Prosecutors have charged the Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks with felony murder, and accuse Garrett Rolfe of twice shooting Brooks in the back and then kicking him as he lay dying. A second officer, Devin Brosnan, faces four charges, including assault. We talk to Rashad Robinson of Color of Change about the charges in Atlanta and growing calls to defund the police. “For the last 20 years in this country, violent crime has basically steadily went down,” Robinson says. “At the same time, police budgets have continued to rise, continued to expand. We’ve militarized police.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go right away to Atlanta, where prosecutors have charged former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe with 11 counts, including felony murder, for the shooting death of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, who he shot twice in the back outside a Wendy’s restaurant June 12th. This is Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announcing the charges Wednesday.
PAUL HOWARD JR.: These are the 11 charges against Officer Rolfe. The first charge is felony murder. This is the death that is as a result of a underlying felony. And in this case, the underlying felony is aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. And the possible sentences for a felony murder conviction would be life, life without parole, or the death penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard went on to say a second officer involved in the killing, Devin Brosnan, will be charged with aggravated assault.
PAUL HOWARD JR.: Because Officer Brosnan has now become a state’s witness, he has decided to testify on behalf of the state in this case. What he has said to us, that is within a matter of days, he plans to make a statement regarding the culpability of Officer Rolfe. But he indicated that he is not psychologically willing to give that statement today. Officer Brosnan, however, has admitted that he was in fact standing on Mr. Brooks’s body immediately after the shooting.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Howard also revealed a photo of Garrett Rolfe kicking Brooks as he lay dying on the ground, saying both officers failed to give Brooks any medical attention for more than two minutes.
PAUL HOWARD JR.: During the two minutes and 12 seconds, that Officer Rolfe actually kicked Mr. Brooks while he laid on the ground, while he was there fighting for his life. … From the videotape, we were able to see that the other officer, Officer Brosnan, actually stood on Mr. Brooks’s shoulders while he was there struggling for his life.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a number of Atlanta police officers staged a “sick-out” Wednesday night to protest the filing of criminal charges. The Guardian reports officer Garrett Rolfe was previously accused of covering up a 2015 police shooting along with two other officers. Rolfe and the other officers reportedly opened fire on a Black man named Jackie Jermaine Harris while chasing him for driving a stolen truck. The officers hit Harris once, puncturing his lung, but never reported the shooting. The judge involved called the case a “disaster” and “the wildest case I’ve seen in my 34 years here,” she said.
Meanwhile, new video has emerged of Rayshard Brooks speaking in his own words about his struggles with the criminal justice system. The experience of being locked up in prison, he says, left him deep in debt and struggling to pay court fees and restitution — even as employers turned him away due to his criminal record. Brooks spoke in February with the group Reconnect.
RAYSHARD BROOKS: I just feel like some of the system could look at us as individuals — we do have lives, you know, where it’s just a mistake we made — and, you know, not just do us as if we are animals.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the charges against the two police officers for the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, and much more, we’re joined by Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Rashad. So, let’s start with these charges. The first officer, who shot Brooks in the back twice, killing him, faces the death penalty. And the second officer, it’s a little confusing because the DA said he’s now turned a state’s witness, but his lawyer insists he hasn’t. It now looks like there are images of him standing on the back of Rayshard Brooks as he lay dying. Your response?
RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really sort of eerie to hear Rayshard in his own voice talk about not being treated like an animal, and then to see sort of these images and to, you know, see the video from the very beginning.
I mean, in so many ways, what we’re seeing with these charges is a deep sort of recognition of the power of a movement, the power of a movement to push and exact consequences. But we have to recognize, at the end of the day, we have to raise the floor on what’s acceptable, and we also have to keep a deep vision for what human rights looks like. And I do think that, you know, in these states that have failed to prosecute police time and time again, have failed to put laws in place to hold police accountable, that instead of calling a tow truck, we call police — are now sort of putting things in place like the death penalty, which is one of the most inhumane sort of exercises of how we sort of move towards consequences and punishment in this country.
