Two months ago, a police officer shot dirt biker David Jones to death in North Philadelphia.
Jones, 30, had been riding a dirt bike, which is illegal on city streets, but the officer who shot him June 8 was out of his assigned district and already taking a family to the Special Victims Unit when he decided to detour and stop Jones.
The impromptu stop quickly turned violent when Officer Ryan Pownall frisked Jones and felt a firearm. Jones broke free and ran — and Pownall shot him three times in the back as he fled, apparently unaware that he’d dropped the gun.
Since the fatal shooting, activists with Black Lives Matter have been staging protests — including crashing news conferences to confront city officials, call for Pownall’s termination, and demand an outside investigation.
WHYY’s Dana DiFilippo sat down with lead organizer and longtime activist Asa Khalif to talk about whether their efforts are working.
You can hear the conversation in the audio player above. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: David Jones was one of six men shot by police so far this year in Philadelphia, and one of dozens gunned down by police since an officer shot Brandon Tate Brown — your cousin — to death in December 2014. What specifically about the David Jones case drove you to protest?
A: We said two and a half years ago, when we stood in the street demanding justice for Brandon Tate Brown, that the 15th District police officers will shoot again, and they will kill. And here we are, fast forwarded to 2017, and we have an officer from the same district, the 15th District, where officers murdered Brandon Tate Brown, who shot a black man in the back by the name of David Jones. What was so alarming to me is that we weren’t dealing with a video that was grainy and had to be super-exposed. We saw clearly (from a nearby diner’s surveillance footage) David Jones running unarmed, and we clearly saw from the video that the police officer directly shot him and murdered him in cold blood, shooting him in the back. What was outrageous about this was that this officer had shot and paralyzed another black man. He has a pattern. He was never disciplined for that, he was never fired, he was never brought up on charges. He was free to kill.
Q: That victim in that case, Carnell Williams-Carney, filed a lawsuit against the officers. But he lost after the city successfully argued that he was armed, and Pownall didn’t know he’d dropped his gun.
A: The first victim survived, but he’s paralyzed. Unfortunately, David Jones did not survive. It’s very alarming, the brutality that comes out of the 15th District. It’s clearly one of the districts with a history of brutalizing black and brown people, and poor people. This particular officer was not in his district. He was transporting a witness in another case, a kidnapping case, to be interviewed, and he stopped, putting the witnesses in jeopardy. You’re not supposed to do that. Police protocol is when you’re transporting witnesses, especially witnesses to crime, you take them from point A to point B without stopping. So he was automatically out of order for that. And then he got out (of his cruiser) and left the witnesses unattended to deal with a dirt bike incident. If David Jones was driving recklessly, he could easily have called that in. He didn’t need to put the witnesses in jeopardy. This was completely unnecessary.
Q: Let’s talk about your methods. Over the years, you have marched around the city. Lately, you’ve taken one of your most common chants — “Shut it down!” — to heart, disrupting news conferences and confronting city officials, such as former Gov. Ed Rendell, at podiums. What are you trying to accomplish with this strategy?
A: We have shut down the managing director, the mayor, Councilman Bobby Henon, the Police Advisory Commission. We have been doing a certain type of strategy in the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s time to switch our direction, in terms of how we protest. As a national organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement, we never want individuals, especially politicians and police, to get used to our tactics. And so we need to expose politicians, particularly black politicians, who come from these neighborhoods that are oppressed and brutalized by police. Your days of being silent are over. You are a public official; you work for the people. We don’t work for you.
Q: It sounds like the goal is to get politicians on the record in front of media.
A: Absolutely. And they need to be. The mayor would never have talked about this had we not confronted him on it. The managing director would not have talked about it. Ed Rendell, with so much generational blood on his hands from MOVE to Donta Dawson, you’re not going to be free. When we say no politician will be safe, we mean old and young, former and new. The point is you are a public official. This is a major city, we’re not talking about some backwoods place somewhere in Iowa. We’re talking about a major metropolitan city, and you have a major shooting that has now gone national. Your days of hiding in City Hall in the bat cave are over. We’re going to shine a light on these public officials to comment and respect the family, who is grieving in their city.
Q: Along those lines, a lot of time, the politicians that you target look a little uncomfortable during your shut-it-down actions.
A: That’s the point.
Q: What is it that you want them to say?
