Tonight, documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp focuses his civil rights-centered documentary series “The Injustice Files” on three little-known cases of racial profiling, which proves to be a wrenching and enlightening journey through the lens of unequal justice in America.
As the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin approaches, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Keith Beauchamp believes it’s more important than ever to address racial profiling. Using his platform as host of the Investigation Discovery documentary series, “The Injustice Files,” Beauchamp is doing just that.
“The Injustice Files: Hood of Suspicion,” which airs tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern time, features the stories of three African-Americans whose lives have been destroyed as a result of racial discrimination.
Beauchamp told Truthout he views racial profiling as a “trans-generational problem” unique to black Americans since the days of slavery and he’s shocked it continues unabated. As part of the media, he feels that amplifying the stories of those affected by racial profiling is the best way he can contribute to ending it.
“If you look at any other show in television right now, not too many people care about these cases,” said Beauchamp. “I’m providing a platform for the voiceless.”
The episode begins with the story of Robbie Tolan, son of professional baseball player Bobby Tolan of the Cincinnati Reds. Robbie was raised in the upper-middle-class part of Bellaire, Texas, a city with an African-American population of less than two percent. Despite Robbie being one of the few black men in his neighborhood, he told Truthout he had no problems with police discrimination growing up.
It wasn’t until December 31, 2008 that Robbie experienced the type of racial profiling that makes headlines.
Robbie, who was 23 at the time, and his cousin, Anthony Cooper, were followed home late that night by Bellaire police officer John Edwards, who claimed he believed the men were driving a stolen care because he entered the license plate number into the system incorrectly. Edwards was then joined by Jeffrey Cotton, a white police officer and 10-year veteran of the force. The officers confronted the men about the stolen car and forced them to lie face down on the ground in the front yard of Robbie’s house. Words were exchanged, waking Robbie’s parents who came out to see what the yelling was about. The officers responded to the parents’ concerns by forcing Robbie’s father against his car (parked in the driveway) and pushing his mother against the garage door. It was then that Robbie became agitated and stood up to tell the officer to lay off his mom, at which point Cotton opened fire on Robbie, striking him in the chest. The bullet remains lodged in his liver to this day.
In “The Injustice Files,” Beauchamp has the family re-enact the scene that night, giving the viewer a chilling sense of how it went down.
Initially, a grand jury indicted Cotton and he was charged with aggravated assault. But Cotton was ultimately acquitted by a mostly white jury. On top of that, a judge, famous for throwing out cases of police brutality, dismissed the Tolan family’s civil suit, leaving them with no recourse for justice.
Robbie spoke with Truthout about his lingering feelings about the case, saying, “I have a bullet in me that I have to live with every day.” This is made worse by the fact that the man responsible for that is still on the force policing the streets of Bellaire as if nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, Robbie is using his platform as the son of a professional baseball player and a professional baseball player himself to spread the word about racial profiling. Participating in the latest installment of “The Injustice Files” is the just beginning, he says. He told Truthout that he recognizes there are more cases like his that receive zero attention because the victims aren’t as well off, or as well known as he is.
Beauchamp says in the film that he was surprised that a family of such high status wasn’t able to protect their son, raising the question of whether or not justice can be won for those of less means. It’s then that Beauchamp segues into another case of racial profiling, only this time it was lethal and barely anyone noticed.
Less than a month after the murder of Trayvon Martin, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was shot in the head in Douglas Park by off-duty Chicago detective Dante Servin. She died in the hospital the next day when her family was forced to take her off life support. Truthout was one of the few outlets that covered Boyd’s death at the time.
In March of 2012, Boyd was among a crowd of people hanging out in Douglas Park late at night. Servin lived across the street and was known by neighbors to complain belligerently about the noise. That night, he drove up to park in an unmarked car and began yelling at the crowd to be quiet. According to witnesses he never identified himself as a police officer and had his gun sitting in his lap. Anthony Cross, who was standing with Boyd, yelled back until he noticed Servin had a gun, at which point he shouted, “gun, he’s got a gun,” turned around and made a run for it. Servin then pointed his gun out the car window and, in drive-by fashion, shot several times into the crowd, striking Cross in the hand and Boyd in the head.
