Defend Carlos Riley Jr. against police brutality

March on Durham police headquarters, June 28.WW photo: Dante Strobino

March on Durham police headquarters, June 28.
WW photo: Dante Strobino

Durham, N.C. — On Dec. 18, 21-year-old Carlos Riley Jr., who is African American, was dropping off his companion around 10 a.m., when he stopped to speak with an acquaintance in Durham, N.C. Shortly after, police officer Kelly A. Stewart, who is also African American, wearing plain clothes, pulled behind him driving an unmarked police vehicle. As Riley drove off, Stewart followed him, turned his lights on and pulled him over. Riley stopped immediately, turned the car off and left his seat belt on.

Stewart then approached the vehicle, accusing Riley of smoking marijuana. There was none.  Stewart was unable to find one illegal thing in Riley’s vehicle. Frustrated, Stewart then began yelling obscenities and cursing. Riley provided his license, ignored the bait and waited for further instruction. Without any justification, Stewart punched Riley in the face. Riley’s attempt to defend himself was then interpreted as validation for Stewart to exert full force. Stewart entered the vehicle, and choked and punched Riley. Stewart then threatened to kill the young man and began to draw his gun.

Fearing for his life and barely breathing, Riley struggled to free himself. Entangled, Stewart fired his weapon, shooting himself in the right leg. Riley was well aware of the recent cases of Chavis Carter, Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, who had been killed by police or vigilantes. So, he batted the gun out of Stewart’s hand. He then assisted Stewart out of the vehicle and fled to protect himself. Riley knew that once backup arrived, they were guaranteed to shoot first and ask questions later.

Hours after, Riley received word that the Durham Police Department had seized control of his grandmother’s home, wreaking havoc on neighbors and surrounding residents. Black men between the ages of 15 and 65 were stopped, frisked and temporarily detained. Helicopters and SWAT units terrorized women and children. Local law enforcement officers ransacked several apartments and held residents hostage, putting many on lockdown in their own community. Those in custody during the search for Riley could overhear the dispatch call to “Bring him down” and “Shoot to kill.”

Riley voluntarily turned himself in with the assistance of his father, Carlos Riley Sr. Two escorts, LaDarius Riley, Carlos’ brother, and a friend, Dustin Portee, assisted Riley Jr. in turning himself in to try to prevent officers from carrying out further brutality.  Though neither escort was present at the scene of the initial stop, they were arrested and charged with “accessory after the fact.” Portee is being harassed by the members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

City police officers and the local sheriff’s department have targeted Riley family members. Despite requests from the Riley family, medical records and forensics results have remained sealed. Meanwhile, Riley Jr. is imprisoned on charges of assaulting a law enforcement officer, robbery with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Authorities are holding him on $1 million bail in the Durham County Jail. The Durham Police Department has yet to release a valid report or formal statement.

Racial profiling widespread in Durham

Without legal justification, Stewart should never have stopped Riley Jr.  Recent reports suggest racial profiling is a widespread practice in Durham. It does not help when officers aren’t properly trained in conflict resolution. They are also not disciplined for violating residents’ basic rights.

Brian Schnee would still be on the police force today if it weren’t for organized weekly protests calling for him to resign.  Just two months prior to the Stewart shooting, Schnee brutally assaulted Stephanie Nickerson, a 25-year-old Black woman, by punching her multiple times in the face. Nickerson, a local student and Navy veteran, had asked to see a search warrant before officers randomly trampled through her friend’s apartment. She was brutally beaten, while other officers watched nearby. Both cases involved police misuse of force against young people of color. Charges were dropped against Nickerson as the result of strong protests.

In Durham, Black suspects are nine times more likely than white suspects to be incarcerated for criminal conduct.  This is the highest racial disparity in any of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Black motorists are more than 200 percent more likely to be searched by law enforcement in routine traffic stops.These statistics were reported last year by attorney Scott Holmes in “End Racial Profiling in Durham Now.” (TinyURL.com/n2nf9y7) Local residents know that such patterns are caused by systematic discrimination.

Activists and Riley’s supporters are not only demanding justice, they’re actively seeking an independent community investigation. They are calling for all charges to be dropped against Carlos Riley Jr., Portee and LaDarius Riley. Community members are now involved in public protests that are sprouting up on college campuses and in front of the Durham Police Department headquarters.

Police shootings in the United States typically involve white men violating the safety of Black youth. Not in this case. Stewart is a young African-American male. Unfortunately, Black officers generally have to prove themselves. They too subscribe to the same practices of institutional racism as white police officers. Racial profiling becomes a part of the job, an occupational requirement, particularly for patrol officers. Unbeknownst to the public, patrol officers’ numbers of arrests have a direct effect on their promotions and pay raises. It is a recipe for injustice.

Some critics have questioned whether Stewart actually shot himself. Many have expressed doubts about how a well-trained police officer could make this type of careless mistake. In the case of Alan Blueford, it is well documented through ballistics reports that Oakland police officer Miguel Masso shot himself in the foot. Though mainstream media reported that high school senior Blueford died in a “gun battle” with Masso, more than a dozen witnesses testified that Blueford was unarmed and that Masso shot himself and then Blueford.

When NFL wide receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself in the thigh in 2008, he was automatically found guilty and served prison time for it. When a police officer makes the same mistake, it can’t possibly be true.

Movement calls for justice

Stewart’s supporters have tried to demonize Riley, exaggerating and overly emphasizing his past. Riley’s supporters are well aware that he was on probation for petty drug possession at the time he was attacked, but that’s no reason for a cop to assault or pull a gun on someone who was cooperating. That’s no reason to end a young man’s life.

Riley had 10 days until his probation would have legally been lifted. He was a good son and dedicated companion. He was loved and respected by former teachers. He was also scheduled to appear for a job interview the following day. If not for his struggle to survive, Riley would probably be dead right now.

Some say the role of the police department is to protect and serve. How unfortunate that for Black, Brown and poor people the only thing they’re served are vast portions of injustice, brutality and misconduct. In Detroit, during a “reality show” taping, police shot to death 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Somehow, the recorded video of the shooting was never found.

Police cover-ups always paint rogue officers as the victims. These national smear campaigns that mask brutality are merely a reflection of the U.S justice system.  The more that average citizens become change agents against police terror, the more that cover-ups can be exposed. The more that voices are raised, the more that lives of Black youth can be saved in the future.

Join us as we take a stand against police brutality and excessive force. Join us in the struggle for justice for Carlos Riley Jr. Connect with the movement at carlosrileyjr.weebly.com or via email at [email protected]. Sign the Liberty Petition for Carlos Riley Jr. at change.org. Join us on Twitter @Justiceforcrj and on Facebook at Liberty and Justice for Carlos Riley Jr.

Sources for this article include the blog, Liberty and Justice  for Carlos Riley Jr., and statements by  attorney Walter Riley and Riley family members.

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, a human rights delegate with Witness for Peace and an organizer with the Durham Branch of Workers World Party.