So far this year, 367 people have been fatally shot by police in America. This time last year, it was 366. It is also just as true this year that black people remain disproportionately affected by police violence and that a disturbing number—one in 5—of police killings involve mental illness.
But ask anyone involved with the movement to end police violence and they will confirm: While cops in America remain deadly as ever, the momentum behind the movement has slowed. Instead, mass protests in 2017 are largely aimed at the Trump presidency, and for many of the protest-goers, it’s their first time out on the streets.
The national silence on police violence was briefly interrupted recently when Jordan Edwards, a 15 year-old Texan, was gunned down while unarmed in a Dallas suburb. Edwards, a high-achieving high school freshman with a winning smile, was leaving a house party that elicited a noise complaint from neighbors when police showed up. He was driving away in a car with his brother and some friends when Officer Roy Oliver of the Balch Springs police department shot into the vehicle with a rifle, lethally wounding Edwards with a bullet to the head.
After the fact, the Balch Springs police chief would admit that he “misspoke” when initially claiming that the vehicle was “aggressively” approaching the officers who, per the usual language, feared for their lives. But when bodycam footage clearly showed the car driving away from officers and not towards them, the chief changed his position and Oliver was fired. Oliver is now facing a civil suit brought by Edwards’s family.
The circumstances around Edwards’s death recall the 2012 shooting of another teen named Jordan in a Southern state, also gunned down while driving away unarmed in a vehicle with friends. Like Jordan Davis, the Edwards shooting prompted widespread outrage, with virtually all national media outlets reporting the story in detail. There were a number of protests, too, despite the family’s request that no marches be held. But unlike Davis, who was killed in 2012 right as a budding movement was gaining steam, organizers say that the Edwards shooting was the first so far in 2017 to garner this level of attention.
“People think that Jordan Edwards was the first shooting this year but that’s not true, they’ve been killing us at the same rate as before [the election],” says Rahel Mekdim Teka, an organizer with the Black Youth Project 100, a national group that operates as part of the larger, informal, Black Lives Matter network.
Black Lives Matter, the most prominent movement fighting to end police violence, was born in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012. Co-founders Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors originated a hashtag which spawned a movement that grew steadily, eventually becoming impossible to ignore after mass demonstrations following the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings in 2014.
Teka has been involved with the movement since its nascency and has seen national interest peak and then fade since then. “In the last year, we’ve seen a gradual decrease in how much attention people are willing to pay,” she says.
For her, the Edwards shooting echoes narratives from around the time of Trayvon Martin. “There’s a sense that ‘he didn’t deserve to die’—the Skittles and iced tea narrative,” she says “But it doesn’t matter if it’s a Colt 45 and a blunt, no one deserves to be killed.”
Organizers like Teka say this reaction is an indicator that we’ve regressed to needing a perfect victim to recapture the public’s attention in the wake of Trump. “Gradually, we built this momentum between 2012 and 2016 that countered [these] notions,” Teka says. “We had people out on the streets for folks who didn’t fit the respectability narrative”—people like Alton Sterling, for example, who had an extensive criminal record. “And then Trump pushed us back...a lot of the work that we’ve done to push the narrative forward and push the public’s imagination past respectability needs to be redone now.”
Teka points to the April shooting of Zelalem Eshetu Ewnetu, a 28-year-old Ethiopian engineer in Los Angeles, as a police death that deserved wider attention but yields sparse Google results. Perusing the Washington Post’s database of police killings, one can easily find a number of victims who may have made headlines in a different political climate: 17-year-old Quanice Hayes of Portland, Oregon, who was shot and killed in February while holding a replica of a handgun. Or the unnamed, unarmed 17-year-old girl in Arizona who was shot and killed in April by Mesa police while in the car of a man wanted on several charges, including domestic assault.
Samuel Sinyangwe, an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives and a policy wonk who has taken on the massive task of mapping police violence and tracking legislation around policing across the U.S., attributes this change directly to the election. “The media has been squarely focused on Trump,” Sinyangwe says. “In many ways, that focus has erased the focus on preventing police violence and holding police accountable…[the Trump administration] have created so many crises that it has become hard to focus on any single crisis.”
This has meant an overall decrease in policy intended to hold police accountable; Sinyangwe’s data indicates that fewer bills are being introduced to that end nationwide. It’s easy to imagine that the loss of momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement is exactly what this administration wanted. It was not long after the inauguration that the civil rights portion of the official White House website disappeared and the “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community” page appeared in its stead.
Meanwhile, there’s been a proliferation of Blue Lives Matter legislation and bills meant to stifle activism. Perhaps even more critically, the Department of Justice, which was tasked with overhauling a number of police departments via consent decrees under Obama, has, under Sessions, attempted to walk back any progress gained by movements to end police violence.
While federal courts have rejected the Trump administration’s attempts to block Baltimore’s consent decree, what will happen to a similar decree in Chicago remains to be seen. What’s worse, departments that have not already come under federal scrutiny know they can now act with impunity, sometimes neglecting to release information on police violence altogether. “Police are now emboldened,” Sinyangwe says. “That can impact decisions about whether or not to hold particular officers accountable and whether or not to release certain information [about a shooting].”
One thing is clear: Organizers can no longer count on the federal government to intervene.
Instead, they’re focusing their attention on local and state mechanisms for reform that will hold police accountable. California is a case study for these efforts: The attorney general is empowered by the state’s Civil Code to bring the same “pattern or practice” investigations against police departments that the DOJ does.
Movements aimed at resisting the current administration have capitalized on the infrastructure and momentum anti-police violence organizers painstakingly built over the last five years. But these organizers are disillusioned. Neither Sinyangwe nor Teka have immediate solutions for recapturing the public’s attention, but they will continue to organize for change where they can. Just because their activism is no longer as visible doesn’t mean it’s not happening: Just this past Mother’s Day, Black Youth Project 100 was part of a national “Mamas Bail Out Day” action, in which scores of mothers were freed from jail in time to spend the day with their children. “The work continues,” says Sinyangwe.
Note: An earlier version misstated the number of fatal police shootings for 2016 and 2017. It is 366 and 367, not 354 and 345, respectively.