Thursday night, the People’s Organization for Progress, a New Jersey progressive activist group, will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the police killing of a Black man named Earl Faison. He was killed on April 11, 1999 by a revenge-hungry, white-majority police force in Orange, New Jersey, because the police were angry by the killing of a fellow Orange police officer–ironically, one who was also Black and beloved by many in the local community.
Lawrence Hamm, a longtime activist in Newark who is POP’s chairperson, went both to the officer’s wake and to POP’s protests of the Faison killing. POP was one of many activist groups who protested the Faison building until the white officers–who, while Faison was in police custody, sprayed pepper spray in the face and mouth of the asthmatic suspect until he suffocated and died, restrained and gagging, inside the police station–went to jail. And thanks to the protests of many and the strength of the victim’s family, they did.
The following is the story of how that happened. It is an excerpt about the Faison case from his forthcoming book, “Progress: The Autobiography of Lawrence Hamm, As Told To Annette M. Alston.” She is the author of “Harriet Tubman For Beginners.”
By Lawrence Hamm
By the late 1990s, everything had settled into a groove. I was an administrator in the public service industry. My two daughters were growing up too fast. I was in my second marriage. We had moved out of Newark and were homeowners in Montclair. And the People’s Organization for Progress had become established in Newark and in the parts of Essex County surrounding it.
The year was 1999. All around the world, people were contemplating the future. Were the United States and the West now at, as historians had begun to write in those pre-911, pre-ISIS days, the end of history?
The collapse of the Soviet Union had forced many in the Movement to chart new directions for social justice without the Cold War. The worldwide revolt against capitalism and the Third World bloc against Western imperialism didn’t turn out the way that any of us thought.
Many of the Baby Boomer activists, those who thought and knew worldwide revolution was near two decades ago, were now well into middle age. Suddenly, I was 44. Amiri Baraka had given me the name Adhimu Changa, meaning in Kiswhahili “Important Youth.” However, my youth was long gone. I was recuperating from a torn ligament in my leg, so I was no longer running marathons or running at all. I had been a vegetarian for nine years, so I was still trying to be health conscious. Time had begun to stretch out, become slower.
But there was always something to do, particularly when it came to POP. The group’s cohesion, hard-won after 16 years of organizing, had dividends. We began to understand each other, and we began to operate as much as a family as a close-knit group of activists. Our community teach-ins and commemorations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King–just to name two–became established, anticipated community events. Getting our press releases and pictures in the newspapers was no longer a struggle. We had significant access to Rutgers-Newark, churches and other city institutions. In short, everything had begun to work like clockwork, the year 2000 and its threatening zeroes be damned. We had the serenity of purpose.
Then, in April of 1999, a Black policewoman, Joyce Carnegie, was shot in the head and stomach by an armed robbery suspect in Orange, one of the many townships that surround Newark. In response, police departments in the county went on a blue rampage, looking specifically for bald-headed Black men. The rumor on the street was that the police wanted Carnegie’s killer’s head on a platter. Authorities picked up three Black men for the crime—Terrance Everett, James “Malik” Coker and Earl Faison.
Everett and Earl Faison were beaten by police. Faison, a 27-year-old father of four who had ambitions to be a hip hop music producer, died in a hospital after only 45 minutes in police custody on April 11, 1999, three days after Carnegie’s death. He fled from the taxi he was a passenger in when police asked for identification. Faison, who was not bald but had a record, was innocent of the Carnegie murder. Another man, Condell Woodson, would eventually confess. Police said Faison also had a 9 mm handgun. The severe asthmatic—the police took his inhaler from him–was handcuffed, beaten, robbed and then pepper-sprayed in the nose and mouth at point-blank range, triggering a seizure caused by his suffocation.
The Orange Police Department, no different from any other police department confronted with the issue of police brutality, denied any wrongdoing, and tried to keep it business-as-usual. One of the at least nine officers involved in Faison’s arrest was up for promotion.
The People’s Organization for Progress was about to change in permanent and powerful ways because of Faison. History, as it turned out, showed no sign of disappearing.
