At The Root is a new MLK50 series that highlights everyday radical action. As the writer and activist Angela Davis said, “radical means simply grasping something at the root.” This visually-driven feature will be recurring. To suggest an idea for At The Root, email visuals director Andrea Morales at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rico Washington knows sometimes he lays on the gas a little too much. That awareness stays with him as he drives from his home in North Memphis across the city. As a Black man, he knows the risks involved with getting pulled over by the police.
On a Saturday morning last month, volunteers canvassing the Douglass neighborhood approached Washington to tell him about the Brake Light Clinic that DeCarcerate Memphis was hosting at Douglass Park. Washington brought in his electric blue Kia to get checked out. Josh Adams, a clinic volunteer, inspected the car and found that both of the brake lights were burned out. It took just a few minutes for Adams to switch them out.
The organization challenges the idea that increasing law enforcement leads to safer streets and aims to end the racial and class bias used in the justice system.This was the first in a series of clinics to address a common pretense for police stops: Faulty brake lights.
According to a recently published New York Times investigation, over the last five years American law enforcement have killed during traffic stops more than 400 unarmed drivers or passengers who were not suspected of a violent crime. Although the police face a probability of less than 1 in 3.6 million of ending up dead during a traffic stop, the perceived danger is used as a justification for use-of-force during these encounters. “That presumption of peril has been significantly overstated, but it has become ingrained in police culture and court precedents — contributing to impunity for most officers who use lethal force at vehicle stops,” the investigation said.
Additional Brake Light Clinics
Saturday, Nov. 6: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at Orange Mound Tower, 2205 Lamar Avenue
Saturday, Dec. 4: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at First Congo Church, 1000 South Cooper Street
Follow DeCarcerate Memphis on Facebook for updates.
Darrius Stewart, 19, was a passenger in a car that was pulled over during a 2015 traffic stop for a non-working headlight in Hickory Hill. Memphis police officer Connor Schilling detained Stewart, claiming that he had an active warrant. The encounter ended with Schilling shooting Stewart to death.
A burned out brake light was part of the justification for pulling over Philando Castile in Minnesota . A broken tail light led to Walter Scott being pulled over in South Carolina. Samuel DuBose was driving a car with a missing tag when he was pulled over in Ohio. All three men were killed by the police during the stops.
“We have seen these types of deaths all across the country starting with a simple traffic stop,” volunteer Kathy Yancey Temple said. “It is no longer justifiable. It’s never been justifiable.”
A recent study listed police use-of-force as the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men.
The replacement bulbs and Adams’s labor came at no cost to Washington or anyone else who took advantage of the clinic’s offerings. This act of service helps Washington avoid an encounter ending with what could be a fine of around $60, at best.
“[The police] were probably going to do the most, probably figure out some more problems with my car that way they can add some more stuff to the ticket,” Washington said. “And that would just make it worse for me, way worse than just my tail light being out.”
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