By COCO SMYTH and ERWIN FREED
— COLUMBUS, Ohio — While all the cameras were trained on the Minneapolis courtroom in the moments leading up to the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, another police murder rocked Columbus.
The brutal murder of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by Columbus police officers on Tuesday, April 20, marks the second fatal police shooting by CPD in an eight-day period. Both the killing and the media’s response are emblematic of the extreme tunnel vision perpetuated by U.S. policing. In a broader sense, the tragedy sheds light onto the realities of police violence against Black women and girls.
Shooting deaths, self-defense, and militarization
One day after the shooting, the Columbus Police Department showed members of the media body-cam footage from Bryant’s murderer, Officer Nicholas Reardon. The Columbus Dispatch editorialized that this was “an unusual decision by the city and police.” Police departments are usually very slow to release potentially incriminating evidence. The institution of policing is fundamentally based on secrecy and lack of community accountability.
However, CPD did not make Bryant’s last moments public for greater transparency. Instead, the footage was released because the department heads hoped it would help them in the court of public opinion. Already, a flood of articles from the New York Daily News, Fox News, Columbus Dispatch, and others are quoting various “use of force” experts to justify Reardon’s actions.
The April 12 murder of Miles Jackson shows how CPD will do what they can, including lie, to shape a favorable narrative. The media originally reported that an “active shooter” had been taken out by police at a local hospital. The inaccuracy of this report became clear shortly after when body-cam footage was released demonstrating that Jackson was harassed in his hospital bed by police, which escalated into their shooting him. Momentum still has not picked up around this case. The police murders of Andre Hill and Casey Goodson recently did not spur on much mobilization but have been discussed widely in activist circles.
A narrative that has been under-addressed is the fact that Bryant appears to have been the person to call the police in the first place. According to NPR, “Bryant allegedly called officers at about 4:30 p.m. local time when a group of ‘older kids’ threatened her with assault.” The fact that the caller complained that “older kids” and “grown girls over here trying to fight us” suggests that the real aggressors were the women Reardon was supposedly assaulting, who were both in their early twenties, according to the Associated Press.
Writing for Vox, Tiffany Drayton compares Bryant’s last moments with similar times in her own life. She explains, “As I watched the video of Ma’Khia wielding that knife, I could only imagine how she felt in that moment: the mix of anger, fear, and desperation. Though adults appeared to be around, no one stepped in to offer proper guidance or support. The cops were called because Ma’Khia thought there was a single lifeline remaining. And then officers showed up and took her life.”
The local 911 call center has not confirmed who made the call. The question could easily be answered by simply looking at the phone records for that date and time. The fact that CPD released footage almost immediately but has not indicated who made the call is damning.
Black women are constantly criminalized for acting in self-defense. Andrea Richie’s 2017 book “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color” details many instances of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian women being attacked by police after either calling them for protection or using force in self-defense. A particularly representative case is that of Cherae Williams, who was brutalized by two Bronx police officers after calling them during a domestic dispute with her boyfriend. In her words, “They beat me until I was bloody. … They left me there dazed and with a warning. They told me if they saw me on the street, that they would kill me. … I called the police to prevent a serious incident, and they brutalized me.”
The poison pill of post-mortem character assassination is part and parcel of ruling-class violence against Black women. Breonna Taylor, killed in a daze by a botched raid from the Louisville Police Department, is a testament to this phenomenon. While many instances of violence against Black women, whether at the hands of police or others, often go totally undiscussed, Taylor’s life and past were put on trial following her murder. The demand from the movement must clearly be to fight against all instances of state violence.
Police, media, and community members have been quick not only to minimize the possibility that Bryant could have been acting in self-defense but also conclude that she would have seriously injured or killed the person with whom she was struggling. This is a baseless assumption, and even more importantly, a sane public-safety system would be one in which non-lethal intervention measures are standard. Instead, Reardon did not make any attempt to de-escalate the situation, failing to even identify himself as a police officer on the scene.
