Wakiesha Wilson should have celebrated her 37th birthday this weekend. Instead, the young African-American woman died in custody in a Los Angeles Police Department jail cell at 36, last March, amid mysterious circumstances.
Ten months after her death was ruled as a suicide by police officers, the city’s police commission gathered at the modern LAPD’s headquarters last Tuesday to pronounce its final word on this controversial case. And this final word, after long hours of waiting, did not bring any relief to closed ones and activists present in the windowless room, causing bursts of tears, screaming and even loss of consciousness.
“No justice for Wakiesha Wilson. No justice for her mother. The police commission ruled no officer will be disciplined for her murder”, reacted Christina Gutierrez, a supporter of the movement Black Lives Matter who came at the meeting, on her Facebook page. “This place we live in is so fucked up and it feels like nothing we do makes a damn bit of difference”, she felt.
Wakiesha Wilson, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was arrested on March 26 for “battery” (she reportedly attacked someone in the emergency room of California Hospital, where she checked in that night for back and chest pain) and was put in a jail cell a couple of hours later. The day after, she was found unconscious on the floor of her cell, with a “garment” tied around the telephone cord “around her neck”, according to the police. She was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.
Since then, the persons close to Wakiesha Wilson have questioned the cause of her death, asking for evidence of what happened. A reason for their doubts is that Wakiesha’s mother wasn’t told until two days later that something happened, and when she was told, it was only because her daughter didn’t show up in court. Another reason is that some members of her family talked to Ms. Wilson over the phone prior to her death and she said she intended to call back to talk to her child.
But in its decision, the police commission concluded that there has been “no use of force” by the police against Wakiesha Wilson and that no personnel was “substancially involved” in her death. Yet, during its announcement, Matthew Johnson, an African-American lawyer who serves as the president of the commission, asked a “review of in-custody deaths” and “current department policies to determine whether standards and practices could be improved”.
In a city where the police is accused of killing more people than any other agency in the country, Wakiesha Wilson’s case stands as another symbol of impunity and indifference towards black people’s lives, according to the dozens of activists who showed up in the meeting room. Melina Abdullah, a prominent figure of Black Lives Matter and professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State University, directly addressed the commission several times.
“We don’t know how to get justice, we don’t know how to handle the pain”, she said.
“It’s overwhelming the way they keep treating families without humanity”, she launched to her troops at the beginning of this long day. “We want to make sure we maintain a presence in this room”.
“You’re covering up and authorizing the murder of black people”, another BLM activist told the board.
In an effort to enhance the deceased’s humanity, people shouted “Say her name! Wakiesha Wilson!” countless times. At least a dozen people took the microphone to express their feelings and demand justice.
“What else can we say, do you want us to bend on our knees?”, asked Wakiesha’s aunt, Sheila Hines, in a desperate tone. The emotion reached a peak when her sister, Wakiesha’s mother, Lisa Hines, fainted upon hearing the decision at the end of the day.
Along with the emotion, you could also feel anger and fatigue. Some threw insults at the LAPD’s chief, Charlie Beck, who kept silent, swallowing a torrent of “motherfuckers” and other name-calling, not to mention calls for his resignation. At one point, he was addressing the room for his weekly report, and he chose that moment to say that he would not waste his officers to back Donald Trump’s immigration policies. But the audience simply turned its back and booed him.
A woman stood in the middle of the seated crowd, raising her middle finger towards the whole board of commissioners, before being escorted out of the room by security guards.
The question of available video footage was central to this case. “If Wakiesha Wilson killed herself, we want to see it”, asked a man. But the police never offered to show any image. Charlie Beck’s report affirms that “there was no CCTV (Closed Circuit Television Video) cameras inside of Wilson cell”. Some recordings exist though, that “captured movements of Wilson and detention staff within the jail”.
“You could have relieved the pain by giving away the video but instead, you’ve been torturing them, for ten months”, said Melina Abdullah.
“What we’re asking is justice for this woman, and for your own soul’s sake, said another woman to the board. This city would be so great, if only you’d save yourself”.
“What the LAPD is leading the nation is the killing of its citizens, added another public speaker. We don’t need any more studies, we know what’s happening”.
Between 2011 and 2015, an internal report indicated that LAPD officers shot 52 black suspects. In 2015, they killed 21 persons, more than in Chicago or any other police force in the U.S. Among those, 12 were Hispanic (57%, while they represent about 47% of the population), 4 were black (19%, while they represent 9,8% of the population), 4 were white (19%, while they represent 29,4% of the population) , and one was Asian (5%, while they represent about 11% of the total).
It is very rare that LAPD officers get prosecuted for their actions, as the latest commission’s decision shows. Moreover, this latest ruling came just a week after two Los Angeles police officers were not charged for the killing of an unarmed black man, Ezell Ford, who was shot at 25 years old in the summer of 2014.