It’s not like POP had never been part of police-brutality demonstrations before. We had constantly crossed the river over the New York police-brutality cases of Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima and others. We and other activist organizations in New Jersey had been having demonstrations as far back as 1990, when Phillip Pannell, a Black 15-year-old youth, had been shot by the Teaneck police. Then in 1997, Danette “Strawberry” Daniels, a thirty-one-year-old young Black woman, was killed by the Newark police—shot in the head. An activist group named Black Nia Force, led by a young Newark activist-schoolteacher named Ras Baraka, was in the forefront there. In Northern New Jersey, we are bombarded with New York City’s news. So much so, that what happens in New York City feels like a local event. In fact, we publicly mourned the Diallo-official acquittal while struggling for Faison.
POP was founded as an organization to organize and mobilize the community, but our actual activities in the initial years were forums. We would have a forum almost every month. What would put us in the street in those early days was the apartheid South African government and America’s complicity in attempting to destroy the democratic movements there. So by 1983, the anti-apartheid movement in the United States was really going strong. It was oscillating between a lot of campus actions and community actions, because on campuses students were trying to get their universities to divest from companies doing business with South Africa. Meanwhile in the community, union groups and other organizations were trying to get this state and local governments to divest their pension funds from those same corporations. So it was like waves of activity: you would have a wave of students, then you’d have a wave of labor and community–all anti-apartheid, Free Mandela, Free Sisulu, Free Winnie. So although POP was still in a community education mode, New York’s police brutality cases in the 1990s began to draw us outside, into the street, to make more local stands.
History was beginning to loop back on us, and Faison was tipping POP’s scale from education to activism. DeLacey Davis was head of a group called Black Cops Against Police Brutality. Davis told me he had been inspired to be an activist when Adhimu Changa, that flamethrower of the Newark Board of Education, spoke at Arts High in the early 1970s. Davis had risen to the sergeant level in East Orange, and formed his activist group to be a community check against police aggression and to give officers a voice to talk to the community. It was he who introduced us to Faison’s family.
And I want to say this about Davis. As difficult as it is to talk about police brutality in 2019, it was much harder in the 1980s and 1990s. I have a great deal of respect for him, because his outspokenness affected his police career. After many years on the force, he lost his rank, even after the community appealed to the East Orange mayor and city council.
Davis gave me the phone number for Faison’s father, Earl Williams. He and the family met with POP and talked about how Earl had been beaten and how an excessive amount of tear gas had been used on his asthmatic son. In that first conversation, he was saying how they had seen the body and there was a footprint on his head. This was the beginning of a years-long association between the Faison family and POP.
Faison was killed on April 11. Three days later, POP organized its first Faison demonstration with about 200 people outside of Orange Police Headquarters.
We were careful about this, because we didn’t want to be accused of ambulance chasing. I remember before Faison, when a Black woman in Newton, New Jersey, was assaulted by a white racist. Because we didn’t make contact with the family, we didn’t go. I had regrets about that, but we as an organization decided that we would be involved only if invited by a grieving family.
Even with the family’s permission, we had some debate over whether to have the protest that day, because it was the same day as the Carnegie wake. She was a Black female police officer—still an anomaly back then. She was a person who had roots in Essex County. When she was killed, many were outraged–and it wasn’t just police. There was a lot of sympathy for Carnegie, but when somebody in that POP meeting said that “a life not in a police uniform is worth just as much as a life in a blue uniform,” that ended the debate. Those who wanted the demonstration on April 14th won by a very slim margin. And the way it worked out was that the wake was early enough for me to personally go. I went to the Carnegie wake before the demonstration, personally balancing the community’s various feelings.
So we’re demonstrating at the police station, and the police director, Richard Conte, called me upstairs to speak to him. He was talking to me in a very causal way.
He said, “Mr. Hamm, this kid was not a victim of police brutality.”
Earl Faison was 27-years-old and had two children at the time. He was far from a kid. This was the mentality in which we were dealing. If he was not a victim of police brutality, then, what was he a victim of? Crickets could be heard.
So I went downstairs and the demonstration continued.