The CPD, like many U.S. police departments, has a shoot first, never ask questions later policy. While knife-wielders in the UK are very rarely killed by police, and most cops there do not carry guns, the “sharp object”-based homicide rate is lower than in the U.S. In fact, the whole strategy of confronting knife-wielders is different. As Brian Paddick, ex-deputy assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, explained in 2015, “There are alternatives to shooting someone armed with a knife. … If someone’s life is in danger there is the option to use CS spray or batons. All officers are equipped with stab-proof vests. If someone has gone berserk and they are in possession of a knife, officers have a duty to try to contain them to make sure they do not escape, in which case they would try to use CS spray and batons.” Of course, the UK police are no paragons of non-violence, but the comparison shows that responsibility for Bryant’s death lies at the feet of the CPD.
Also important to note is the fact that Reardon shot directly at Bryant and the other person, despite the fact that they were in close proximity and moving unpredictably. The bullet could easily have missed by a small distance and hit the person Reardon was supposedly “saving.”
Columbus fights back
There was immediate protesting against the police by witnesses and neighbors after the shooting. Video has also been released of other cops on the scene shouting “Blue Lives Matter” at people who were criticizing them for their handling of the situation.
There have already been multiple protests attended by probably 1000-2000 people cumulatively in the past days. There was a protest the night of the murder, a protest the next day led by Ohio State University students that both forefronted the murder and demanded an end to OSU’s relationship with Columbus police, and another rally the same night downtown.
CPD is doing what it can to stifle the movement for police accountability and abolition. Local activist and student Hunter Matten is facing trumped-up aggravated burglary charges for taking part in a demonstration on April 14. As the movement continues to develop and grow, we can expect further attempts of repression by the police. The best defense is to broaden the base of mobilization to include unions, immigrant rights, and all groups fighting for social justice.
The tasks of our movement
For activists, organizers, and socialists, the struggle for justice for Ma’Khia Bryant raises a number of vital questions facing our movement. We need to reject the narrative pushed by the police, the media—and unfortunately, many on the left—of the “justified” police murder. Where many ostensible critics of the police end up back in the camp of the police is in the myth of the “perfect victim.” The first line of defense for the police is to justify these acts of racial oppression and murder by denigrating the actions or character of the victim: “They shouldn’t have resisted, they should have complied, they shouldn’t have done drugs, they shouldn’t have a criminal record.” We do the struggle no favors by accepting the parameters the state has laid down for us.
Instead of assessing the worthiness of each victim, we have to direct our fire at the institution of policing itself, which piles up bodies for capitalist profit, not out of any considerations for the well-being of the people. Indictment and conviction of Nicholas Reardon for murder is the bare minimum we need to fight for in this case.
The street demonstrations that blew up immediately after the murder of Ma’Khia Bryant are a strong first step for this struggle. Despite the “complexities” of this case, thousands have shown their solidarity in the streets, denying and defying the police and media’s manipulation of the narrative. We need to widen and deepen this struggle to nationalize and internationalize it, as the rebellions in Minneapolis did for George Floyd. This will require continuing to organize demonstrations but also building open and democratic organizational spaces to direct the struggle, and connecting with working-class and community organizations like unions, activist groups, and progressive churches.
Finally, we need to raise up the numerous other victims of police brutality in Columbus as part of this struggle. Columbus has the second highest rate of police brutality of any city in the United States, and this fact is essential to understanding the murder of Ma’Khia. Police violence, state repression, harassment, intimidation—this is the daily experience for too many in the primarily Black neighborhoods in this city. Ma’Khia’s murder wasn’t an unfortunate anomaly; it was a reflection of the brutal reality that the powers-that-be in the city have created.
We need to throw a wrench in the apparatus of racial terror in our city for the sake of all those who have or will be subject to it if we don’t stop it. But, furthermore, by resisting these racist attacks by the forces of the state, we can begin to combat the oppression and exploitation that is central to the ruling class’ plan for our city. Segregation, gentrification, defunding of social services, landlordism and financial speculation—these are central to explaining why Ma’Khia is no longer with us today.
Photo: Ma’Khia Bryant (Al Día News)