By Nicole Chavez and Meron Moges-Gerbi
Protests and calls for justice are increasing in Ohio’s capital after the police killing of an unarmed Black man this week bluntly signaled the continuation of years of racial inequality and strained relationships with law enforcement.
Donovan Lewis was in bed around 2 a.m. Tuesday when he was shot to death by a Columbus police officer attempting to serve a felony warrant at the apartment building, police said. Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant has said the officer, Ricky Anderson, opened fire as it appeared Lewis was holding “something” in his hand. She said a vape pen was later found next to Lewis on the bed.
“How many more lives are gonna be lost to this type of reckless activity? How many more young Black lives will be lost?,” Rex Elliott, an attorney for Lewis’ family, said Thursday at a news conference.
Lewis joined a growing list of Black people killed in law enforcement encounters in the city of almost 900,000 people. Casey Goodson Jr., 23, was shot in 2020 when he was entering his home, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was outside her foster home in 2021 and Andre Hill, 47, was walking toward an officer in 2020 holding an illuminated cell phone in his hand.
Data collected by Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit group that tracks police shootings in the United States, shows at least 14 Black people — mostly men — have been shot to death by officers with the Columbus Division of Police in the past five years.
City and county officials promised to address the disparities people of color face in many areas, including health, poverty, economic mobility, education, crime, and food access when they passed resolutions declaring racism a public health crisis in 2020 but the criticism of Columbus officers’ treatment of Black residents and allegations of racism and discrimination among the police department’s ranks continue to fuel mistrust among the community.
“There are good people in Columbus who know the problem is severe but their knowledge of it does not seem to be listening the issue at all and that’s very worrisome,” said Wil Haygood, a journalist and biographer chronicling the lives Black Americans and who has written multiple books about life in Columbus.
Haygood, a visiting scholar at the Miami University in Ohio who grew up in Columbus, said the lives of Black people in the city have been marked by interactions with law enforcement for generations. Haygood recalls White enforcement officers confronting demonstrators during racial protests in 1968 and other times when he was stopped by police for no clear reason.
“I grew up not wanting to be around police officers thinking that they were out to do you harm,” he said.
In 2018, police statistics show, almost 55% of CDP’s use-of-force incidents targeted Black people, who compose less than 29% of the city’s population.
Sean Walton, an attorney representing the families of several Black men killed by police in the city, started his career as a personal injury attorney but expanded his practice to civil rights litigation more than five years ago after meeting a family who was protesting the death of a relative outside the county courthouse.
He filed his first lawsuit in 2016 and within a year he took the cases of three other Black men who were killed by police at the time. As the years passed, Walton says he’s seen how body cameras and cell phone videos have proved “what the people living in Columbus have long known.”
“It is not that the recent spate of shootings is a new development,” he said.
The national attention in the aftermath of the police shootings and deaths “has enlightened the country as to the persistent police threat that Black and brown people feel in our daily lives as Columbus citizens,” Walton said.
In recent years, there have been some changes like city officials acknowledging systemic racism and the ongoing review by the US Department of Justice into the Columbus Division of Police, but activists, scholars and residents often feel is incremental, with “little to no urgency,” and without fully embracing the community’s input.
In the past days, several groups in the city have described Lewis’ death as evidence of the “significant, ongoing harm perpetuated against Black people” at the hands of law enforcement and began organizing forums, prayers and protests to be held Friday and over the weekend.
“Black people deserve to live in safety and peace and in thriving communities without the looming threat of state-sanctioned violence,” the YWCA Columbus said in a statement.
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