R.D. Strong, then POP’s Vice-chair, was on the front stairs, holding the POP banner saying, “Stop Police Brutality.” He was joined by many others including Joe Fortunato, an activist-attorney. Earl Williams was speaking on the bullhorn. Williams told us then that there was going to be an independent investigation and autopsy into his son’s death: “The truth will come out and hopefully, justice will be served.” By November of that year, Conte turned in his resignation supposedly over a dispute between then-Mayor Mims Hackett and him over officer promotions.
That demonstration was very important. But it was the next one—on May 1st—that was most profound. Because, for the first time in POP history, we demonstrated in police crosshairs, openly under the barrels of guns.
So there we were, in all of our predominantly Black power with some very conscious white friends of the struggle. POP, The New Jersey Coalition Against Police Brutality. Black Cops Against Police Brutality. The Newark Coalition for Neighborhoods. The Black Ministers Council of New Jersey. Women in Support of the Million Man March. The Nation of Islam’s Muhammad’s Mosque No. 25.
We marched from the police headquarters to the Board of Education building on Main Street in Orange. I can never forget how when we turned onto Main Street, the police had sharp shooters on all the roofs of the buildings, especially and including the U.S. Post Office. I was just thinking, How they got their guns pointed on innocent people trying to get justice for an innocent person killed by them. Shouldn’t they be arresting and training their guns on the people that killed Carnegie and Faison?
In those early demonstrations, we had support from WBAI-FM, the Pacifica station in New York City. WBAI-FM would announce our actions. So this time, it was New Yorkers who crossed the river to join us. Even Reverend Al Sharpton came to speak at one of our demonstrations.
I remember two things about those rallies. First, there were a lot of young people at those early demonstrations because Faison’s family, and its circle of friends, was quite large. Second, POP had begun to make the large police brutality victim banners it’s now known for; the Faison banner R.D. held is one of our oldest.
It’s now commonplace everywhere for people to demonstrate against police brutality. But in those days, even though we had those notorious cases like Louima and like Diallo, keep in mind that a lot of that was in New York City. (Of course, the Rodney King case in Los Angeles was a huge and historic exception.) There really wasn’t an organization that was doing a lot of anti-police brutality work in New Jersey the way POP had begun doing it in 1999.
There were as many tensions as opinions. The murder of Strawberry Daniels had hundreds of South Ward residents, led by Black Nia Force, march out of the ward to downtown. Saalam Ishmial had his group, the National United Youth Council, based in Elizabeth. Wilbert Kornegay was a stalwart activist with his own group from the South Ward, and he seemed to be at every demonstration we joined.
POP members used their long-term mobilization skills well during this period. Marion Pitts. Brother Nello. Brother Hobbs. Debbie Brown. Gladys “Ayo” McMillan and Jan Cheema, who would call 125 people in one night if I asked her to do so.
Part of the reason that there had been such a debate about how to respond to the Carnegie murder within POP was because of the anti-violence sentiment in the community at the time. POP had our first rally against drugs, crime and violence in 1993. This was the other violence in the community: the civilian-on-civilian violence. We had our first rally on those topics at Deliverance Church on Springfield Avenue in Irvington in 1993. This anti-violence sentiment was strong. And probably in places like Newark, it was probably stronger than the anti-police brutality sentiment, because the notorious police-brutality cases were happening in New York. They were happening in New Jersey, but were not blasted across the New York tri-state area by television and radio. For example, New Jersey 12, the state’s 24-hour cable news station, was still in its infant stages during much of the 1990s.
But I have to be honest here. Another conflict was the fact that, in the early stages of the Faison case, very few ministers and elected officials wanted to publicly criticize the police. There were not a lot of elected officials on our side. Sixty letters would go out asking for their involvement, and three would come back. Sharpe James, the mayor who had ousted Kenneth Gibson in 1986, even once tried to stop POP from having a march for Rodney King. When Mayor James couldn’t stop it, he joined it. As he went along, James even came close to creating a civil police review board after the Strawberry Daniels shooting. So, as the 1990s progressed into Faison, there was much room for growth.
