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Were these officers negligent? There's a potent argument to be made that they were, based on the video evidence and police directives. Were Tanisha Williams' constitutional rights violated? There's at least a case to be made for this, too.
Beyond the legal ramifications or any politicization of this case from organizations outside Charlotte are the underlying societal concerns.
The following are facts: A teenager who purchased items from Citi Trends was somehow arrested and charged with shoplifting. As she sat inside a police cruiser, cracking the divider window with her skull, officers stood by and considered donating clothes she had legally purchased back to Citi Trends — essentially stealing from her after arresting her on charges of stealing from the store. When Williams stopped banging her head, the officers only checked to make sure she was still breathing, never considering she might have knocked herself unconscious from banging the glass and needed medical attention. In their assumption that Williams had suddenly gone from raving mad to completely still and silent, the officers failed to realize that in that darkened backseat, while in their custody, this girl's life was fading fast because she had just choked herself.
Tanisha Williams may have been an overreacting teenager, screaming and refusing to provide her name; she also may or may not have been guilty of shoplifting in one of the more perilous parts of the city. But Williams is still a human being deserving of respect. What's more, it is nearly impossible to imagine that police would have allowed a seemingly innocent rich girl, in a different neighborhood, to smash her head in a police cruiser 17 times, or even consider taking items she had purchased and giving them back to the store.
"I feel that if it had been a white child from Ballantyne, there would have been a more orchestrated community outcry," says the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP. "But I also don't think it would have ever happened. This is part of an economic and cultural bias. Had it been in a different area, the authorities might have acted differently.
"I think it was a serious tragedy with serious negligence involved, whether it was racial or cultural," Nantambu adds. "And when I say cultural, (I mean) they looked at her as a thief. Injustice is injustice. It doesn't matter if it was injustice to a criminal or injustice to somebody on Wall Street."
This is not to say Tanisha Williams had no role in her fate. A troubled girl, she snuck out with her grandmother's car and took her life into her own hands when faced with a minor shoplifting charge. Yet it's hard to not feel overwhelming sadness while caught in the gaze of her blank eyes as she lay in her hospital room. Sadness about a world outside that Williams now remains barely part of, a world where she hardly even registered when she was fully awake.
Outside Williams' hospital room is a city with many communities disconnected, and some forgotten altogether, presided over by an effete liberal class too preoccupied with noise ordinances and leadership rankings on the county commission to tackle bigger issues of inequality and ingrained degradation. A community more energized about volunteering for the presidential re-election campaign than volunteering to organize and stabilize Charlotte neighborhoods. City leadership all too eager to forget the Tanisha Williamses of our communities in order to create an exemplary image when the eyes of the world turn to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention in less than a year.
"There is a whole lot more that Charlotte could do, that it should do," says Nantambu, "but it seems like there's a whole lot that Charlotte won't do."
What city leaders forget is that we are all Tanisha Williams. She is ours. Just as much ours as that sparkling new Duke Power building downtown.
Mike Cooper is a student at the Charlotte School of Law and was a 2009 New Leaders Fellow at the Center for Progressive Leadership. He was born and raised in North Wilkesboro, N.C.