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Atatiana Jefferson’s Death Reminded Us of the Work Needed to Protect Black Lives

The 28-year-old Fort Worth woman was killed in her own home in October by a police officer responding to a call for a wellness check

Ringer illustration

The artist Nikkolas Smith is known for his illustrations depicting black life in America, from protests on the athletic field to black cinema. In October, he posted a painting of Atatiana Jefferson to his Instagram account. Jefferson is sitting on a couch, playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew. Jefferson is smiling. She is in a state of uninterrupted bliss. She is unbothered. She is alive.

The scene depicted one of the last moments of Jefferson’s life. Around 2:30 a.m. on October 12, Jefferson’s neighbor called a nonemergency police number in Fort Worth, Texas, for a wellness check. The neighbor expressed concern to the dispatchers that the doors to the home where Jefferson lived with her mother had been open for a few hours, which he thought was unusual. The family occasionally left them open at night to cool the home. They felt safe in their neighborhood.

Fort Worth police would later say that the responding officers saw someone near a window inside the home—one of them drew his service weapon after “perceiving a threat.” Body camera footage showed one of the officers, Aaron Dean, approaching a bedroom window, yelling, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” Dean fired a shot into the home right after giving his order, killing Jefferson. She was 28 years old. Her nephew told a forensic interviewer that Jefferson heard a noise outside while they were playing video games in a back bedroom, reached into her purse to retrieve her handgun, and went to the window to investigate. (Jefferson possessed the handgun legally.) Dean never announced himself nor the fact he had drawn his weapon.

Lee Merritt, a lawyer for the Jefferson family, noted that Jefferson’s nephew watched her die. The exchange, as seen on Dean’s body camera footage, lasted less than 90 seconds. It is crushing to watch. “The murder of this innocent woman represents a breaking point,” Merritt told the press in October. “The Fort Worth Police Department is on pace to be one of the deadliest police departments in the United States. They are in need of serious systematic reform.”

Merritt said that he wanted to “dispel [a] myth.” Jefferson’s death was not a tragedy born of serendipitous circumstances, the result of two converging paths that were not supposed to meet. This was not an incident of bad luck. Jefferson did not have to die, nor does she deserve to be forgotten. She is a victim of a devastating and enduring national tragedy, part of the epidemic of police violence against black citizens.

Ed Kraus, the chief of police in Fort Worth, told the press that Dean submitted his resignation after the shooting, though Kraus was planning to fire him for committing several violations. Kraus even went as far as to defend Jefferson’s actions, saying it “makes sense that she would have a gun if she felt she was being threatened or if there was someone in the backyard.” Dean was charged with murder and released on $200,000 bond.

Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes and Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Malik Jefferson covered the costs of Jefferson’s funeral. “No one should be killed during a wellness check,” Barnes told the press. He said it was hard to believe. “So we want justice for the family.”

The beginning of this decade saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2012 in response to the shooting of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. It has since evolved into an international protest movement denouncing systemic racism and police brutality. Police shootings, especially those leading to the deaths of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016, reignited the modern athlete-activism movement, which had been largely dormant since the turn of the century. Yet observers of police violence have argued that attention to these killings has waned since Donald Trump became president in 2016. Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was arrested in 2014 while reporting in Ferguson, Missouri, after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in a police shooting, and has since become a watchdog on policing nationally. “Police violence—beatings, Taserings, killings—and criminal justice reform more broadly were arguably the leading domestic news story line during the final two years of the Obama administration,” he wrote last year. “The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and others dominated headlines, inspired nationwide protests and brought on a pro-law-enforcement backlash that helped elect President Trump. Now the issue has all but vanished from the national political conversation.”

Marquis Jefferson, Atatiana’s father, said after her death that he did not have any empathy for those who stole his daughter from him. “I don’t want no hug,” he said. “That’s my one and only daughter. I’ll never forget that.”

He died in November. A family spokesperson said the cause was “a broken heart.”

