On Tuesday night, I attended a Board of Supervisors meeting for the County of Roanoke. I was there to support the effort for #JusticeForKionteSpencer, who was killed by Roanoke County Police on February 26, 2016. Kionte Spencer was 18 years old and a ward of the state of Virginia when he was killed by police.
The police department, as is too many times the case in situations like this across the country, believes that it is appropriate for it to investigate itself. We learned Tuesday night that the findings of this closed investigation would be released Wednesday morning at 11:30 in a closed press conference. Note the CLOSED aspect of both the investigation and the press conference.
Tuesday night, six people spoke, voicing concerns about the lack of transparency in the investigation and the traumatic impact that the killing of Kionte Spencer has had on local communities, especially youth and people of color. One speaker, an African-American woman with a 15 year-old son, emotionally explained how she has had to prohibit her son from playing with BB guns–although his white friends of the same age freely play with them with no fear of being seen as a threat.
Kionte Spencer, like Tamir Rice, was carrying a BB gun when he was killed by police. In both of these cases, any differences between them aside, I believe police responded with implicit bias. The public has also largely responded with implicit bias. If Kionte had been a white teenager, would police even have been called? Implicit bias does not indicate individual guilt or innocence; it indicates here a fatal flaw in the system. Or, as has been said countless times, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
I did not expect the Board of Supervisors to respond in any meaningful way to those six speakers Tuesday night. And they didn’t. Yet even though I didn’t expect them to respond in any meaningful way, actually sitting there and experiencing what I can only describe as their mechanical and complacently bureaucratic reception of these six calls for justice, transparency, and some sense of conscience in local government–actually experiencing that left me feeling cold.
After being silent throughout the entire speaking session, even when direct questions were asked of them–and apparently that non-responsiveness is procedure–two of the supervisors did respond. But responses only came from those two supervisors who were scheduled to address other business after the comment time. Would they have responded if they didn’t have some business on the agenda? One of many questions. Supervisor Al Bedrosian told us: “There’s a process this goes through to make sure all the evidence, everything is brought forth. I’m not the police, we’re county supervisors so we have to trust in the process.” To me, that is completely tone-deaf, given what six people, speaking for many more, had just told him. From his statement I understand that Supervisor Bedrosian did not hear the clear message that had been repeated six times: We do not trust this process. Also: You are supervisors: supervise. Use your influence and insist on transparency and justice.
Why should we trust this process?
And yesterday, Commonwealth Attorney Leach and the Roanoke County Police Department did release their conclusions in a closed press conference: no charges will be filed. As they explained themselves to the press, four citizens stood outside in an area that police had directed them to and which had been cordoned off for “protestors” ahead of time. When one of those citizens stepped onto the grass to place a banner with the words “Justice for Kionte”, he was approached by police with hands on their guns and told to put his hands in the air. When he complied, he was directed to pick the banner up and return to the cordoned-off area or be arrested for “obstruction”.
Obstruction of what? Certainly not justice.
And we are expected to trust?