Feature: Columbus community groups fight for racial justice

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

About a month before the release of videos showing the fatal, police-involved shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a local African-American man was shot and killed by police in Columbus.

On the evening of June 6, 23-year-old Henry Green was walking with a friend in South Linden when two plainclothes Columbus police officers approached them in an SUV. Green was carrying a gun.

According to police, Officers Jason Bare and Zachary Rosen ordered Green to drop the weapon. They said Green shot at them and they returned fire, killing Green.

However, according to theDispatch, Green's friend Christian Rutledge, who was with him, insists Bare and Rosen never identified themselves as police officers before opening fire. Green's family members also said Green was doing nothing illegal, as he had a license to carry a concealed weapon in Ohio, an open-carry state.

"We're hurting," said Green's mom, Adrienne Hood. "My son is forever gone … over senseless stuff, irresponsible police officers."

The case is currently under investigation by the Columbus Division of Police.

"I heard the shots," said Genesis Shine, who lives in Linden. After reviewing the reports, Shine, who is a member of the criminal justice reform group People's Justice Project (PJP), launched "straight into organizing mode."

As the nation erupts with Black Lives Matter protests in response to the deaths of Sterling and Castile, local community organizations said they are working together to find justice for Henry Green at home. Citing the absence of video footage of Green's death, and what they perceive as little acknowledgment by government officials and a lack of coverage by local media, some activists - and Green's family - say they're also fighting for attention.

Referencing the fatal, police-involved shootings of Tamir Rice in Cleveland and John Crawford III in Beavercreek, PJP Youth and Family Organizer Amber Evans considers Ohio "ground zero" for the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The fact that it's a family so close to us that's now lost their son is really, really tragic," she said.

After Green's death, PJP connected with Green's family and their lawyer to create a list of demands for Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O'Brien. They requested that O'Brien charge Officers Bare and Rosen with reckless homicide and appoint an independent prosecutor to oversee the case.

PJP members accompanied Green's family members as they delivered their demands to O'Brien's office during the PJP rally at the Franklin County Municipal Courthouse on June 15.

O'Brien responded with a written statement to PJP, dated June 16, which he forwarded toAlive.

"I understand the Columbus Division of Police is conducting a comprehensive investigation of the shooting by the police officers in accordance with their established procedures," he wrote. "At the present time this office is not able to render a judgment because the investigation is still in progress and has not been completed."

Community organizations have also issued demands to Mayor Andrew Ginther via the Columbus People's Partnership, a grassroots group focused on addressing systemic inequality in the city. They are asking him to cease the use of plainclothes officers, as well as the Community Safety Initiative (CSI), also referred to as the Summer Safety Initiative, enacted during warmer months to reduce violent crimes, illegal firearm possession and drug trade by targeting areas of high-crime activity. Officers Bare and Rosen were working as part of the government-funded initiative when they shot Green.

"Going in plainclothes and startling somebody in a community where they may already feel unsafe is problematic," Evans said. It also builds tension and distrust between the community and police, especially when there is no communication, she added.

"There's no [police] interaction with the citizens in the Linden area … except when they're being apprehended," Shine said.

But the mayor and Police Commander Gary Cameron have a different view of the initiative.

"There are a lot of great things that are coming out of it," said Robin Davis, a spokesperson for Ginther. "And it's an ongoing, proven initiative to make neighborhoods safer."

Cameron, who serves as the 2016 CSI director, agreed, citing surveys from community members.

"We get our fair share of criticism within those surveys, but we also get quite a few people who say they do feel more safe," he said. He also mentioned the importance of plainclothes officers for "enhanced surveillance of criminals" and cautioned detractors to wait until the Green investigation is complete.

"It seems like they're channeling the anger, the anguish over Mr. Green's death toward something which [does not deserve] criticism," he said. "I think once the information is out … we can have some healthy dialogue in the community and start talking about the community concerns and coming up with real solutions."

For now, the demands addressed to both O'Brien and Ginther are included on a petition on the Columbus People's Partnership website. The petition, which had about 1,000 signatures as of July 18, is also being circulated in print form by local organizations, including the Columbus branch of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).

"[SURJ] is a group of white folks organizing white folks to be better allies in the Black Lives Matter Movement," said Lead Organizer Lane Campbell.

"Racism thrives when people remain silent," added Lead Organizer Tynan Krakoff. "You become complicit in what the police and what the government does on our behalf."

And so Campbell and Krakoff have been taking the petitions to "white spaces" where racial justice is not usually discussed. They recently visited farmer's markets in Worthington and Clintonville, for example.

