality crisis, it does not hit the same way for a family. They do not see their son or daughter, mother or father, their significant other as yet another hashtag or trending topic. They do not see them as a news story or viral video. While our first introduction to Tamir Rice or Philando Castile or John Crawford was their last moment alive, families have thousands of micro-memories to recall instead.
Each family seeks justice with a desperate zeal as if thousands of families before them were not denied that very same thing. They are not deterred by that stark reality and push forward with a singular, obsessed focus to hold someone responsible for the pain, loss, and trauma they caused. Such is the case for the family of Botham Jean, who was unarmed, nonviolent, and sitting on his couch eating ice cream when he was shot and killed in his own home by Amber Guyger. And such is the case for the family of Anthony Hill, also unarmed and nonviolent, when he was shot and killed by DeKalb County, Georgia, police officer Robert Olsen, after neighbors called 911 to get Hill medical assistance for what appeared to be a mental health emergency. Hill, a young veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was completely nude and was wandering aimlessly through his apartment complex.
While Guyger was just found guilty, Hill’s family is still waiting for their justice. And in spite of the knowledge that some of the most violent, most heinous, most negligent police officers have gotten away with such acts of violence, the Guyger verdict no doubt gives the Hill family hope. I can hardly believe that I am saying this, but it gives me hope too. Botham Jean and Anthony Hill should be alive right now. Neither ever did anything to warrant an arrest. They damn sure didn’t do anything to warrant lethal force. Truthfully, we shouldn’t even know their names. They should each just be living their lives, out of the spotlight, in comparative anonymity.
Both families deserve justice in these cases, but the truth is that the whole nation needs and deserves it. Over and over again, police have been able to claim that they feared for their lives because they thought their eventual victim was reaching for a gun, but no such excuse exists for officers Guyger or Olsen. If Olsen is allowed to get away with Hill’s murder, the already outrageously low bar for excusable police misconduct will somehow be lowered even more, turning the Guyger verdict into an outlier rather than precedent. It will send a message to police across the country that they have absolutely no obligation to even concern themselves with the mental health needs of people, but that they can just shoot and kill them on contact instead.
This cannot continue. It must not. I feel foolish sometimes for ever believing that this fragile democracy that we call the United States of America can improve and get better, that it can right its wrongs, but here we are. Today, a family who deserved justice received it. I am going to give hope a chance one more time for the family of Anthony Hill.