by Richard Knox
True to its title, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed contains only the last utterances of the murdered men, as gleaned from videos, on-the-scene accounts or, in one case, a last phone call before the onslaught. To appreciate the circumstances and pathos of these killings, here’s some context on each victim:
Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was a 68-year-old retired Marine and prison guard in White Plains, N.Y. Early on November 19, 2011, he inadvertently set off his LifeAid necklace, which he wore because of a heart condition. LifeAid contacted the local police, which dispatched officers and EMTs. Chamberlain repeatedly told them he was fine, according to a recording, but the officers refused to leave. They broke down his door, tased him and shot him with bean bag rounds, alleging he brandished a knife. His family later claimed he was unarmed. “Officers, why do you have your guns out?” Chamberlain asked. Finally a policeman shot him twice in the chest with live ammunition. Forensic evidence suggested he was on the ground when he was killed. No one was charged in connection with his death. His son won a wrongful death suit after a federal appeals court ruled that “a reasonable, experienced officer would not be justified in believing that entry into the apartment was necessary.”
Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old Florida teenager on his way to a convenience store for a snack in 2012 when George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Neighborhood Watch volunteer, deemed him suspicious. Zimmerman ignored the 911 dispatcher’s warning not to follow Martin. “What are you following me for?” Martin asked, according to his girlfriend who was talking to him on a cellphone during the encounter. Zimmerman fatally shot the unarmed teenager in the chest. His death sparked a national outcry that became the Black Lives Matter movement. Zimmerman, claiming self-defense, was acquitted of second-degree murder.
Amadou Diallo emigrated from West Africa to New York City to pursue his dream of a degree in computer science. The 23-year-old had saved up enough money as a street vendor to call his mother in Conakry, Guinea on the evening of February 3, 1999, exclaiming “Mom, I’m going to college!” Later he was sitting on the steps of his Bronx apartment building when four NYPD plainclothes officers approached him. Subsequently they said they thought he was a suspect in a series of neighborhood rapes or a drug dealer. They shouted at him to raise his hands. Diallo reportedly reached into his pocket for his wallet. Suddenly he was gunned down in a hail of bullets, 41 rounds in all. Diallo’s killing touched off a firestorm of controversy, culminating in the indictment of the four officers for second-degree murder and other charges. They were acquitted of all charges. Amadou’s parents subsequently won a $3 million settlement against the city.
Michael Brown was 18 and bound for his freshman year of college when he was fatally shot on August 9, 2014, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb. Without video evidence the circumstances depend on testimony from a friend who was with him and from Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old White policeman. Wilson stopped him on the street, reportedly for jaywalking. Accounts about the sequence differ from here. Johnson says the policeman initiated a conflict, police say Brown tried to grab Wilson’s gun. Both say Brown started to run, but police say Brown turned and charged Wilson, while Johnson says Brown turned around with his hands raised. “I don’t have a gun! STOP!” he reportedly shouted, giving rise to protesters’ chant of “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Autopsy reports showed six of Wilson’s bullets struck Brown, killing him on the spot. Brown’s body was left on the pavement for four hours as reports circulated and community rage mounted, culminating in protests, riots and looting that received national coverage. A grand jury later declined to indict Wilson and the US Justice Department concluded that Wilson was justified in killing Brown in self-defense. But the DOJ also noted that the Ferguson Police Department had a record of violating the rights of the majority-Black community.
Oscar Grant was 22 years old when he was shot and killed by Johannes Mehserle, a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. BART police, responding to reports of a fight on a crowded train, detailed Grant and several other passengers at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. Grant, who was unarmed, tried to explain he wasn’t involved in any fight, but a policeman punched him in the face and forced him down on his stomach. As Mehserle attempted to handcuff Grant, he shot him in the back, later claiming he mistook his gun for his taser. “You shot me!” Grant cried, according to cellphone videos. He died in the hospital later that day, leaving Sophina Mesa, the mother of their three-year-old daughter Tatiana. A jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He served 11 months in prison. Protests followed the light sentencing. Grant’s mother and Mesa later won settlements from BART totalling $2.8 million.
John Crawford was shopping on August 5, 2014, at a Wal-Mart near Dayton, Ohio, when he casually picked up a pellet or BB gun that was sitting on a shelf, out of its package. The 22-year-old was talking to the mother of his two children on a cellphone as he strolled the aisles with the BB gun in his hand; subsequent testimony indicated he never pointed it anyone. But a man who saw him called 911 to report “a gentleman with a gun in the store.” Store video shows police entering, Crawford turning his head, then falling down, scrambling away, turning again and falling. Believing the BB gun was a real firearm, Officer Sean Williams fired two shots; Crawford died shortly afterwards. His last words reportedly were: “It’s not real.”
The killing of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014 was “the impetus for this entire work,” Thompson says. Two NYPD officers confronted Garner, a 43-year-old father of six known as a “neighborhood peacemaker,” near the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Police were called because of a fight that Garner allegedly broke up and accused him of illegally selling cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold, in violation of NYPD rules. “I can’t breathe!” Garner repeatedly told the officers before he lost consciousness – a scene caught on video that went viral. He was pronounced dead an hour later at a hospital, and the medical examiner ruled his death was homicide by suffocation. A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, sparking large demonstrations in New York City and around the nation that featured the rallying cry “I Can’t Breathe!” After Pantaleo was fired, records revealed he had been investigated for misconduct seven times.
Richard Knox, with research assistance from NHMC chorus members Will Gunn, Krystal Morin, Kate Klingel, A.J. Coppola, Cody McDonnell and Hannah Bessette.