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'This is out of control, we're being murdered for no reason'

The mother of a black man shot dead by police speaks to TheJournal.ie from Philadelphia.

565260_460808750643056_298032026_n Source: Courtesy of Tanya Brown-Dickerson

BRANDON TATE-BROWN was shot dead by police in Philadelphia, in the early hours of 15 December last year.

Unlike other black men killed by police officers in the United States recently, such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, his name doesn’t resonate beyond his home town.

It might soon, though.

His mother, Tanya Brown-Dickerson, this week filed a major lawsuit against the city, alleging wrongful death of the 26-year-old, systemic racial discrimination, and claiming that police planted evidence to justify the shooting.

She spoke to TheJournal.ie about the pain of losing her son, her thoughts on recent events in Baltimore, and how the deaths of black men at the hands of police has spiralled “out of control.”

‘A voice told me to go over and kiss him. Looking back, I wish I had.’

Screenshot952015-04-30-12-24-49 Source: Courtesy of Tanya Brown-Dickerson

Brown-Dickerson says the last time she ever saw her son, 14 December 2014, he was tired.

The Philadelphia Eagles were playing the Dallas Cowboys that day, and he had come to her house on Horrocks Street in North Philadelphia for Sunday dinner, as he always did.

He fell asleep on the couch watching the game, and she says: “A voice told me to go over and kiss him. Looking back, I wish I had.”

The Eagles lost, and Brandon left.

Brown-Dickerson wakes up at 5 am every weekday for her job as a school bus driver, and went to bed herself not long afterwards.

The next morning, she heard on the radio that a 26-year-old black male had been shot to death by police on the 6600 block of Frankford Avenue in the north-eastern district of Mayfair.

Immediately, I knew it was my son. I began to cry and pray, saying ‘Please Lord, let Brandon pick up the phone.’

Tanya used to talk to Brandon every single morning, so when he didn’t answer, she knew “it was over.”

What happened?

seveneleven Surveillance footage from 7-Eleven, with Brown's car parked outside. Source: Mildenberg Law Firm/Philly.com

Brandon Tate-Brown was stopped by police on Frankford Avenue, a major Philadelphia thoroughfare that cuts north-east as far as the city’s limits, at 2.45 am on 15 December.

Police say he was pulled over for not having his lights on, but Brown-Dickerson and her lawyer Brian Mildenberg dispute this.

They cite a surveillance video from a nearby 7-Eleven shop, which they acquired through a private investigator, and which appears to show Tate-Brown’s vehicle parked outside with the lights on.

Mildenberg also says police notes given to the medical examiner mentioned problems with Tate-Brown’s license plates as the reason for the car stop, but nothing about lights.

The issue here is one of racial profiling. The Mayfair neighbourhood of Philadelphia is, unlike others in the city, overwhelmingly white and Irish-American.

Tate-Brown was driving a new, 2014 Dodge Charger that he was borrowing from the Hertz rental company he worked for.

After he was pulled over, it’s unclear exactly what the sequence of events is.

Police have claimed their officers observed the butt of a handgun in his car, and ordered him out of the vehicle, where a fight took place.

They say he was reaching back into the car for the gun, when one of the officers shot him in the back of the head.

tanyabrown Tanya Brown-Dickerson, with her lawyer Brian Mildenberg (right) announcing her lawsuit this week. Source: McDuh via Twitter

In her lawsuit, Brown-Dickerson disputes some of these claims, heavily citing video footage that city authorities haven’t released to the public, but that she and a small number of others have watched.

Mildenberg told TheJournal.ie the video “appears to show that Brandon was shot while running across the rear of his vehicle, from left to right, as he was near the right brake light of his vehicle, not reaching into the passenger side door for a gun.”

However, local journalist Solomon Jones, who also watched the video, has in turn contradicted this, saying the footage and witness statements support police claims that Tate-Brown was reaching for a gun when he was shot.

But regardless of whether or when police officers noticed a gun in the car, and whether or when Tate-Brown reached for it, his mother has frequently challenged the use of lethal force in this case.

You are still trained to deal with violence. There’s no reason for you to automatically go for the kill.
You can restrain people without shooting them in the back and in the head. You can tase them, or go for the bottom of the leg.

In fact, the training of police officers in the sixth-largest city in America has been a subject of controversy in recent times.

In March, the US Department of Justice issued a highly critical report.

It found that Philadelphia police were not properly trained on the use of deadly force, tasers were not issued widely enough, and that there was a striking racial disparity in what are known as “officer-involved shootings,” of which there were nearly 400 between 2007 and 2014.

The report especially highlighted “threat perception failures” – mistaking objects like mobile phones for weapons, and misinterpreting movements like putting hands in pockets.