And so, I think that all of this — right? — is important in terms of getting justice for the family, and at the same time, we have to continue to keep our eye on all the ways that the system realigns itself, protects itself, and really hear those sort of words of Rayshard Brooks about being treated like an animal, and recognize that there are so many others that are continuing to be treated like animals, enemy combatants in their own neighborhoods, by police.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rashad Robinson, could you talk about what you would like to see happen? You have called for defunding the police. Can you talk about that? And in particular, also, you’ve spoken about the role of police unions. How do police unions represent some kind of possible obstacle to defunding the police?
RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah. So, for the last 20 years in this country, violent crime has basically steadily went down. And at the same time, police budgets have continued to rise, continued to expand. We’ve militarized police. If you look at communities where there are a lot of police, what you oftentimes also notice is that there’s not healthy food, there’s not good schools, there’s not healthcare, there’s not parks. So we’ve basically sort of put police in place of all the things that we know that communities that are whole and safe and healthy actually have. And so, to the extent that budgets are moral documents, they say what we actually believe, what we care, what our values are. And when we sort of put 50-plus percent of our budgets, 40-plus percent of our budgets into policing in cities and don’t put it into all the things that actually make communities safe, we are actually saying something about how we value those people.
And so, we’ve really talked about what does it look like to invest in communities and divest from policing. What does it look like for — at that Wendy’s, where Rayshard Brooks dealt with those police, what would it look like to call a tow truck? What would it look like if we don’t send someone with a gun when someone passes a bad check or we’re dealing with homeless or we’re dealing with so many other issues where we don’t need to send someone with a gun?
And so, the point about police unions is really that we do not have an ideas gap. Whether you’re for defunding the police and really thinking about the fact that police have failed in their fundamental responsibility to keep us safe, and as a result we have to take away so much of their power because they haven’t kept our communities safe — whether you believe in that or whether you believe in some sort of reforms, that I feel like we’ve tried and haven’t actually measured — I mean, and haven’t actually worked, we don’t have an ideas gap. We have a power gap, because on the other side of all of these issues stands the Fraternal Order of Police and police unions, which at every single turn stand in the way of any type of change. You know, chokeholds are illegal in New York. They were illegal when Eric Garner was choked on camera. And the police union can step in and defend at every turn.
I remember going into the White House in the Obama administration, and we would have conversations about reform and about making changes. And I remember at a meeting after Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the Dallas police officers were killed, and having this meeting where Obama pulled together about 30 folks from around the country — civil rights leaders, law enforcement, mayors, religious leaders. And we got around the table, and we had assigned seats. We had to put our phones out. And so it was not the specter of even being in the public spotlight. And I remember talking about racial profiling. And the head of the Fraternal Order of Police interrupted me and said, “All of this talk of racial profiling is new to me.” So, what I’m trying to say here is it’s not that he said, “I don’t agree with your policies. I think you’re asking for too much.” What he said was — he gaslit us and said, “Racial profiling basically, essentially, doesn’t exist,” that we are making claims that doesn’t exist.
And so, when we have politicians who say that they stand with us, when they say Black Lives Matter, that they’re on our side or they want some reforms, and then they take money from the police union, that means we can’t actually trust you. It means that you can’t say that you are for reducing guns, for ending gun violence, and take money from the NRA. And so, we are creating a new litmus test around what does it mean to actually stand with us on these issues. And you can’t stand with a group of people who have treated our communities like enemy combatants, that have called Tamir Rice a menace and then helped that police officer get a new job someplace else. We have to hold a standard for what does it mean to stand with us. And if you don’t stand with us as a politician, a political leader, we’re going to hold you accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: “The People Who Undermine Progressive Prosecutors,” that’s the headline of an op-ed you just wrote in The New York Times, that — what? You wrote this actually a year ago?
RASHAD ROBINSON: Well, I started writing it a year ago, and it took forever to get published, because, you know, the process of getting something published and the process of actually meeting a news hook. But yeah, I mean, The New York Times, I first started talking to them about a year ago.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I would say that what happened is it got published when the movements rose up and, for many in the corporate media, making it relevant.
RASHAD ROBINSON: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you all talk about these issues all the time. But yes, having corporate media say, “Oh, now it’s time,” was important.