When police arrived, Servin claimed his life was threatened because he saw Cross holding what he believed was a gun. However, a gun was never recovered from the scene and Cross insists it was a cell phone he had in his hand because he was on the phone when Servin approached the park-goers.
Beauchamp does an amazing job at humanizing Rekia Boyd and her family with clips from home videos likely to leave viewers with heavy hearts and tears in their eyes. He also captures the toll injustice takes on the victim’s family.
Nearly a year has passed and the Chicago Police Department claims that the incident is still under investigation and therefore refuses to release any details, leaving Boyd’s family searching for closure that’s out of reach, desperation most visible in the pain-soaked eyes of Boyd’s brother, Martinez, who refuses to quit fighting for justice for his little sister.
Martinez talked to Truthout about his appearance in “The Injustice Files,” and he expressed frustration over the lack of attention given to his sister’s murder. “I feel like if it wasn’t a police officer that pulled the trigger, her case would’ve gotten more attention,” he said. A badge, he added, seems to make officers immune from accountability. Though he was and still is heartbroken over the murder of Trayvon Martin, Martinez expressed disappointment that “the community didn’t rally around [Rekia] as they did Trayvon and it was kind of hurtful.” He also feels that women in general receive less attention than men when they are victimized by law enforcement.
Boyd’s family has filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago, but Martinez says the city came back with “low-ball offers,” leaving him with the conclusion that “They think my sister’s life is worth nothing.”
Martinez brought Beauchamp to tears in the show when he described what it was like to take his sister off of life support the day after she’d been shot. “Just pulling the plug on your sister’s life, I can’t even describe that pain or that feeling. I had to let her go. Once we pulled her plug it took about an hour for her vitals to stop. She was gone,” he told Beauchamp.
It’s hard to imagine that Beauchamp could follow the death of Rekia Boyd with an even more devastating case, but there appears to be no shortage of lives destroyed by racial discrimination.
Before George Zimmerman was arrested and charged for the murder of Trayvon Martin, many people wondered whether the outcome would have been different had the races been reversed.
The answer to that question can be found in Kennesaw, Georgia, where John McNeil, a black man, was serving a of life sentence for the shooting death of Brian Epp, an armed white man who attacked him and his son at their home.
Police released McNeil immediately after the altercation, concluding he had acted in self-defense. Adding to this determination was Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law and Castle Doctrine, a law that specifically justifies the use of deadly force in defense of one’s home. In fact, Beauchamp points out in the documentary that it’s a crime not to have a gun in Kennesaw, Georgia.
In spite of all this, nearly a year later the Cobb County prosecutor chose to charge McNeil with murder and in 2006 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
McNeil’s wife and two sons had fought to free him ever since. But it wasn’t until after the Trayvon Martin case that McNeil received national attention, prompting powerful organizations, like the NAACP, to join the cause in ensuring that self-defense laws, no matter how flawed, are applied equally.
Beauchamp provides a unique window into how McNeil’s family suffered along with him. In perhaps the most touching and powerful scene in “Hood of Suspicion,” Beauchamp speaks with McNeil’s wife Anita, who had been fighting cancer since just after her husband’s imprisonment. Though she has no doubt that McNeil will ultimately be freed, she tells Beauchamp, “I just pray that I live long enough to see that day.”
Her husband was released on Tuesday, February 12, after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter as part of an agreement that sentenced him to time served (seven years). Sadly, his wife didn’t live to see that day. She died on February 2, ten days before McNeil was freed.
Sharing his views on the news of McNeil’s release, Beauchamp told Truthout, “John coming out is only a partial victory because while he was in jail he lost his mother, he lost his wife and he has to reconnect with his sons who are in disarray.”
So the fight for justice continues, this time for exoneration.
Meanwhile, the cases spotlighted in this latest episode of “The Injustice Files” are just a tiny portion of the ones we know about, says Beauchamp. His hope is that shedding light on the racial discrimination perpetrated against Robbie Tolan, Rekia Boyd and John McNeil, will “raise the consciousness of our country about racial profiling.”
“I want to put viewers in shoes of victims,” he says. This he believes should be the media’s role. With three seasons of “The Injustice Files” under his belt, Beauchamp is grateful that Investigation Discovery has allowed him to fulfill that role.