Who was Brandon Tate-Brown?

brandon1 Brandon Tate-Brown with his sister. Source: Courtesy of Tanya Brown-Dickerson

“He grew up a very happy little boy. He was quiet, he loved to swim, he loved sports, especially football and basketball,” says Tanya.

And he always fought for the underdog.

Brandon was a protector. He didn’t like to see other children taken advantage of.

“If he saw a man and woman having an argument, she says, “he would literally get in the middle and fight that man.”

That character trait appears to have landed him in serious trouble back in 2007, when he was convicted of aggravated assault “after a man beat up his ex-girlfriend,” Brown-Dickerson says.

He pled guilty and served five years in prison. “He paid his debt, and since coming home he did nothing but regret it.”

After his release in 2012, Tate-Brown got a job, committed to his Christian faith, and moved into his own apartment a week before his death.

IMG_3422 "These were the worst days of my life and I will always regret it. But they will give me motivation for the rest of my life." Source: Courtesy of Tanya Brown-Dickerson

He was extremely loving and extremely playful.
Every Thanksgiving we would have karaoke and a talent show in my house. Brandon and I were the main two who made fools of ourselves.
He would put on a top hat and tap dance through the house. The family loved him, and he loved his family.

In one of his final Facebook posts, five days before he died, and just after moving into his own apartment, Brandon expressed a new-found love and appreciation of life, and hope for the future, after a troubled past:

I swear I was just locked up. People telling me when to piss, when to shit, when to wake up and when to go to bed…but I’m doing great right now.
Getting ready for work, keep praying for me…I owe it all to Jesus, and my Queen, my heart, my first love, my everything, my mom.

A friend replied: “You’re doing everything they said you couldn’t.”

‘You can’t keep ignoring that we’re being killed off’

Since last week’s violence in Baltimore, some observers have worried that Philadelphia, less than 100 miles to the north east, might be the next American city to erupt in frustration and anger.

A rally in downtown Philadelphia on Thursday, under the slogan “Philly Is Baltimore,” was aimed at showing solidarity, and highlighting similarities in terms of poverty, racial inequality, and policing.

“The two cities share so much,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, an activist and political theorist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Like Baltimore, Philadelphia has an absolutely devastated black economy. There are no jobs for poor black youth, and this goes alongside a deepening re-segregation of the city and the schools.

In an effort to rejuvenate Philadelphia and Baltimore, political leaders have tried desperately to attract “young, white gentrifiers,” Ciccariello-Maher says.

To do so, they need to project an image of safety, and this entails a very heavy policing presence.

Looking beyond her own son’s death, Tanya Brown-Dickerson’s message to the family of Freddie Gray in Baltimore is “Fight with everything you’ve got.”

She’s calling for exclusively peaceful protest, boycotts, and legal action, however. ”We can do this the Martin Luther King way,” she says.

If you look across the United States, on a regular basis a police officer is killing someone.
It’s happening because black men are resisting being beaten or arrested, because they don’t trust the police officer who’s approaching them.
This is out of control. You can’t keep ignoring that we’re being killed off, we’re being murdered, for no reason.

‘I want us to trust each other’

Baltimore Police Death Source: AP/Press Association Images

When asked what she hopes will come from her lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia, and this difficult time in American society, Tanya Brown-Dickerson is unequivocal: “Accountability.”

I want the government, commissioners and mayors to fire a police officer who’s done something horrific, and it sticks, and that an arbitration process won’t get them their job back.

The two officers involved in Brandon’s death were temporarily put on administrative leave.

But they were cleared of all wrongdoing by an internal police investigation, and then by District Attorney Seth Williams, who said in March the killing was “a tragedy but not a crime.

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey apologised to Brown by phone in February, after she found out from the news that the two officers had been back on the streets for weeks.

Gabe Bryant is one of the organisers of Thursday’s “Philly is Baltimore” rally, and an activist in the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice (Racial, Economic and Legal), which emerged from events in Ferguson, Missouri last year.

He says Tate-Brown’s story is one of many, and that official statistics and reports on police brutality and harassment in Philadelphia don’t give the full picture.

We’re talking about black and brown boys and girls, our trans community, we’re talking about youth and immigrant communities, and a level of discrimination that goes unreported.
Communities feel marginalised and on the fringes, and often don’t feel comfortable going to a [police] precinct to report seeing a friend getting beaten up, or being put up against a wall and brutalised.

Brown-Dickerson says:

I want a better relationship between the police and the communities that they work in.
I want us to trust each other. I want to know that, just because you woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, you’re not going to take it out on me because I’m gay, or black, or different.
No matter what, we all bleed. Please understand my fight, have compassion for a mother who had to bury her child.

TheJournal.ie requested comment from the Philadelphia police department, and Philadelphia city officials. Both declined to do so.

Read: The police killings that have sparked racial tensions in the US this year>

Read: Outrage and protests after death of black man arrested by Baltimore police

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Dan MacGuill

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