In the bottom of my browser window a small ad pops up. “Chicago Pays Millions but Punishes Few in Killings by Police.” I am on the New York Times website, reading an article about a young man killed by a police officer. The shooting happened in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. The plot points are familiar to me, familiar to anyone who has been following the news the last few years. They speak to a shifting pulse of the people, a shifting awareness of police and civilian interactions.
Nevell Johnson, Jr., a 20 year old African-American man gets into a conflict with Luis Alvarez, a 24 year old Cuban-American police officer name. Words are exchanged. Alvarez goes to put Johnson under arrest. Johnson moves. Maybe he moves for the handgun that is tucked in his waistband. Maybe he moves for the door. He never gets to the gun, if he was moving for the gun. Alvarez shoots him. Johnson dies at the scene.
Alvarez and his partner were not suppose to be in Overtown. They left their assigned patrol in a primarily “Latin neighborhood against procedure and went to Overtown”, a “predominately black slum”. Alvarez initially claimed that he had shot Johnson by accident, but afterwards claimed that he had shot the man in calculated self-defense after fearing for his life. Prosecutors tried him for manslaughter, claiming that Johnson had been turned “palms outward, in a position of surrender” when Alvarez killed him. During the investigation two other officers were found to be lying about the incident and one was charged with perjury for his testimony.
After the shooting there were widespread riots and and looting, a response that the Miami police chief attributed to “’200 to 250 hoodlums.” Three days later the protests had quieted, although two more men, including a “suspected looter” were dead. In the immediate riots 26 people were injured, including four police officers, and 43 people were arrested.
The New York Times interviewed some of the protesters. Roger Eberheart was quoted as saying ”They talk about justice – what kind of justice do we have? All of our black people are getting killed and none of them get convicted.” A sense of change was also prominent in the interviews. Alvarez was not the only police officer to be charged in the death of a black man. Several other similar cases were working their way through the court system. A man named George Kilpatrick was quoted in one article as saying ”I feel the pulse of the people has changed. In the past they just didn’t indict them.”
Of course, the shooting of Johnson occurred on December 28th, 1982. Thirty-four years ago.
Alvarez was found not guilty by an all white jury in March of 1984. In the days after Alvarez was acquitted nearly 550 more arrests were made and two dozen more people were injured. The New York Times reported afterwards that “anger at perceived injustice has rarely seemed far from the surface in recent years”. A strong police presence of over one thousands officers was able to quell the protests, however, and only a few days later the city manager reported “with the exception of a few kids throwing rocks and bottles, things appear to be back to normal”.
Nearly two years after the shooting, in October of 1984, the city agreed to pay the family of Johnson 1.1 million dollars. The mayor at the time called the settlement “very fair”.