Marquis is another casualty of the immeasurable pain this nation inflicts on the black body, part of an unending cycle of trauma. Eric Garner died in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer. In 2017, his daughter Erica died at 27 of a heart attack after years of advocating for justice for her father. Emerald Snipes, Erica’s sister, said she died “fighting.”

Atatiana Jefferson’s neighbor, James Smith, 62, told the press after her death that he regretted calling the police for a wellness check. “If you don’t feel safe with the police department, then who do you feel safe with?” he asked. He had conflicting emotions. “If I had never dialed the police department, she’d still be alive.”

An August analysis of deaths involving police officers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police officers than their white counterparts, and black women are 1.4 times more likely than their white counterparts. Rutgers sociologist Frank Edwards told NBC News that the numbers “may be an undercount” because of a lack of reliable data from the federal government and police departments.

Black women are particularly vulnerable. A 2018 Washington University study found that they are more likely than any other demographic to have been unarmed when killed by law enforcement. Too often, it appears as though the lives of black women are easily erased. It is no wonder the #SayHerName hashtag, a mainstay in online organizing circles to ensure that black women who are killed by police are not forgotten, was widely used after Jefferson’s death. Violence toward black women is an often neglected fixture of our national history. The African American Policy Forum, which launched the #SayHerName campaign in partnership with mothers of slain black women, released a statement after Jefferson’s death, asking: “What would have to happen to sufficiently shock the conscience of America that something might actually change?”

As it currently stands, until there is a massive reformation of policing in the United States, these American disasters will persist, and these gut-wrenching stories will be repeated. That change does not appear to be on the horizon. President Trump’s Justice Department has rolled back robust oversight measures of police departments, part of this administration’s troubling record on civil rights protections. Protest movements and data-driven studies can draw attention to the issues, but alone they are not enough to protect black people from law enforcement abuses. Body camera footage that was supposed to serve as a deterrent to poor policing has been shown to be insufficient. Progress has slowed to snail-like pace. Each season we type new hashtags instead of living full lives.

The smallest infractions create a chasm between police and black people. This country’s history is rife with examples of how the very existence of blackness has been criminalized. In the Antebellum South, a police state was cemented after forces were deployed primarily as slave patrols, upholding the laws of forced servitude. In this way, police brutality has infringed on the rights of the black body since law enforcement’s creation. Fear should not be a fixture of black life. But it feels impossible to see the faces of those newly lost and not see the similarities in the stories from the past. Continuing to watch black people die for attempting to live freely, without malice, is an exhausting part of the American story.

In our modern civil rights movement, spanning from the streets of Ferguson to Fort Worth, the concrete is covered by as many protest posters as droplets of blood spilled by this American disease. At the end of this decade of protest, the attention paid to the struggle of the black body cannot wane. We cannot become so inured, so desensitized to the violence that we accept it as normal instead of yelling for it to end. That is where true progress lies, the real democratization of the nation. Atatiana Jefferson was today. Trayvon Martin felt like yesterday. And, soon, another will be tomorrow.

Like so many of us, I have been Atatiana, playing video games in my house with my loved ones. The only difference is I wasn’t killed for my uninhibited joy. I have been Botham Jean, enjoying the chilly splendor of ice cream on my couch. The difference is I was not fatally shot in my own home. I have been Tamir Rice, a boy, playing with toys in a park by himself. Luckily, men didn’t leap from a car and erase me that day. I have bought from the “CD men” like Alton Sterling, paid the men like Eric Garner selling loosies on street corners. I have prayed and breathed and loved and lived in this land, and I should not be terrified that simply living is license enough for me to die. At least I have survived. I can still smile as Atatiana did, as Nikkolas Smith captured in his painting. I can take solace that I am safe today. That brings me peace. The problem is that I cannot speak for tomorrow. When the new decade begins, and a similar, sorrowful black story is written anew, I hope that black lives truly do matter as much as I want them to.