Murder is a state statute. Essex County did not bring any indictments against the officers that killed Faison. The county prosecutor, a representative of the state attorney general, was not going to pursue the case. We continued to press. We never let the state go. We wrote letters. We made phone calls. We even had meetings in Trenton with the assistant state attorney general. The state never brought any charges against the officers that killed Earl Faison, and it said it wasn’t going to bring any charges.
We communicated with the family. We joined the family and demanded that the federal government come in and investigate this case. The feds responded affirmatively on the investigation. We were pleased, but we knew that federal involvement was going to null a murder charge; With the state refusing to file murder charges, the feds were left investigating for civil rights violations. The feds carried out an investigation that lasted more than a year. U.S. Attorney for the state of New Jersey Robert J. Cleary announced the resulting indictment of five officers on June 22, 2000–the same week that would have been Earl Faison’s 29th birthday.
It was the regional medical examiner for the federal government that announced the results of his autopsy. Three autopsies done, and the third got it right. That examiner said that Earl Faison died in a “stairwell of torture.” (Later, Dr. Mark Flomanbaum, an assistant medical examiner in New York City, would testify, “Mr. Faison would still be alive today if it had not been for the catastrophic event and I say this within a reasonable degree of medical certainty.”) The state didn’t even convene a grand jury.
The news and its public aftermath carried serious consequences. People were fired (like Patricia Hurt, the first Black woman to be Essex County Prosecutor), and resigning, like Conte, but justice was slow in coming. Only five people were indicted. (A Black reporter for The Star-Ledger, Kevin Dilworth, was the first to ask me why only five when so many more were involved. Why only five when there were so many other hands doing things? Like the night that Faison was killed, they came in and cleaned up the car, removing the seat from the car he was beat in, and wiped up the blood. That’s called tampering with evidence. What about the arresting officers that covered up for the officers that brutally beat and kicked Faison before and after he was in the car handcuffed? Later, one of the Black cops would testify that his supervising officer was beating Faison so bad that he had to pull him off Faison by the belt, and the force of that pull threw both of them on the ground.
It was clear that the new acting police director, Don Wactor, was pretty sure that most of his department would be indicted in some way when he approached the Orange City Council requesting additional appropriations to hire more officers because of “imminent manpower shortages.” Wactor anticipated federal indictments of up to 12 officers in his department. But we were not letting this get swept under the rug. What happened in Jersey would not stay in Jersey. The state’s Attorney’s Office got involved. The criminal case was argued by U.S. Attorneys Patty Schwartz and Rafael Valentin.
The Faison family had two attorneys, while the police officers—Lt. Thomas Smith, his brother, Brian Smith, Andrew Garth, Tyrone Payton and Paul Carpinteri Jr.—had five attorneys. Each of the five charged had an attorney—a total of five white attorneys. It looked like a damn football team sitting over there. And guess who the lead attorney was for the five? Michael Chertoff, who becomes the first U.S. Director of Homeland Security after 9-11.
We believed the fix was in already. The all-white jury was sworn in on Halloween, so we sighed, knowing it was all tricks and no treats. Then one of the jurors became sick and was replaced by a Black alternate. We prayed, but we didn’t hold our breaths.
I attended the trial almost every day. Not all day long, but I came in on my lunch breaks during work as well as after work. I took several vacation days to be in that courtroom, particularly on days that witnesses were called. Fred Wright, who updated POP about the trial, was retired, so he came every day.
For most all of the key testimonies I was there. Every time I entered the courtroom I was struck by the stark racial segregation. All Black on one side, mostly white on the other, with the judge seated in the middle of history.
Calm ruled. No protests in the courtroom during the entire trial. Or outside, because we thought it was too important for us not to witness. The bottom line: family had confidence in the US attorney, and we had confidence in the family. I think the families’ respect for the attorneys and for the process shaped how the community–those non-family people who came out in support of them—responded. Because there could have been times when the police were testifying, or other people were testifying about how the police were acting, when people could have jumped up and screamed out. The family set the standard for everyone else. For instance, family members walked out of the courtroom when they were overcome with emotion.
