Police Officer on Trial for 2016 Shooting Draws Protest

The case stirred the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked a debate about how police treat mentally ill individuals

Hawk Newsome raised his fist in protest at a Bronx courthouse Monday morning, his bellowing voice demanding attention amidst the roar of street traffic at rush hour. As nearby court officers yelled instructions to potential jurors, Newsome struggled to jolt New Yorkers out of their morning commute daze.

Newsome, a 41-year-old full-time activist who founded Black Lives Matter of Greater New York in 2016, and three others gathered in front of the Bronx County Hall of Justice to call attention to Hugh Barry, a New York Police Department sergeant on trial for the 2016 murder of Deborah Danner, a 66-year old woman with schizophrenia.

“Indict, convict, send killer cops to jail,” they chanted. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”

Hawk Newsome, who founded the New York chapter of Black Lives Matter, protests in front of the Bronx Hall of Justice, where an NYPD sergeant is on trial for the murder of a 66-year-old woman with schizophrenia. (Angie Wang for NY City Lens)

Hawk Newsome, who founded the New York chapter of Black Lives Matter, protests in front of the Bronx Hall of Justice, where an NYPD sergeant is on trial for the murder of a 66-year-old woman with schizophrenia. (Angie Wang for NY City Lens)

Barry, whose trial began last Tuesday, fatally shot Danner in October 2016 after police responded to calls about a woman acting erratically in her Castle Hill, Bronx apartment. Reports indicate Barry persuaded Danner to put down a pair of scissors, but she refused to let go of a baseball bat. The 8-year veteran claimed Danner swung at him and he fired two shots in self-defense.

Last May, Barry was charged with second-degree murder, first- and second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

“What do you do when an old lady comes at you with a bat?” Newsome asked. “You duck, you dodge and you might even laugh – but you don’t shoot her twice.”

Despite the small turnout and below zero temperatures, Newsome said it was essential protesters keep showing up even long after angry crowds dissipate and TV crews pack their bags because Black Lives Matter of Greater New York has followed Danner’s case since the night of her death.

“You gotta stay the course,” Newsome said. “That’s the fight.”

A security officer who passed by the small protest nodded in support. Others shook Newsome’s hand, took informational pamphlets and thanked them for keeping the community informed. But most walked by without so much as a glance.

Timothy Ruffin, a 44-year-old educator from Harlem who protested Monday, said it’s especially important to keep protesting when there isn’t a lot of media attention.

“When the media goes away, the issues don’t,” said Ruffin, who has been a Black Lives Matter activist for almost two years. “It’s on us to get those issues to the people.”

Angelique Kearse, a 41-year-old Bronx resident who works for the U.S. Postal Service, said she attended the protest to urge police officers to take care of the communities they patrol.

“They need to protect and serve,” Kearse said. “Not act as judge, jury and executioner.”

Serenityy, 2, looks toward her mom, Angelique Kearse, who said she brought her daughter to the Black Lives Matter protest because it's important for children to be involved from a young age. (Angie Wang for NY City Lens)

Serenityy, 2, looks toward her mom, Angelique Kearse, who said she brought her daughter to the Black Lives Matter protest because it’s important for children to be involved from a young age. (Angie Wang for NY City Lens)

Danner’s death also drew attention because she had previously voiced her concern about interacting with police officers in a six-page statement written in 2012. In her essay, titled “Living with Schizophrenia,” she described what it’s like to battle the disease.

“We are all aware of the all too frequent news stories about the mentally ill who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals and end up dead,” she wrote.

Her death sparked a debate over whether police officers were adequately trained in responding to situations involving emotionally disturbed individuals.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill quickly denounced the shooting, both saying Barry failed to follow the protocol for dealing with an emotionally disturbed person. O’Neill called the incident a failure, while de Blasio said it was “tragic and unacceptable.”

On Monday morning, protesters called on the same local officials to lead by example and stand up for justice rather than moving on the the next story that makes headlines.

Newsome said he spoke with Danner’s neighbors shortly after her death on Oct. 18, 2016, to get a sense of who she was. Hundreds of people rallied the following afternoon to march from Danners’ apartment building to the police precinct, a recurring protest that continued for several nights.

Protesters gather in front of the Bronx Hall of Justice, where an NYPD sergeant is on trial for the murder of a 66-year-old woman with schizophrenia. (Angie Wang for NY City Lens)

Protesters gather in front of the Bronx Hall of Justice, where an NYPD sergeant is on trial for the murder of a 66-year-old woman with schizophrenia. (Angie Wang for NY City Lens)

Now, more than a year later, the crowd has dwindled. It’s just Newsome, who has worn different versions of the same “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt almost every day for the last two years, and a few friends. He said some activists seek glory and some have short attention spans, but others are just plain tired of how often they have to protest injustice.

“Some people are so tired of fighting because they feel like they can’t get a rest,” Newsome said. “It’s sad, really.”

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