A: Justice for David Jones and his family would satisfy us. The politicians in this city cannot remain silent. They are afraid to challenge the police when they are out of order. But yet they want our votes. You can’t get rid of them in the black community when they need the votes, and the Latino community, and the LBGT community, and the trans community. You (politicians) cannot just come and say: “Give me…” and when we give our votes to you, you leave us hanging high and dry because you’re afraid of the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) and law enforcement. Everybody has to be held accountable. If you assault me, Dana, you go to jail. If I assault you, I go to jail. That’s just the way it is. And law enforcement is not above the law, and no politician is above the people. We’ve had a major shooting that is clearly unjust and has gone national. For a politician not to say anything about it? Even if you don’t want to comment on the case based on the investigation, at least acknowledge that they (shooting victims) have a family here in Philadelphia. He had a mother, a father, siblings, a wife. Acknowledge your condolences to the family, and let the investigation take its place. Silence is violence when it comes to law enforcement and their abuse of black and brown people.
Q: Is there anything Black Lives Matter is doing behind the scenes? For example, the city right now is negotiating a contract with the police department. Any plans to protest that process?
A: We are now organizing to step up the game. At this point, you will see (us in) places that normally would not be target places for Black Lives Matter movement. We are targeting these places now to make sure our message gets out, and gets out very clearly. Nothing is going to be business as usual, as long as this investigation is shady and this family is grieving.
Q: In a lot of ways, Philadelphia is like other cities across the United States, in terms of the challenges it faces with reforming policing, struggling with racism, and those sorts of issues. Is there anything unique to Philly that makes these challenges especially tough here?
A. It’s the transparency situation. We would have never heard publicly that this case had been moved to the (Pennsylvania) Attorney General had we not shut down Darrell Clarke at that press conference. He had a slip of the tongue to say that. The (lack of) transparency is fueling the anger of the people. We want to know where the investigation is. We want updates on that. That’s only fair. They’re not transparent. If there was any movement on this case, moving it from one (investigative) entity to another, it should have been announced. An announcement should not have been forced, based on a shutdown from Black Lives Matter and the Coalition for Justice for David Jones. His family should have been notified that the District Attorney was no longer handling this case. (Instead) they found out from Darrell Clarke’s slip of the tongue. The family had no idea until that announcement was made. Whether in error or not, it was not Darrell Clarke’s place to make that announcement. It was the District Attorney’s Office’s duty to make that announcement.
Q: Over the last few years, I’ve covered a lot of your protests. Some have drawn hundreds of people — and some, just a handful. Are you frustrated that more people don’t turn out?
A: I’m not frustrated, because one black woman sat down and started a movement. And her name was dear sister Rosa Parks, may she rest in power. I tell people all the time: Don’t ever get caught up with the numbers. It’s the passion and the message behind it. It’s how you organize. We shut down several press conferences. We didn’t have a whole (bunch) of people. But we made some movement because of it. So I’m happy when we have big rallies. I’m happy when we’ve had small rallies. The point is, people need to be engaged and realize they can do something. It doesn’t necessarily mean going to the streets or getting arrested. You can work behind the scenes. You can start petitions. You can lobby your Congress people and your representatives to set up laws that will protect black and brown and poor people. Don’t ever get caught up with the numbers. It’s the passion and the clear message to the public.
Q: Earlier this week, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office confirmed that it has taken over the investigation into David Jones’ death, after the Philadelphia D.A.’s office handed it off because of an undefined conflict of interest. So is your work done here?
A: No. There are a lot of questions that have to be answered. You just can’t throw something to someone, and say: ‘OK, well there’s a conflict,’ and then walk away. We need to know what the conflict is. We need to know we can trust this Attorney General. We’re not dealing with Kathleen Kane. But we are dealing with someone we’re not familiar with in our communities. We need updates. We need you to be in our communities to talk to us about what is going on with the investigation. You just can’t say: ‘I am who I am,’ and ‘trust me.’ We need to see some background on why we should trust you. We need a clear message on why this was even given to the Attorney General. But movement is good, whether it’s suspicious or not, because we’re still moving the needle.
Q: So maybe that’s next? “Shut it down” in Harrisburg?
A: Oh yeah. Everything is on the table at this point. I brought in some great organizers from Chicago and Los Angeles, who are staying with us, to make sure we tighten things up in our Black Lives Matter movement. That’s what it’s all about. It’s really about coming together as a collective, working on your goal, and not being sidetracked off that. We’re going to come up with some really interesting things, some very creative things. So stay tuned.