We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 82nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Victoria Davis and Victor Dempsey, the siblings of Delrawn Small, who was fatally shot by a New York City Police officer in July 2016. They discuss how they are organizing around the Right to Know Act in NYC, and why the families of people killed by police held a “Take the Knee” action recently to highlight their demands.
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Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on Wednesday the 11th. There is an action going on for the Right to Know Act in New York City. Tell us about the action.
Victor Dempsey: The Right to Know Act is a bill that we are trying to get through. We had a lot of support from a lot of people on it. Over 200 organizations. The majority support of the city council. They endorsed it, also, but it still has not been passed. Today was the rally to let them know that we need it to get done. The police organizations should be held accountable for that. It is common-sense legislation that will help NYPD interact with people and hold them more accountable. That way, there is more transparency and everyone feels a little safer.
What would the law actually do if it was passed?
Dempsey: The first bill would require officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for official interaction. The second bill would help end deceptive and unconstitutional searches by requiring officers to explicitly convey a person’s rights to refuse a search warrant when their consent is the only legal justification and obtain objective proof that a person gave informed and voluntary consent.
Tell us your story. Why is this important to you and your family?
Victoria Davis: On July 4, 2016 NYPD Officer Wayne Isaacs shot and killed my brother, Delrawn Small from his car and left him to die in the street without assistance. Wayne Isaacs was still sitting in the car when he shot Delrawn.
This is important for our family … and not just our family, for us personally. My family is demanding that Isaacs be held accountable [for killing our brother]. But, we also know that holding one officer accountable will not end police violence. We need strong policy changes to help to end abusive policing in New York City. Our family is demanding the Right to Know Act be passed and Wayne Isaacs to be held accountable as civilians are always held accountable. Isaacs, the way that he lied, makes him seem like he is above the law. We just need accountability.
Dempsey: Just to add onto that, also, from the first day my brother was murdered by Wayne Isaacs, it was portrayed by certain media outlets that my brother assaulted Wayne Isaacs or he was in the wrong. It took roughly eight days for the video to surface and to find out the truth. So, that kind of transparency for us and my family shows that an officer can actually lie about an occurring incident to protect himself.
If that can happen to us, any scenario could happen. Someone could be walking down the street and a cop pulls them over for any unjust reason … just because they feel like [it] … without identifying themselves properly. People don’t know their rights to a search or if they can not give consent to a search. For us, it almost directly correlates to how the murder happened with my brother, with the officer blatantly lying about why he committed that crime. You know what I mean?
Since your brother’s death, you have been working with other families of other people killed by police to do something about this, right?
Davis: Yes, we have. We have been doing some activist work. Inadvertently, I guess, we have become activists. We have always had a strong moral compass, the three of us: me, Victor and Delrawn. We had certain values and morals that we already lived by. This is not something foreign, advocating or fighting for people or standing up in the face of injustice. We just hadn’t done it in a public way until now.
Dempsey: What Victoria is saying is, our whole lives we have always looked at right and wrong from a point-blank perspective … trying to help people encounter things … or certain feats in their life and try to motivate and push people to do better for themselves. So, since the murder of our brother, it just kind of kick-started us to get more involved, to contact and connect with organizations and people and try to raise awareness because I remember before anything happened to my brother, seeing other cases — whether it was the Akai Gurley case or Nicholas Heyward or Kimani Gray — hearing about these incidents of police brutality in the news and just being heartbroken when my family wasn’t directly hurt by that.
Davis: We weren’t directly impacted; however, we have always understood how those occurrences reflect how people of color are treated and how they are handled by people who are hired to serve and protect.
Recently, you all did a protest where you all took a knee outside of the city council. Can you tell us a little bit about that and the significance of that action?
Dempsey: Myself, being a football player and an avid football fan, the actions of last year when Colin Kaepernick took the original knee with Eric Reid and the gang, and recognizing why he took that knee, after my brother’s death it was really heavy on our hearts. The action that we took that day was, we had watched the city council, a few days previously at noon, take a knee. We decided that we need to hold them accountable, as well. For one, they’re getting on board with NFL players because they have that platform, the celebrity, so to speak, to get their voices heard. Our voices get heard selectively by people who want to listen. Being that they took the knee in these games in the NFL nationwide, and they protested and raised awareness to people who didn’t really know what was going on, didn’t know that cops are unjustly murdering us.
Davis: The thing is that people were forgetting. It started to become a hashtag with some racist rhetoric. For the past few weeks, people have been forgetting the reason that Colin Kaepernick had originally taken the knee. He wasn’t against the national anthem, the flag, or any of those things. He was taking a knee in solidarity with the victims and the families of police and state murders. For the murdered. For families like us who have loved ones who were killed by a police officer who was hired to serve and protect.
Dempsey: We wanted to align ourselves with that and stand up with him and take the knee with him to show that we see what he is doing, we appreciate what he is doing and we are fighting, as well. We are not just sitting here. We are fighting. And we are going to do whatever we can in our power to help make a change, because it has to stop.
Davis: And we don’t want anyone to forget why it was done in the first place. I think that sometimes people take hashtags and they do it for different reasons, it becomes almost like a fad, a hashtag. Taking the knee and putting faces to these victims and putting faces to the hurt, like I always say, we — meaning the families — cannot take a knee and then everything is right in our lives and we are just able to move on and move forward. We take the knee and that is taking a stand.
We still have to go back to our lives without Delrawn and Delrawn was a huge part of our lives. Things have been terrible since he has been gone. We just want people to remember exactly why … the knee action was taken in the first place and not to stray away from that. I think too often people forget because things move so fast in life. If they feel strongly about taking the knee, then please feel strongly about supporting the families in any way that you can. It can be kind words. It can be coming to a vigil, a rally…. I have seen people hashtag #taketheknee and they will write something and someone else will write something and I will counter something negative, it’s like changing the narrative. Because once we change the narrative and the way we see these police killings, then we will see it as not just a hashtag, but we will see that these are humans, these are people. Delrawn was a human. He was a kind person. He was a reliable person. He meant everything to us.
