“I can’t breathe sir.”
Manuel Ellis took his last breaths March 3, 2020, in handcuffs while being restrained by Tacoma police. He was mercilessly beaten, abused, and murdered.
For months, the only scream for justice for Manuel was from his family. Besides that, it was complete silence.
Until George Floyd.
When the world came together in collective outcry over the murder of George Floyd while in police custody many realized the severity of racial injustices were a little too close to home.
Almost 200 days have passed since Manuel Ellis joined the countless hashtags dedicated to Black victims of police brutality. And while investigations are in place and Tacoma Mayor, Victoria Woodards, has called for the officers to be fired and criminally charged, not much else is being done.
By not much else, we mean there is still no police report, officers are still on paid administrative leave and there are still no answers for Manuel Ellis’ family.
There is no national attention for our local Black community members who face continuous, unnecessary policing and brutality. So, activists had to do their own research to bring attention to local discrimination and racial inequity. And unfortunately, there is plenty, with new cases popping up almost monthly.
Tacoma needed to speak up, speak out and seek justice for Manuel Ellis. While protesting to end systemic racism continues, there are groups of activists rising up to demand changes. One such, is Lawyers Against Systemic Racism, or LASR.
LASR is a growing group of local criminal defense attorneys committed to ending systemic racism in Pierce County by implementing meaningful reform in the legal system. We had the opportunity to speak with three of LASR’s members – Sara Alavi, Jessica Campbell and Dee Sonntag.
After participating in a protest together in June they sat down and began putting in place the framework of what LASR is currently. Together, they have formed committees to collaborate with other groups already doing the work and put in place steps to eradicate racism from top to bottom.
It’s a tall order and one they feel is a long time coming.
“We have to do more than our day to day job. We have a unique position as public defenders to see injustice on a daily basis. We see it in our cases and in each level of the justice system where nothing is done about it. We don’t want to be silent or complacent,” says Dee.
Here are some facts to keep you up to speed on what injustices Dee is referencing.
- America has the highest prison population in the world
- Black Americans and Latin people make up the majority of this population (many of whom are non-violent offenders)
- Federal prisons in America require their state keeps their prisons at maximum occupancy at all times
- The 13th amendment did not entirely abolish slavery, just one form of it. It remains legal through the industrial prison system
While these are facts on a national level, the trickle down affects local treatment of Black communities just as much or more because there is no national coverage.
Jessica notes, “In Pierce County we have a jail population that is 30 percent Black people even though Black people make up only 7.6 percent of the population as a whole. It’s a shocking disproportion that contributes to a vicious cycle of keeping Black people constantly in and out of the legal system.”
The Black Lives Matter movement is forcing America, particularly white Americans, to confront the revolting realities of police brutality, inequities in policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, the prison industrial complex, and the weaponization of 9-1-1.
For Sara, Black Lives Matter was a call to action. Spurred by the constant local injustices she witnesses daily through her work as a public defender. She says:
“In our society Black individuals are treated as second class citizens. I’ve had enough. Black lives matter to me, personally, but unfortunately not to society. And we have to do something about that.”
LASR’s first call to action is demanding a 50 percent decrease in the Tacoma Police Department’s budget. From the research and data they’ve collected thus far, they’ve determined that TPD has way too many police officers and unnecessary military equipment.
In Pierce County, we have a high percentage of people who suffer from homelessness and mental health issues. LASR, like many other organizations, believe funds should be reallocated or redistributed into community resources and social programs for marginalized communities that can help people with chemical dependencies and mental health issues.
“We see repeatedly where you have a militarized police department responding to emotionally unstable individuals and what you get is assault, unlawful use of force and murder,” Dee asserts.
And unfortunately, there is absolutely no police accountability.
There has been considerable push-back against defunding the police from those arguing the police are for protection and necessary. The problem is, many times the police don’t prevent crime because they show up after it happens. Crime prevention actually starts with funding social programs and creating opportunities.
It’s not about being anti-cop. It’s not about a few bad apples. It’s looking at the department as a whole and seeing how toxic and dangerous police culture is for people of color.
So, how does something as deeply ingrained as racism end? How do we give breath back to Black communities?
LASR believes the only way to have true equity is if it comes from policy changes enforcing it and from the state legislature. Something they are fighting every day to bring attention to along with police brutality.
For those new to activism or looking to join the fight to dismantle systemic racism LASR has amazing resources and events you can join including:
- Biweekly protest outside of the Tacoma Police Department every other Thursday @ 5 p.m.
- Monthly Book Club (currently reading The New Jim Crow)
- Little Free Black Library: a Little Free Library that will be planted around Pierce County featuring Black authors, history and culture
They also suggest community members getting more involved in local city council meetings, writing letters to local government officials, and following the families of victims of police brutality.
Stay up to date on LASRs upcoming events, educational tidbits, and future projects/collaborations here: