Last week, a group of church friends held a town hall meeting in Brunswick, Georgia. Their purpose is embodied in their name: Justice For Caroline Small.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of her.
She was a waitress, a mother of two girls, and a woman with mental health issues who was in and out of drug treatment programs for much of her life until she was killed by police in June 2010. Her death was every bit as outrageous as those of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, but has received only a fraction of the attention.
Indeed, unless you live in Georgia or North Florida, you probably don’t know her story. And you should. As told in news reports and a dash cam video, it goes like this:
A police officer responds to a call of a woman doing drugs in a parking lot. When he tells her to shut off the car, she takes off instead. A four mile, low-speed chase ensues. It ends when a police car bumps her vehicle, spinning it to a stop.
With one police car sitting nose to nose, another on her passenger side, a utility pole behind her, a ditch on her left and all four tires gone, Small has nowhere to go. Still, she shifts into reverse and then forward, banging uselessly against the utility pole and the patrol car.
Police yell at her to get out. Instead, she tries again – back against the pole, forward, bumping the car. And Sgt. Corey Sasser and Officer Todd Simpson open fire, tattooing her windshield with .45 caliber rounds.
Afterward, they discuss their marksmanship.
“I hit her right in the face … right on the bridge of the nose,” says Sasser.
Simpson waves off a former EMT who approaches to render aid. “She’s dead. I shot her in the head. Her head exploded.”
Small actually died seven days later. Sasser and Simpson were cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury and by internal affairs. A civil suit was dismissed.
Justice for Caroline Small was formed last year after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a local ABC News affiliate investigated the shooting and found that police, seeking to protect their own, interfered with a supposedly “independent” probe, while the district attorney deferred to them at every step, essentially paving the way for the grand jury to clear the two officers.
Perhaps most damning: The investigation concludes police tampered with the crime scene and manufactured misleading evidence. Grand jurors were led to believe Small had room to maneuver her car and could have run the officers down. The dash cam video – search it online for yourself – proves the unarmed woman was hemmed in and posed no immediate threat.
So Justice for Caroline Small is calling for a new investigation of the shooting and a probe of the police department itself. In a nation that has come to think of the police shooting of unarmed people and the protests thereof as a black thing, they are an anomaly. Visit JusticeForCaroline.com and you will find, as one told an AJC reporter, “old-time, white, middle-class people.”
As such, they provide a wordless yet eloquent reminder that, although African Americans bear the brunt of our unwillingness to demand accountability for police misbehavior, unchecked power ultimately has no racial loyalties. The refusal to understand that is a dangerous luxury none of us can afford.
As a member named Kay Allen told the AJC, this shooting of a 35-year-old white woman “changes in some ways the way that you view the police and just thinking they are there to protect you. And it’s kind of like, ‘Well, maybe not. Maybe there’s another side to things that we don’t always know about.’”
It is the kind of dawning realization that often precedes enlightenment. And in that sense, Justice For Caroline Small might be a small step toward justice for us all.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.