I mean, one of the things I wrote about in there was exactly this issue around Fraternal Order of Police, and was able to tell the story, after talking with a set of DAs, about some of the real barriers, the barriers of whether it’s prisons that lobby against the reforms because they don’t want to reduce the size, or the towns that need and rely on prisons, whether it’s the judges that don’t want their sort of legacies undermined by prosecutors who are actually looking at a new vision for safety and justice, and a country that has 4% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.
Or the story that I told in the op-ed piece about the Fraternal Order of Police in Cook County, who marched on the first Black woman DA, Kim Foxx. They marched on her with four white nationalist groups, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. They marched on her in front of her office. They took pictures of Kim Foxx’s face, and they rubbed those pictures on their crotch in front of her office. And then these police officers, with their badges and their guns, go back into our communities, and we are expected to trust them, while they make threats and attacks on a Black woman law enforcement official, the elected official in the county, that the people sent there to actually deliver safety and justice.
This is what our communities consistently have to deal with in terms of people who are given authority to kill us, that have no rules and no respect for us. And that has to change. And the public of all races have to stand up and join us, because police have too much control of our lives, and, in particular, Black people’s lives, but all of our lives. And they have failed in their fundamental responsibility.
And no industry whatsoever is given the ability to violate so many rules and laws and get away with it. And it’s not just the rules that they violate when they have their badge and their gun on. It’s the domestic violence that the union stand with the police officers with when they commit outside of uniform. And it’s all the ways in which these folks are given a different level of pass. We can no longer accept it. People have been killed, and people are dying, and our communities are not safe as a result.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Rashad Robinson, you’ve spoken, of course — and we’re talking about the extraordinary police violence against people of color, and you’ve mentioned the incarceration rates in the U.S., which also disproportionately target people of color. And then, of course, we’re in the midst of this pandemic, which, again, has disproportionately impacted African Americans and other communities of color. But I’d like to ask also about what we reported in headlines, which is that authorities are now investigating six people of color who have been found hanging in four states.
RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, this is absolutely unbelievable. Could you respond to this and also give us some sense — I mean, is this something that has happened continuously in U.S. history, or is this a recurrence that has something to do with the protests and what’s happening today in the U.S.?
RASHAD ROBINSON: You know, what we know is, like, from the great work of Bryan Stevenson and so many others of the sort of history and legacy of lynching, of violence and vigilante terror on Black communities, some of it actually, once again, connected to law enforcement. You know, what we know is that we continue at Color of Change — you know, I’ve been at the organization for nine years now. And every year we get a couple of these stories that don’t sit right. It’s always hard, because you don’t get the full sort of reporting from law enforcement. There’s always gaps. And you get these stories where the community is clear that there’s something that’s wrong.
We had a couple of these stories that kind of bubbled up out of the South, where a young Black man was dating a white woman and then was kind of magically found hanging from a tree. And they said he committed suicide, but his family was like, “No, he was a happy person, and he wasn’t” — they pushed back against the idea of suicide and knew that there were folks that were sort of threatened and unhappy with sort of how he was engaging in a community, how he was breaking, sort of, and violating the rules and norms of how a Black person is supposed to sort of go about their day-to-day.
You know, we have a huge problem because we can’t actually trust law enforcement, because, according to the FBI — the FBI has even published reports about the rise of white nationalism and white supremacy inside of law enforcement. And the fact of the matter is, is that because law enforcement wants to tell us, on one hand, that it’s bad apples, but, on the other hand, we know for a fact that it’s a system and a structure which has both welcomed white nationalists and white supremacists into their fold and protected them at every turn through the ways in which the Fraternal Order of Police and other police unions have been able to create immunity and all sorts of other sort of structures to prevent any accountability, what we know is that even when these situations come up and officials tell us what they think happens, we have no reason to believe them, because at every single turn they have violated our trust. And even when we’ve had video of police officers shooting and killing us, they tell stories and lies about it, while we can see what actually happened with our own eyes.
And so, we are at a sort of really challenging kind of position, in that we see these incidents happening, we know these incidents are happening, we know the legacy of violence and terror on our community, and then there are sort of not the sort of avenues that one would expect in 2020 to actually deal with these incidents and investigate them and ensure that those who may have been responsible or may have been involved are held accountable.