The fact police shot 14-year old Radazz Hearns seven times as he ran from them on August 7, 2015, in Trenton, N.J., has never been in question. The scared teen bolted when an unmarked van pulled up where he and two other teens were walking on Louise Lane and three officers, reportedly not in standard uniform, jumped out shouting and pointing guns. Two officers fired at least 10 shots at the running boy, hitting him in the legs and buttocks, with one bullet lodging in his pelvis.
What is in question is what has happened since. After initial eyewitness accounts characterized Hearns as unarmed, police reported finding a gun under a vehicle 12 hours after the incident, a substantial distance away. Hearns, his family and eyewitnesses like Louise Lane resident Rhonda Tirado, maintain he was unarmed and had no opportunity to dispose of a weapon. “Those police were amped and they didn’t give that little boy a chance,” Tirado said days after the shooting. “There was no room for no chase. They just shot that little boy right there.”
Despite such accounts, several gun charges were filed against Hearns and the case went to trial. During the closed juvenile criminal proceeding, the state relied upon court testimony from shackled 19-year-old Dymir Leonard who, at the time, was charged with attempted murder in another incident. “The whole testimony was coached by the AG’s office,” Hearns’ mother, Slimes Jackson, told The Trentonian. “We all thought the judge wasn’t going to take the testimony seriously” as it “was bullcrap and it didn’t make any sense.” Jackson says her weary son was ultimately pressured to take a plea after 30 offers for deals and the promised dismissal of all but one charge. No public explanation was given to how the gun found 12 hours after the incident ended up under a vehicle a significant distance away.
Such lingering questions in four police shootings of Black males in separate New Jersey cities have prompted protests. However, while widespread media attention was given to the four shootings and their aftermaths, little attention has been paid to the lengthy and ongoing protest by one Newark-based advocacy group demanding federal action.
“The People’s Organization for Progress has been demonstrating 69 consecutive weeks in front of the Federal Building in Newark where the U.S. Attorney’s Office is,” says Lawrence Hamm, the People’s Organization chair. Every week, reports the organizer, we hold “Justice Mondays” where we “demonstrate against police brutality and call for federal investigations into the deaths of Abdul Kamal, Kashad Ashford and Jerame Reid, and the shooting of 14-year old Radazz Hearns.”
Hamm notes Hearns’ young body was able to “withstand the trauma and survive being shot seven times in the back” while the individuals in the other shootings did not. Though the cases vary widely, the problem for the longtime activist in the shootings of “The Jersey Four” is the common link — excessive force and Black skin. Maintaining Hearns was unarmed, Hamm stresses “at the time they were shot” none of them had “any weapons in their hands.” Kamal was killed by Irvington police upon responding to a domestic dispute; Ashford was riddled with bullets in his car by Lyndhurst police after a chase and crash; and Jerame Reid was killed by Bridgeton police with his empty hands raised and the event caught on video. Although a preliminary federal investigation in the Reid shooting denied the need for a grand jury, Hamm and his organization want to open or reopen civil rights investigations by the feds into all four cases.
According to the website, killedbypolice.net, 400 people have already been killed by police in 2017, a higher rate than last year. There were more police killings in both January and February than in any month in 2016. February alone had 112 deaths, nine more than the 103 deaths by police in February 2016.
However, the Trump administration’s domination of the news cycle this year has meant less attention given to this increased rate. It is a problem Hamm is familiar with, especially given his group’s protests began well before the current administration took office.
“We can barely get any press coverage,” says Hamm about the Justice Mondays, noting “nowhere else in the state have people been protesting for 69 weeks straight.”
Given the country’s political climate, and the heavy-handed law enforcement mentality of current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Hamm acknowledges the odds of securing federal reviews and bringing justice to The Jersey Four are not in their favor. He points to cases like that of Alton Sterling, who was killed by police in Baton Rouge, La., in July 2016. Police claimed the 37-year old African-American was “reaching for a gun” but subsequent cellphone video showed Sterling pinned to the ground by two white officers before he was shot. Despite the video, this month, the U.S. Department of Justice, consistent with Sessions’ policy of ‘noninterference’ with state issues, chose not to file any charges.
But regardless of the current federal climate, Hamm still sees purpose in the long struggle for justice.
“Whether or not the system responds in the way that it should, we have to continue to fight.”