Remembering Jemel Roberson, the Chicago Security Guard Slain by Police

Community members are demanding answers for the police killing of a black security guard in the Chicago suburbs, after 26 year-old Jemel Roberson was shot and killed by a white policeman Sunday. Roberson jumped into action early Sunday morning when a shooting broke out at a bar where he was working as a security guard. He was restraining a shooting suspect when several police officers arrived on the scene, and a white police officer from the Midlothian Police Department shot and killed Roberson. Witnesses said the police officer opened fire even though people at the bar were screaming that Roberson was a security guard. Roberson was armed and held a valid gun owner’s license. We speak with Avontea Boose, the partner of Jemel Roberson and mother of his 9-month-old son Tristan. She is currently expecting their second child. We also speak with Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney representing the children of Jemel Roberson.

Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We go now to Chicago, where a community is demanding answers for the police killing of a black security guard in the Chicago suburbs. Twenty-six-year-old Jemel Roberson jumped into action early Sunday morning when a shooting broke out at a bar where he was working as a security guard. Roberson was restraining a shooting suspect outside when several police officers arrived on the scene. A white police officer from the Midlothian Police Department then opened fire, shooting Roberson. Witnesses said the police officer opened fire even though [people] at the bar were screaming that Roberson was a security guard. Roberson was armed and held a valid gun owner’s license. This is Adam Harris, who witnessed the shooting, speaking with WGN-TV in Chicago.

ADAM HARRIS: He had somebody on the ground with his knee in his back, with his gun on him, like “Don’t move.” … Everybody was screaming out “Security!” He was a security guard. And they still did their job and saw a black man with a gun and basically killed him.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, the Illinois State Police is defending the actions of the police officer who shot Jemel Roberson. A report by the state’s Public Integrity Task Force claimed that Roberson was not wearing a security guard uniform and ignored verbal comments to drop his gun. Witnesses have contradicted the state report, claiming he was wearing a uniform and a hat that was labeled “security.” Greg Kulis, an attorney for Roberson’s family, told The New York Times, quote, “We are three days into this and they are saying preliminarily that it was a good shoot? They traditionally take nine months or longer.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jemel Roberson’s death comes in the wake of a series of mass shootings in America, including the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue last month, where a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshipers. President Trump said after the shooting, if there were armed guards inside the synagogue, the results would have been different. This is community activist Eric Russell of the Tree of Life Justice League, who protested outside the Midlothian police station on Tuesday.

ERIC RUSSELL: The president of the United States says that the best way to stop a mass shooting is a good guy with a gun. But I think what the president really wanted to say: “as long as that good guy isn’t black.” Jemel Roberson is a hero. He prevented mass casualties.

AMY GOODMAN: Jemel Roberson was father of a 9-month-old son named Tristan. His partner, Avontea Boose, is pregnant with their second child.

For more, we go to Chicago, where we’re joined by Avontea Boose, partner of Jemel Roberson, and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, representing the children of Jemel Roberson.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Avontea, first of all, our profoundest condolences on the death of your partner.

AVONTEA BOOSE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what you understand took place? It was in the town—right?—of Robbins. It was the Midlothian police. And Jemel was a security guard there that Saturday night?

AVONTEA BOOSE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your understanding of what then took place?

AVONTEA BOOSE: It was just crazy. I wish it never happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Merritt, you’re representing the children of Jemel Roberson. Can you talk about what the state police are saying now, since it was state police that shot Jemel dead? Give us the scenario that you understand at this point. He was working at the bar, and someone opened fire and shot the bartender?

LEE MERRITT: Yeah. So, he had to expel several patrons. Moments later, they returned, one of them with a gun, and they opened fire on customers—similar to what we saw in Sherman Oaks, in California, just the week prior. And Jemel sprung into action. He brandished his legally owned firearm, which he displayed. From what witnesses say, he was wearing a security shirt, a security vest and a hat that said “security” in big, bright white letters.

He actually did what we expect law enforcement officers to do. Jemel answered the question as to how we expect law enforcement officers to deal with deadly situations. He pursued the suspect, who had just fired and shot four people. He was able to subdue him, to disarm him and to hold him until police arrived. And I’ve talked to some of his friends who are security officers, as well, and they said they could only imagine the relief he felt when law enforcement finally did arrive, because he had to keep this person, without taking this suspect’s life, under control until law enforcement arrived.

The cavalry arrived. And they showed up, and they shot him to death. They didn’t give him time to explain that he was doing his job. They ignored several witnesses, who have come forward to say they announced to law enforcement immediately, “That’s a security guard.” When they started shouting commands and threats to Jemel, there was a crowd of people present to say, “No, he’s a security guard. He’s doing the right thing.” They shot him anyway.

