In 1999, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant about a police shooting in the city. The newspaper reported that an unarmed 14-year old black boy had been shot in the back by a white police officer. They put the story on the front page under the headline Family, Police Want Answers: No Weapon Yet Found At Scene Where City Officer Fatally Shot 14-Year Old
The New York Times also ran a story on the shooting: Unarmed Boy Is Fatally Shot By the Police In Hartford
What motivated me to write the letter to the Courant was the photo of the victim the Courant put on the front page. Here's what is looked like a little larger.
They used a picture of a ten-year-old boy. I knew the EMS responders on the call that night and they thought the shooting victim was a man in his early twenties.
I knew the officer who had shot the boy. He was far from one of my favorites. He was one of those cops who was a cop and let you know it. Still I felt he was getting a bum deal. The photo of the child was incredibly biasing against him, and I scolded the paper for it. It apparently made little impression on them as it was never published.
Clearly my mindset back then was different than it is today. (I had completely forgotten about this incident until the other day when it flashed into my mind). Not that I still don't think it was shoddy journalism to put a picture of the victim as a ten-year-old, but I did truly believe then that the victim was a criminal, a thug and up to no good and that he likely deserved what he got. I don't know whether the fact that he was black or not figured much into it. In the north end of Hartford, 95% of the population is black. If I worked in a city that was 95% white and a cop gunned down a 14-year-old I might have felt the same, but maybe not. Maybe if he had been white, the cop would have let him keep running or not believed the boy might be reaching for a gun and it would never have been a story.
There was much community unrest over the shooting. An all-star panel investigated the incident and exonerated the police officer.
The Hartford police chief during the incident had taken a leave of absence, and was replaced by a respected black officer, Deborah Barrows. Her standing in the community is credited with preventing riots when the report was released.
The report stated the boy was one of four youths who "rented" a white Cadillac from a drug addict for $15 so the addict could buy crack. While joyriding in the drug addict's ride, they brandished "guns," tried to mug a 41-year old woman, who Salmon hit over the head with his "gun"and then on being chased by police, fled the vehicle. When the lone officer chasing them through a dark back yard commanded the boy stop, the officer allegedly heard a gunshot, he thought he saw the victim reach into his belt and turn. That was when he shot him — a shot more through the side than in the back (consistent with turning) it was later determined. No gun was recovered, but a cigarette lighter that looked just like a gun was found at the scene, and another one was recovered in the car. The youths had apparently bought several of these gun-lighters earlier in the evening. These were the "guns" they had been brandishing on their joy ride.
That incident occurred at 2:30 in the morning on a school night, and the fourteen-year-old victim had a home confinement bracelet around his ankle. Despite the bracelet he had apparently not been home for two weeks.
I wonder now if the same event occurred today, how we (I) would be reacting. Maybe there would be video footage that would tell a different tale. Maybe it would show a boy running and an officer taking aim, and the boy turning with hands up to surrender, and the officer still firing. Maybe it would show exactly what the report concluded.
Maybe Hartford would be on fire.
Reading the papers from back then makes me incredibly sad about the lack of progress in our country today.
Barrows said she hopes Aquan's death has awakened the city to issues it can no longer ignore — namely homeless teenagers in trouble with the law, who have trouble succeeding in an ordinary school setting…."It's time to stop talking. What are we going to do? Aquan Salmon's death should have awakened everyone . . . If the Aquans of this city aren't safe, my kids aren't safe," she said.
-Chief Deborah Barrows
I still feel that the picture of the 10-year-old Aquan Salmon was biased against the police officer as it made people think he had gunned down an innocent child rather than a troubled manchild with a model gun that looked real who was indeed up to no good in the late hours of the night.
Maybe better training or more experience would have kept the officer from pulling the trigger, but that is just speculation. Who am I to judge someone who had to make a split second determination that means the difference between life and death between yourself and a stranger, between going home to your family at night or them laying a wreath on your grave?
But I have changed my mind about one thing. The ten-year-old boy in that photo is a victim. He was a victim, not of a rogue police officer, but of a system and a society that failed him and many others like him. He grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family, many who were in or spent time in jail. He had no role models, no one to steer him in the right path. The schools in Hartford are far from the schools of its suburbs. Here in Connecticut, the quality of your education is determined by the zip code you live in and the wealth or poverty of your neighbors, not a child's needs.
The Connecticut I grew up in was far different than the Connecticut Aquan Salmon knew. The Connecticut many minority children are growing up in is different than the Connecticut many poor children in Hartford grow up in. We can talk about black versus white, but it is really opportunity versus none. It is about the disenfranchisement of our inner cities. Some people say get what is yours and pass it on to your own. Others say use your time on the earth to make the world a better place for all.
It is easy to put a Black Lives Matter sign on your freshly cut suburban lawn, to applaud the end of the Confederate flag or confederate statues being torn down, but what will matter in the end, is our country's support for a deep and committed redistribution of educational opportunity so that each kid growing up in our country has the same chances, the same preparation to make the most of their individual lives and not get lost at so young an age. If you live in a rich suburb and don't want to give up the quality education your child receives, then don't fight against taxes on the more advantaged to provide the same opportunity for the children of the inner-city or poor rural areas.
Aquan Salmon would have been 35 years old this year. Maybe he might have found the path. Statistically, he would have been more likely to end up in prison, certainly on the path he was headed. Maybe he would have gotten out of prison and become a community leader, helping others avoid the mistakes he made, or maybe he would have been arrested for buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Maybe he would have ended up on the pavement in some city with a policeman's knee on his neck.
I hope that 20 years from now when we look back on 2020, that it won't be the same old story. I hope we will look back with pride on the actions and commitments we made to right the world.
I hope that we make a safe, nurturing place for all children to grow up in.
I hope this movement in the country is real and lasting.
Peace and justice for all.
Power to the People.