Carmen Espichan may have been
difference between guilt and innocence. She was Latina and a resident on the street where the police stopped and beat Faison. The police did not know she was
watching them at the
scene. Espichan turned out to be a
late-nineties version of a smartphone video.
She had been contacted
twice by the FBI. The first time she was contacted by the Bureau, she said
she wouldn’t testify, didn’t want anything
with it. But the second time, they convinced her to testify. She came in the courtroom nine months
pregnant. She was so large, there had to be concerns that she would give birth right there in the
courtroom. Her painful detail
of how Earl was beat down, thrown on the ground, validated all our work. Her next words caused a big gasp in the courtroom.
Espichan said one of the officers backed up to the fence–he was about maybe 20 or 30 feet from it– and he ran and kicked his head like he was kicking a soccer ball. My God. She said he kicked him in the head so hard that his whole body came up off the ground. That’s before they took him to the police station, before they put him in the car. That was the first of three collective courtroom gasps I will never forget. The second gasp was when the judge asked her why she didn’t testify after the FBI had asked her several times. She said, “I didn’t want to get involved in it. I had a daughter. I didn’t want what happened to him to happen to us.”
The jury tended not to show emotion. I certainly didn’t hear any sounds from its racial majority. That’s why we thought—we knew—the verdict would be not guilty.
The verdict: guilty on all counts. Third gasp. The officers’ lawyers were so stunned they asked for each jurors’ individual verdict, and it was unanimous. A victory in a nation that couldn’t convict the police who murdered Diallo. This was something out of Perry Mason or Law and Order—in fact, it was wilder than both.
The newspapers, including and especially The Star-Ledger, had to take what we had been saying all along seriously. I remember us being in front of the courthouse, answering reporters’ questions. My only regret is that we didn’t have POP’s “Justice for Earl Faison” banner.
We felt vindicated, but we still didn’t feel like it was complete justice because they were convicted on civil rights violations and conspiracy, not murder.
They were convicted in December. So I’m driving down Route 280 in May of 2001. I got a call from a reporter asking me, “What do you think of what U.S. District Judge Lifland did?”
“What did he do?” I asked. “He overturned the verdict.”
Lifland decided to throw out the conspiracy charges against the five. I didn’t even know at that time that you could do that. I thought that what a jury decided was it. And the first word we got was that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was not going to appeal.
The officers didn’t come to the sentencing. The verdicts were overturned before they could get to the sentencing, and he used some technicality to overcome the jury verdict. Bullshit. Not only were they not going to get jail time, but a couple of them thought they might get their jobs back.
We brought out our marching shoes. The appeal was happening, but the case was moved to the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia. Philadelphia! Almost two hours away from Newark.
We were not thwarted. We rented buses and marched in Philadelphia, banners held tight, in front. Almost another year passed. We took two busloads of people to fill up the courtroom every day. The judges knew what was going on, because I know it’s not every trial where they look out in the courtroom and view a sea of Black faces. Even though we weren’t at the moment of justice, that was one of our proudest moments.
One of the people there with me was Nello. He was a member of POP and one of my closest friends. I think he carried the red- black-and-green flag when we marched over the Ben Franklin bridge into Philly because we didn’t go straight to Philly. We went to Camden and told the buses to meet us at the courthouse. Then we marched over the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Our ability to put people in that courtroom really made us feel effective. The fact that they tried to move this outside of our sphere of influence to somewhere outside of our grassroots did not work; we would not be denied. We filled that courtroom on work days. It wasn’t just us, but it made me know we had a strong organization.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the guilty verdicts in June of 2002 citing that Lifland had erred when he threw out the convictions. We certainly were jubilant, even though there wasn’t a lot of fanfare about it. We had won at the district court level and we won the appeals level. It had taken more than three years to get to this point. It would take two more years for the actual sentencing and an addition year before any of the officers would be behind bars. Now that the ball was kicked back to Lifland’s court for sentencing, he wasn’t hearing it: no more shenanigans.