And to see them now, three days after the shooting, begin to lay out a justification for the shooting—there can be no justification for it. We need to deal with the reality of the fact that not only implicit bias, but a permissive culture, where law enforcement officers are allowed to kill African Americans in the most absurd circumstances—I can’t think of facts more absurd than a hero, almost a superhero, in the sense that not only did he do his job, he went above and beyond, and he not only saved possibly dozens of lives, but even preserved the life of the person, so that they could stand trial—that’s what we expect of law enforcement, and that’s what he was denied.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lee Merritt, the police department, the Midlothian Police Department, hasn’t yet released the name of the officer who shot him. What do you know? Have you learned anything about who the policeman was, or policewoman?

LEE MERRITT: And that’s the most infuriating aspect of this, because they have offered lip service to this family to say that—one statement released by the Midlothian Police Department was that this was almost like a friendly fire incident, where—as if one of their brothers in blue had been killed by another brother in blue. That’s the lip service that they’re offering, but they fail to behave like this was actually a crime. They haven’t arrested the officer. He’s still gainfully employed. And more importantly, as you pointed out, they’ve failed to ID him.

And so, the community hasn’t had a chance to say this is an officer, maybe with a reputation, that has used brutality before, that they may have information probative of this shooting. We don’t know enough about him. He’s not being properly interrogated and scrutinized by the public, let alone the process of police policing the police. We don’t know anything that we need to know in order to properly investigate this officer. We—

AMY GOODMAN: You know the state police officer is white, is that right?

LEE MERRITT: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jemel Roberson was black.

LEE MERRITT: Right. From witness statements, the officer was white, is a white male. And Jemel Roberson was black, and that seemed to be enough.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the shooter that he had tackled?

LEE MERRITT: I haven’t learned anything about the identity of the shooter.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to the Associated Press, who reported that Reverend Marvin Hunter told the Associated Press that Roberson was an upstanding young man who played organ at his church. Hunter, interestingly, is the great-uncle of Laquan McDonald, the black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2014, his killer just convicted of second-degree murder. Avontea, Jemel also played organ and was hoping to become a police officer?

AVONTEA BOOSE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The reports are that, that night that he went to work as a security guard, the other guard said, “You have an early morning, you know, church, where you’re going to play organ. You don’t have to come in tonight.” But he wanted to show up for his job. Is that right?

AVONTEA BOOSE: Yes.

LEE MERRITT: And Avontea was telling me that he was trying to pick up extra shifts and get some additional pay because of their pregnancy and because they were coming up on their first child’s first Christmas and his birthday. And he was looking forward to that. This would have been the first Christmas he celebrated as a father.

And it’s interesting you bring up the Laquan McDonald shooting and the relation to this case, because that same public integrity unit that investigated Laquan McDonald and justified that shooting, prior to a judge coming in and releasing that tape—and it was public pressure that caused the indictment of the officer who shot Laquan McDonald. And so, it calls me—it causes me to give pause to any conclusions that the public integrity unit comes to, because in a shooting that was clearly unjustified, they found no wrongdoing on behalf of that officer. It took over a year and continued community pressure and exposure before the truth was arrived to. And so, we’re in for the same fight, and we’re not just going to simply rely on their conclusions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, what are the steps, Lee Merritt, that you’re going to be taking now with the investigation?

LEE MERRITT: Well, we’re running a parallel investigation of our own and where we get to the bottom of some of the information that they’re refusing to release. So, on behalf of the family, we’ve hired investigators who are out gathering witness statements. We are going to supplement the State Attorney’s Office investigation, so that they’re not only relying on the police to police themselves and relying on their report. We believe that Kim Foxx, if she has the proper information in her hand—and that’s the state attorney here, the district attorney, who will be responsible for prosecuting this officer—she can present a proper case before the grand jury, return an indictment and get justice for this family.

AMY GOODMAN: Avontea, Jemel’s mother immediately filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. Are you planning to sue, as well?

LEE MERRITT: And I’ll answer that question; I’m sorry for her. We want to put the proper emphasis on the criminal investigation. A civil suit is appropriate to hold the department accountable, and there will be a time for that, but we feel like the suit that has been filed is premature. And while that’s a part of the reason we’re investigating and the reason that we’re involved, as a community, as a family, on behalf of Jemel’s children, we want justice. And so, we want to put first things first.

AMY GOODMAN: Avontea, I know this is just incredibly hard. You have a 9-month-old, and you just learned that you were pregnant with your second child. What will you tell your children about their dad, Jemel?

AVONTEA BOOSE: He was a hero. He loved his son. And he was a protector of anybody he knew.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this case. Avontea Boose, again, our condolences on the death of Jemel. And Lee Merritt, the civil rights attorney representing the children of Jemel Roberson.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we head to Vermont to learn about a lawsuit against the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, on behalf of Migrant Justice. Stay with us.