For people who are listening or reading in New York, what can they do to support the work you are doing here around the Right to Know Act, and what can people do around the country to support the broader struggle that you and other families are facing?
Davis: We do live in the age of social media. Social media is the biggest platform. Definitely, I encourage people to follow the Justice for Delrawn Facebook page and the @Justice4Delrawn Twitter page. Sometime in the near future we should have an official webpage. Sharing the word, getting to know the facts of the case and why it is so important that when we encounter someone who questions whether or not it was okay for a person to be killed by a police officer unjustly, use all of the information that you have gained online or meeting with families, speaking with the families, whether it is in person, online, or from wherever, and just help change the narrative.
We as humans can’t continue to see these things happen. Everyone has the right to live. We can’t go about life asking and begging for basic human rights, especially not the right to live. Delrawn had a right to live and Wayne Isaacs took that from him.
Dempsey: Another way that we have tried to support everything — we have these pages for Delrawn. It is about the message behind it. The way people view what is going on. Now, they understand that this is in their backyard also.
We deal with a lot of organizations. We are part of Families United 4 Justice, which is an organization … of families who have been affected by police brutality … which is national. We encourage people to follow that page.
Support, as far as going to city council meetings, pressuring the council to let them know change has to be made. It is not just only in New York. We are here now, we have to do what we have to do in our state to make some changes, to give people the encouragement to continue to fight. Some of the things we can do is stay on top of this. Like Victoria said, we live in a social media age. Retweeting tweets, following pages, supporting … continuously push[ing] the word out and let[ting] people know we are not going to stand around while people are getting killed.
Davis: For me, I think we want people to know that these killings don’t just affect, obviously, the person who was killed and murdered. The murder of our brother had a huge effect on us. Delrawn was a huge part of our life. He was our caretaker. Our mother died when we were children, so Delrawn has always been not just a sibling, but a father, as well. A person who would lead us and guide us. Our confidant. He was a person that loved and cared for us and his children. He has three children.
It is extremely hard for us. We have huge shoes to fill and trying to figure out how to do that is hard. Reliving the situation, the murder, over and over again is hard. Grief and mourning is terrible in itself. Missing someone is terrible. If someone walks out of your life, that is terrible. But, to miss someone when they were taken unjustly … it is the worst, because all of these questions of “Why? How?” … when you are expecting a person, your loved one, who is coming from a family celebration, to see them the next day, to probably continue the celebration, but this person is no longer here. July 4 from now on will never be a day of celebration. This past July, we didn’t celebrate. We couldn’t celebrate. I was delirious a little bit because I was sleep deprived.
These police killings and murders affect families in all types of ways. It is a trickledown effect. It makes you feel not safe and we are supposed to. These people who took an oath to serve and protect, but if they couldn’t do that for me, then what else…? We need accountability. That way we can at least feel some type of, I don’t know, closure? I wouldn’t even know the right word. But, we definitely demand accountability, because if it was anyone else, they would be held accountable and they would be in handcuffs after they murdered someone.
Dempsey: Like my sister said, we want accountability, and not just for Wayne Isaacs, but for the whole NYPD. When officers commit a crime … it literally is committing a crime, it is not looked at as a crime when it happens. It is looked at as, “Oh, in some instances, it was justified because he was in fear for his life.” That is a key phrase that officers use these days, “I was afraid for my life” so they discharge their weapons.
Now, one thing that can never change for us is we don’t get our brother back because he made a decision. We don’t know what he was thinking. All we know is he murdered someone. So, now, regardless of what happens in this case, we still have to live our lives and raise our children, raise his children. His son was only six months when it happened. Now, moving forward, there is going to be a time when we are going to have to explain to him what happened. We have to explain to him why his father cannot go to a football game with him, why his father cannot teach him what basketball is. We can’t explain any of that. Who is going to teach him how to ride a bike? His uncle, his aunt, his mother.
And not just that, his daughters. We have nieces who will be going to college soon. We have nieces that just started driving. This is part of what was taken from us. Now we have to step up and do this. Now, when my niece or my nephew is going to college, as happy as it would be to send them off to college, it is also bittersweet because Delrawn is not here to see that.
This is a continuous battle of emotions. It is a continuous fight within yourself to keep pushing forward. Me and my sister come out to these rallies, to these functions to support, to gain support, and it is very hard. It is emotionally draining, but we do it because we know our brother did not die in vain.
The awareness aspect of this is much bigger than just saying, “Okay, we need a change.” Like Victoria said, we have to hold everyone accountable. These councilmembers who are taking knees and making these statements, they need to be held accountable. They need to be at our court dates with us fighting against the unjust things that are happening. They cannot just do it for whatever benefit it may be. They cannot just do it for whoever is looking or whoever is running for office. They cannot do it for that. They cannot use the lives of people that are suffering and not acknowledge it.
That is one of our biggest things right now … everyone needs to be aware. If you are going to hashtag something, if you are going to say you stand for something, at least stand with the people that are actually suffering.
Dempsey: Just to add one more thing, our trial actually starts October 18 at Brooklyn Supreme Court for Wayne Isaacs, the officer who murdered our brother. We ask anyone and everyone to support that. Attend the courts. We try to pack the court as much as possible just to let the system know that we are holding them accountable. Not just the families: as a community, as a unit, as a whole, collectively, everyone. We will do the same for any other families or any other situation that needs to be rectified. We are standing together and we want everyone to please support everything that we are doing.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.