One of the things I remember most about that day was what Lifland said specifically about Orange Detective Keith Jackson, the Black officer who broke ranks to give his version of what happened the night Faison died. Jackson was the first of several officers to come forward after initially lying to the federal investigators. His reward was constant death threats. Lifland felt the need to publicly warn everyone that if anything happened to any of the witnesses, the perpetrators would be found and persecuted to the full extent of the law. Of course, Jackson was subsequently fired from the police department along with Detective Anthony Tortorella, the second to speak out. I used to see Jackson in downtown Newark, near where I worked. He had to be surrounded by FBI officers who were providing round-the-clock protection. Jackson had quoted a conversation with a defendant, in which Jackson was told, “I’m so hooked on this lie, I don’t know what the truth is.”
True over Blue.
The short life and tragic killing of Earl Faison changed the People’s Organization for Progress permanently. Two months after Faison was killed, the family of Stanton Crew came to a POP meeting. Crew was shot 27 times on the New Jersey Turnpike by state troopers. By January of 2000 we were marching for Max Antoine, a victim of police brutality in Irvington. POP had become a lightning rod for New Jersey police brutality cases. Some might think the organization peaked with Faison, but our demonstration for Trayvon Martin was larger than any of our Faison demonstrations. And then, after 9-11 and our anti-Iraq invasion protests. Coalition forces expanded to groups like the Frontline Artists, The New Black Panther Party, Million Man: Montclair, Communications Workers of America(CWA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
But there’s just something about the Faison tragedy. Though it wasn’t the biggest campaign, its impact was deeper. It’s like the difference between a topical application on your arm and an intramuscular injection phase. Faison was like an intramuscular injection: it didn’t cover as much area topically, but the impact was greater. We went with less trepidation into other police brutality cases because of our Faison experience.
In the last 20 years, there have been at least 25 cases POP has been involved in, post-Faison. Every Monday for more than two years, a vigil/protest is held in front of the Newark Federal Building to remember Jerome Reid, Jahqui Graham, Kashad Ashford and Abdul Wakil M. Kamal–all New Jersey victims of police brutality and lack of justice. Shelia Reid and Muneer Muhammad are there with banners and posters in hand consistently and through all kinds of weather, remembering their son Jerome. We’ve worked with other groups in New Jersey like the National Awareness Alliance. The founder and chair, Walter Hudson, has supported the Reid family while fighting for the family of Darryl DeRose Laqua Fuqua, unarmed and gunned down by Bridgeton police.
Earl Faison taught us. We learned how difficult it is to get justice within the criminal justice system. It is very difficult to convict police. There are all kinds of ways to subvert the system. Money. Having the state on their side—police are officers of the state—means they can, and do, routinely escape the same punishments that regular citizens would get. Every once in a blue moon, somebody in blue is convicted. This is why, credited or not, struggle is imperative.
We were overwhelmed by the evidence of criminal guilt, and so we were upset that this substitute- for-a-criminal trial stopped short of saying that Earl Faison was murdered by state-sponsored thugs in a dim back police stairwell. Those officers did not go to jail for murder. They went to jail for civil rights violations and conspiracy. And the difference was apparent. Four of them, Tyrone Payton, Andrew Garth, newly retired Lt. Thomas Smith and Paul Carpinteri, got only 33 months. Brian Smith, the younger brother of Thomas Smith who sprayed the pepper spray into Faison’s face, jump-starting his seizure and subsequent death from it, was sentenced to nine years—before Lifland cut it to seven. I remember telling the news media that the now-former officers “were afforded considerations that the average citizen never would have received.” So to this day, we consider Faison to be a cold case, like Emmett Till, another young Black man murdered without anybody paying the price.
