Editor's note: This article contains a graphic image that may be unsuitable for young readers.
(The Root) — Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon Martin's family, has become a new face in the fight for the equal treatment (under the law) of black and brown boys. Just months after a demoralizing verdict in George Zimmerman's second-degree-murder trial, which saw Trayvon's killer walk free, Crump is engaged in two new cases.
First, the case of Leon Ford Jr. — a teenager at the time of the incident — involves a far too common occurrence of unexplained police brutality. The second case takes on the violent death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson and what Crump claims can only be described as a real-life murder mystery.
In Ford's case, police shot the young man multiple times during a routine traffic stop. In a strange twist, Ford now faces a 20-year prison sentence, although the officers — who may have lied and falsified facts of the case — do not face charges.
As Janell Ross wrote for The Root this week, "Whether Ford should have been stopped, what happened when Pittsburgh police officers approached Ford's car, what Ford and the three officers said and did, even the order of events — is disputed. But this much is not: Ford, 19 at the time of the incident and unarmed, was shot multiple times and left paralyzed below his waist."
Though hardly surprising, it bears repeating that Ford was unarmed — just like Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin and countless others.
The case of Johnson is equally hard to stomach and, according to Crump, bears an eerie resemblance to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.
Johnson, a teenager from Georgia, was found in a rolled-up wrestling mat, standing upright, in the gymnasium of Valdosta High School in January. The death was initially ruled an accident, and authorities claimed that the teen had been trying to reach sneakers that fell through the mat, somehow got stuck and was unable to breathe.
A second, independent autopsy arranged by his family found that Johnson died of blunt-force trauma to the head. But even stranger — his organs had been removed and his body cavity filled with newspapers. In photos, Johnson's face has been brutalized beyond the point of recognition.
Kendrick Johnson (courtesy of the Johnson family); Kendrick Johnson postmortem (courtesy of the Johnson family's attorney)
How could these undeniable facts have been lost on the medical examiners in the first autopsy?
The only reasonable answer is that Johnson was young, black and dead.
It seems that unarmed young black males are so threatening that Skittles (in Trayvon Martin's hand) are a deadly weapon, their routine traffic stops end in paralyzing gunfights and their murders are written off as accidental.
Crump has been recognized for his outstanding work by his selection to The Root 100 for 2013. He spoke exclusively to The Root about these new cases for which he seeks justice, about the legacy of the Trayvon Martin case and the precedent set by Zimmerman's acquittal.
The Root: After the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, many black Americans were convinced that we still live in a separate-and-unequal society. As you prepare to defend the victims, Kendrick Johnson and Leon Ford Jr., and their families, what is your message? Do you believe the U.S. court system is ever capable of delivering actual justice on behalf of young African-American males?
Benjamin Crump: I was demoralized by the Zimmerman verdict, but we must all stay on the front lines. Before the Zimmerman verdict, I had said that the Trayvon Martin case was going to set a precedent — and it did. Sadly, it set a precedent that the lives of young black males were disposable, and our justice system reiterated that with the verdict it delivered. But I will not stand idly by and let that be a commentary on our time.
Sybrina and Tracy [Trayvon Martin's parents] are keeping the message and fight alive through the Trayvon Martin Foundation, and though their focus is on gun laws and "Stand your ground," the broader message is that young black boys should be allowed to walk home in peace or go to school and their parents not worry about their safe return.
TR: Based on what you know, do you have a scenario in mind for what happened to Kendrick Johnson?
BC: Kendrick Johnson left home to go to school like any typical teenager and returned the next day in a body bag. It's important for your readers to know that they live in rural Georgia and the school was mostly white. There is evidence that Kendrick may have been involved in a fight with some young white student weeks before, and that event may have precipitated his death. But what is most disturbing is that the school has refused to release the full video from four surveillance cameras in the gymnasium where he was found dead.
This reeks of foul play.
Police claim this was an accident, but the facts of the case don't support that conclusion. It flies in the face of all common sense. And now that we have the report from the second autopsy, this story has become a real-life murder mystery.
If you see the photos of Kendrick's broken body, the images are a stark reminder of Emmett Till. I can't believe that once again, in the American South, there is a brutal murder of a young black boy, and the police have decided to spin a tale of accidental death.
This is what I call the unknown Trayvon. This story hasn't dominated the news headlines, but it should. People everywhere should be disturbed and alarmed. What it says is that black parents must fear sending their child to school and not knowing whether that child will return home safely.
TR: Is there a role for the federal Justice Department in this case?
BC: Yes. We have been engaging with congressional leaders as well as members of Eric Holder's Justice Department, and there may be clear civil rights violations that they can pursue. But most importantly now is that we bring public pressure and awareness. Because the case was initially closed at the local level, there has yet to be a full-scale FBI investigation, and we are trying to make that happen. Any reasonable person would conclude that there was foul play here, and … the local authorities did not raise questions about integrity and potential criminality. As I said before, this makes no sense.
TR: And where do things stand with Leon Ford Jr.?
BC: We are hoping the court will throw out the charges against Leon, because it is clear that he was unarmed and in reasonable fear of his life. But what is happening across the country is that police officers have been emboldened to act with impunity against the bodies and lives of young black males. This must stop. Leon Ford's case is especially troubling because there is evidence the officers may have lied to authorities. This is all too common. Stories are constructed to make the victim seem like the aggressor.
How is it that black skin alone is so powerful that it inspires such fear in officers trained to serve and protect? Why are black boys never seen as victims? Never allowed to fear for their lives?
I am continuing this fight so that the legacy of Trayvon Martin's life might well be that Kendrick and Leon received justice — despite the fact that George Zimmerman walked free.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.