They receive a variety of responses, including "folks very quickly passing by and not wanting to talk at all about justice for Henry Green, folks who say, 'Oh, who is that?' … [and] people who are like, 'Give me that clipboard, I want to sign on right now,'" Campbell said.

But after the news of Sterling and Castile's deaths, SURJ organizers noticed even more white allies wanting to get involved in racial justice matters. Attendance at the monthly meeting on July 7 increased and their Facebook group gained hundreds of new members.

In fact, a growing segment of the Columbus community has recently expressed a desire to take action. When social justice organization Cbus2Ferguson created a Facebook event for a Black Lives Matter solidarity gathering at Franklin Park on July 8, 1,700 people RSVP'd in 24 hours. Given the magnitude, the small staff of organizers and the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers, which occurred the night before the event, Cbus2Ferguson decided to postpone the gathering.

The next day, however, "the deaths of Alton [Sterling] and Philando Castile were still so etched on the collective imagination of everyone in the city, and people really wanted to come out and gather for something," said Cbus2Ferguson Organizer Rooney Hassan. In about eight hours, she and volunteers from several other community groups organized a more focused "Speak Out Against Police Brutality" event, which attracted an estimated 400 people.

"They came with their signs and … this real passion and grit," Hassan said. "The first people we let speak were Henry Green's family, his mother, his father and [their] lawyer."

By contrast, Green was not a focal point at the Healing Rally that took place two days later at the First Church of God on Refugee Road, which Adrienne Hood and attorney Sean Walton attended. According to a 10TV article, the purpose of the event was to show empathy for Sterling, Castile and the Dallas police officers.

"Mayor Ginther gave remarks, and [he] spoke about what was happening nationally … and [he] made no mention of Henry or anything happening locally," Walton said. "It's frustrating because we just keep seeing [public officials] disregard what's going on."

Asked about Ginther's willingness to speak about Henry Green, spokesperson Davis referenced a statement he released following Green's death.

"Part of that statement was to allow the criminal justice system to do its work," Davis said. "So that's why he isn't talking specifics about Henry Green. But he has spoken generally about the need to build relationships and better understanding within the communities."

"We get that he can't give us details about the situation, but he can at least answer the questions and concerns that we have," Walton said. The lawyer sent a letter to Ginther on behalf of the family, requesting a number of things, including information on how many times Green was shot and where the bullets entered.

Walton received a letter from Director of Public Safety George Speaks - forwarded toAlive - that did not address Walton's questions but summarized the investigation process.

Hood said she is upset city officials are remaining tight-lipped about the case when police publicly labeled Green the aggressor in the confrontation shortly after it happened - and before the investigation has been completed.

"I want a public apology from them because they ran my son's name through the mud," she said.

Hood and community organizers alike are also disappointed in the media coverage of Green's death.

"They are doing everything that they can to keep my son's story from getting out," Hood said.

10TV did not bring up Green's name in its coverage of the Healing Rally, and Hood said she did not hear Green's name mentioned in the coverage of the local rallies and events that took place the weekend after Sterling and Castile died.

"[People] were saying, 'Justice for Henry Green' … but [the news] said nothing about my son," she said.

"I wonder … if it doesn't get as much attention because there isn't a video, and people want that kind of shocking proof," said SURJ organizer Campbell. "Learning about this local case … makes it so much more crystal clear just how many folks we do not know who have been killed or brutalized by the police."

"It almost seems that the general society doesn't believe black people, that it's not enough [to have] witnesses … and coroners' reports," SURJ's Krakoff said.

According to the letter provided by O'Brien, the Henry Green case will eventually proceed to a grand jury. "Since 1980all police shooting cases involving the death of a citizen have beenautomaticallypresented to the grand jury for their review and consideration," he wrote.

Going forward, community organizations will continue to devise strategies to seek racial justice, including registering people to vote ahead of local elections, like the upcoming battle for the county prosecutor seat.

"I just don't want the community to give up hope," PJP's Shine said. "Just because people are not in the streets rallying and protesting every day does not mean that we're not still fighting behind the scenes. ... Hang in there with us."

This article has been updated to specify that SURJ gained hundreds of new Facebook group members, not page "likes."

Showing Up for Racial Justice

"Columbus Has Had Enough of the Assault on Black Lives: March & Rally"

6 p.m. Thursday, July 21

Ohio Statehouse

1 Capitol Sq., Downtown



"Postponed Solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter"

7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 31

Franklin Park Ampitheater

1777 E. Broad St., Olde Towne East