The “new” POP—now being referred to in the news media as a “human rights watchdog group,” now getting calls from media about our activities, instead of us always doing the calling—started doing multi-day protests. Forty-one days straight, one demonstration went in 2000, to highlight the 41 bullets shot into Amadou Diallo. We extended that demonstration to 45 days for the 45 minutes Faison was in the police station before being killed. In 2013, we demonstrated for 381 days for jobs, peace, equality and justice. This was the symbolic protest in which we were now invested. The 381 days were a way of memorializing the days that the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted. More than 173 organizations signed on during given weeks to join us. Organizations that came out regularly were the NAACP’s Newark, Irvington and Oranges and Maplewood branches, Muhammad Mosque No. 25, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Black is Back Coalition, Newark Education Workers Caucus, Newark Anti Violence Coalition, The New Black Panther Party, NOW-New Jersey Branch, New Jersey Jericho Movement, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council/Solidarity Singers, Veterans for Peace UFCW Local 108, and a number of other local unions, churches and grassroots organizations.
During the four years the Faison case dragged on, the Faison family was a POP fixture. We were in constant contact with Earl Williams. He and Sagirah Williams were our main contacts with the family. Our time with Carolyn Faison was short in that she died a year after her son died. She was sick at the time of his death, but I don’t think she would have died had he not been killed. It was just too much for her.
We didn’t make any moves without checking with the family first. From the beginning, we saw this as their struggle, not ours. We were behind them, not in front. We were a known quantity, and we used my familiarity with the news media to their advantage.
These protests always fill a pattern. After the death, there is an upsurge. But most people come into struggle jaded, so when things don’t happen rapidly, disappointment and disillusionment set in. And then they fall back.
In our work here in New Jersey, some families just went by the wayside because they just didn’t have the energy or the wherewithal to keep it up. There are situations where families can’t get to the finish line because they disintegrate in the process. Sometimes our people experienced grief at a level where they just can’t go forward any more. We’ve had families that didn’t want a protest because their lawyers tell family members to not say anything because public statements might hurt the case. People don’t know how hard Black people’s lives still are in this country, even though we may look like we’re doing well.
The Faison family was not like this. They are a Sunni Muslim family who understood the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. They understood the power of steadfast faith and militant works. That family was prepared for struggle. It was not a good thing that their son died, but I don’t think there could’ve been a better family to carry that ball across the goal line of justice. They were determined they would fight to the end. Earl Williams would come to protests after his leg was amputated. We would just call him and he’d come and speak and he’s showing up with one leg. I loved that brother. We struggled side by side.
Today, we are one paycheck away from homelessness, one paycheck away from destitution. So when your child is killed by the police, there isn’t even enough money to bury that child. And when you go to the funeral and see the body of that person, that person’s face, you recognize how devastating that is: that one whole circle of life completed but others permanently broken. His life has long-lasting, personal impact that is off-camera. Because Earl was killed, his kids grew up without a father. In December 2017, Earl Williams passed away while months earlier, Mikki Wilkins, the mother of Faison’s children, had already died of cancer. The ripple effect that these events have, the dysfunctions amplified- are all off-screen.
The strength of the Faison-Williams family—its determination to get justice, its ability to go the whole way without falling apart, and its willingness to let others in, to share its grief and to fight alongside it for justice—were critical in winning those cases.
I don’t want to over-emphasize the role of activism. It was very important that the Williams family had strong, competent legal representation. Our role is to help create an atmosphere where it’s possible to lead to conviction. I believe the following to this day: if there hadn’t been a whole lot of protests around Earl’s death, the state would have swept it under the rug because they didn’t even bring charges. Without the protests I’m really doubtful that the U.S. attorney would have taken the case further. There was too much anger in the community to ignore it. It couldn’t be covered up. That anger made those in power say: We’ve got to take a look at this. Because it stank from the beginning.
Twenty years have now passed, and POP is still calling for the Faison case to be reopened as a homicide. When I think about the case, I think of Sagirah Williams, who was always quiet but right on point when she did speak. “We will not rest until authorities reconsider the evidence surrounding the death of our son while he was in police custody on April 11, 1999 and then pursue murder indictments.” The U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark, citing a lack of evidence, has said it had no plans to pursue a murder indictment against the five officers. And they never did.
An excerpt of “PROGRESS: The Autobiography of Lawrence Hamm, As Told To Annette M. Alston.” Copyright (c) 2019 by Lawrence Hamm and Annette M. Alston.