Revolution #96, July 22, 2007
West Memphis, Arkansas: Police Killing of 12-Year-Old DeAunta Terrell Farrow
Known affectionately as “Tae Tae,” DeAunta Terrell Farrow was 12 years old and had just graduated from the sixth grade. His hopes and dreams, his life were abruptly ended with two police bullets on the evening of June 22. While out walking with his 14-year-old cousin, DeAunta was gunned down by West Memphis Police Officer Erik Sammis.
Sammis says he was on a stakeout when he and another officer confronted someone who appeared to be carrying a gun. When “the suspect” didn't drop the weapon, Sammis said he feared for his life and opened fire. Only then, he says, did he realize that the “gun” was a toy gun and that he had just shot and killed a 12-year-old child.
How many times have we heard this story—which ends with the death of an innocent Black person?
Family members and others who were eyewitnesses say DeAunta Farrow was gunned down without cause. They say DeAunta and his cousin Unseld Nash, Jr. had walked a few blocks from DeAunta's home to the nearby Steeplechase Apartments where Unseld lived. The two kids made a stop at the gas station/market, picked up a pop and chips and continued down the street. DeAunta's older brother, already at Steeplechase, was keeping an eye on the two boys as they approached. After Unseld and DeAunta turned up the street leading to the apartment, two undercover police officers suddenly appeared from behind a dumpster. And within moments DeAunta was lying on the ground, shot twice by one of the officers. Some witnesses said they heard the cop shout a warning. Some didn't. Some said DeAunta had a toy gun. Others say all DeAunta had was a pop and a bag of chips. Everyone agrees that DeAunta presented no threat.
The shooting of DeAunta Farrow struck a raw nerve in West Memphis' Black community. Children step forward one at a time to announce, "I am DeAunta Farrow" during the latest of the many vigils held near where DeAunta died. The spot is marked with balloons, cards and a growing pile of toys and stuffed animals placed by friends and strangers alike. Four days after the shooting, hundreds packed a police commission meeting at City Hall, demanding answers from police officials—and getting none. 1,500 people turned out at DeAunta Farrow's funeral on July 1, where Rev. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy.
The police department and the city's mayor have not only defended but praised the cop who shot DeAunta Farrow. And meanwhile, they have attacked those who are speaking out against the murder and demanding justice.
The police insist that DeAunta Farrow had a toy gun and made a "gesture"—as if this would in any way justify Sammis pulling the trigger twice on a 12-year-old standing no more than 20 feet away. Those who are questioning the police are being accused of making a "rush to judgment." And Sammis has denounced Black ministers who have spoken out as "'so-called' Reverends and Pastors" who "don't want to know the truth" and "only want reason to riot and promote rage."
The killing of DeAunta Farrow has shone a spotlight on police brutality against Black people in West Memphis City. Young Black men stopped and questioned for what amounts to walking while Black. Black kids being put onto the hot hoods of police cars for an extended time during searches. Homes raided and doors kicked in—based on wrong information.
As it turns out Sammis, who Police Chief Paudert says is "one of the best Special Response Team commanders I've ever seen in my career," has a history of brutality. In his ten years on the force: Sammis once let his police dog maul a man so severely he required 75 stitches. Sammis used a taser on a man who was known as the town's local and harmless eccentric. Sammis and some other cops broke into an elderly couple's home that was erroneously targeted in a "meth" raid. The cops handcuffed an 80-year-old man on the floor. While moonlighting as a security guard, Sammis and some other officers attacked an entire family, macing the son, slugging the mother in the jaw and breaking the father's wrist.
"If there's four African-Americans in a car, they stop it."
Pastor Stephen Chitman, Arkansas-Democrat Gazette
"I was a young man out in the yard of my parents' house… [Something happened up the street, and police came into the neighborhood.] I turned to go back into my parents' house, and an officer pointed a gun at me and told me that he would shoot my black ass—that's his words—if I took another step away from him."
Marco McClendon, West Memphis City Councilman, about a personal encounter with police, Arkansas-Democrat Gazette
"In general, the Black men are harassed for basically no reason."
Lorraine Robinson, Black Councilwoman in West Memphis City, speaking to Revolution
In many ways, the killing of DeAunta Farrow reflects much that is wrong in West Memphis—just how deeply rooted the oppression of Black people is in America and how the role of the police is to protect and keep intact the unjust and racist status quo.
This city of 28,000 sits just west across the Mississippi from its much larger sister city in Tennessee. West Memphis is predominately Black, and 6 out of 10 on the city council are Black. But Councilwoman Lorraine Robinson told Revolution that most of the cops are white, most of the employees at city hall and heads of city administrative departments are white, and most of the faces in the downtown businesses and banks are white. "Some jobs are for white people, some jobs are for Black people—that's the mentality for West Memphis," she said.
A generation after the civil rights struggles, segregation, open racism, and discrimination remain the currency. The area where DeAunta Farrow lived on the predominately Black northeast side of town used to be off limits for Black people. This was a place where there was a time when the police could arrest a Black person for violating the system of legal segregation that once ruled throughout the South. Today, according to Lorraine Robinson, the public schools are as segregated they were decades ago. She said that white families still living in the northeast side of West Memphis drive their children across town to attend the two remaining predominately white schools. And police still treat Black people like dirt.
When hundreds of people came to a meeting at city hall on June 26 to demand answers about the shooting of DeAunta Farrow, the city's response was to station state police, highway patrolmen, and city police in and around city hall. Though the meeting room was packed and sweltering, Mayor Johnson refused to turn the air conditioning on. Though people couldn't hear what was being said, the mics were kept off. A white city councilwoman complained about Black people being too close to her, saying, “I'm not going to be in a meeting if they have to stand around me.” A white police officer told Lorraine Robinson she would have to move out of her seat where the mayor and police officials, all white, were sitting. Robinson said when this happened her mind immediately flashed back to her childhood days in Jim Crow Arkansas: “When we wanted a cool drink of water we would drink out of a fountain marked colored—with rusty water dripping down—next to the clean white fountain. I remembered going to the doctors office and the sign said colored office. Getting on the bus to Memphis, even though there were seats open we had to go to the back of the bus. When that officer said that about moving out of my seat I remembered all of that.”
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