Will there be any justice for John Crawford?

January 21, 2019

Coco Smyth reflects on how becoming active around the fight for justice for police brutality victim John Crawford led him to question the wider system--and how Crawford's death helped shape the Black Lives Matter movement.

ON AUGUST 4, 2014, John Crawford III was shot and killed by police in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart, close to where I had lived my whole life. A grand jury failed to indict the cops who murdered him. Four and a half years later, a judge is poised to decide whether or not a civil suit related to his death will go to trial.

In 2014, as a high school student, I greeted John Crawford’s death with shock and dismay. A young Black man, only three years older than me, had been murdered.

Crawford, on the phone with the mother of his child, picked up an unpacked BB gun on Walmart’s shelves and perused the store. While he walked through the store talking on the phone, Ronald Richie, a white man shopping at the store, called 911 and claimed that Crawford was pointing a gun at children. Walmart’s security footage proved this to be a lie.

Within minutes of getting the call, two police officers arrived. Rushing into Walmart with their guns drawn, they called out to Crawford to drop his weapon. Two seconds later, officer Sean Williams opened fire, shooting and killing Crawford. When the shots rang out, another woman, Angela Williams, attempted to flee and suffered from a heart attack that killed her, too.

Protesters march against the police murder John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio
Protesters march against the police murder John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio (Ohio Student Association)

I listened to the news horrified the next day. A group of friends and I decided that we needed to act — to show solidarity with John Crawford and with his family.

A few weeks later, we organized a small protest outside of our high school. As students walked out of the doors of Centerville High School to leave in the afternoon, they saw signs denouncing the violence of the cops and calling for justice. The students expressed either solidarity or apathy until the police arrived and threatened us with arrest.

Meanwhile, on August 9 of that year, white police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s murder and the subsequent protests ultimately produced the Black Lives Matter Movement, which brought the epidemic of police brutality into the national spotlight. John Crawford’s murder too figured significantly in the consciousness and mobilizations of the first days of Black Lives Matter.

WITH THE rise of resistance and mobilization, the depths of racist police murder in the U.S. became clear to a whole generation. In every town and city, police played the same role, targeting Black, Native and LGBTQ people, as well as other marginalized groups, for arrest and violence.

The many families who had lost those close to them at the hands of police began to see an outpouring of solidarity against the everyday criminalization and demonization they had faced by the establishment and the media.

The transition from individual suffering to mass consciousness confirmed to many that their traumas were not theirs alone; that thousands of people would see their stories and fight with them against injustice.

In Dayton, Ohio, the birth of Black Lives Matter produced an important protest movement to stand in solidarity with John Crawford, against the crimes of the police and the broader political establishment.

Almost every month for over a year, activists organized demonstrations outside of the Beavercreek Walmart where he was killed. Significantly, there were large demonstrations to occupy the Walmart, a long march from the Walmart to the Dayton Courthouse, and an occupation of the Beavercreek Police Station by activists.

I attended a handful of these demonstrations and saw firsthand the importance of building such a movement. Though oftentimes small, these demonstrations created links between new organizers, built consciousness about John Crawford’s case, and put pressure on the courts to try the cops who murdered him.

For me, these demonstrations pushed me to look to organization and activism for the long haul. In late 2014, I joined the International Socialist Organization, recognizing that it was time for me to get serious about learning politics, history and organizing to help build the Black Lives Matter movement and the many other struggles happening around us.

I DON’T think my story is an unusual one. The Black Lives Matter movement pushed tens of thousands of people to the conclusion that to fight the ills of our society, long-term organization and strategy would be needed.

Furthermore, the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement threw into question the functioning of many other aspects of the U.S. capitalist system.

The activists trained in the Black Lives Matter Movement were at the frontlines in Standing Rock; have been integral to the ongoing recomposition of the labor movement; and have drawn ties between the oppression of Black people here and U.S. imperialist practice in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

As Martin Luther King Jr. insightfully recognized in an essay published posthumously:

The Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is, rather, forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws: racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systematic rather than superficial flaws, and it suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.

I, along with countless other youth and working and oppressed people, quickly began to see that the struggle for our own individual rights means the struggle for others’ rights. This yearning to connect and link distinct struggles made the last two years of Obama’s presidency and the first two of Trump’s explosive.

The politics of intersectionality and solidarity have strengthened the movement and, ultimately, played an outsized role in one the most important political phenomena today: the rebirth of a socialist left in the United States.

Despite the decline more recently of national mobilizations against police brutality, the killings of Black youth and the movement against these murders continue to weigh heavy. So much of the language we use and the way we think is a product of the mass struggle to fight police brutality and the racist system which engenders it.

No matter what your identity, the Black struggle in the U.S. ought to be a touchstone. Given the centrality of Black oppression in the U.S., the fight against it, too, must be central. My hope is that, in this new political moment, activists won’t forget that vital lesson.

To sum it all up with a popular protest chant: “John Crawford means we’ve got to fight back!”

Further Reading

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