New Orleans, Louisiana, United States – Every Mardi Gras, Sandra Harris would make ham and bell peppers for her 22-year-old son, Eric.
“He used to say, ‘Mama, make sure you cook enough … We should have some left over for tomorrow,'” Sandra recalls, a wistful smile settling on her face.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The family would host relatives and friends for the annual carnival at their home in Harmony Oaks, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood of New Orleans.
But this year, on the night of February 8, the day before Mardi Gras, Sandra started to worry. Eric had gone to the mall to buy clothes for his two-year-old son, Carter, and wasn’t returning her phone calls. “He always answered or called right back,” she says.
“I felt something. I just kept making calls. His phone just rung, rung, rung.”
She was afraid he’d been arrested. But when she received a frantic phone call from her daughter, what she heard was even worse. Between her 27-year-old daughter’s sobs and screams, she was able to piece together the news: Eric had been shot dead by Jefferson Parish police deputies after crashing his car during a high-speed chase.
Distraught, the 47-year-old single mother rushed to the spot where her son had been killed. There were police and medical personnel there. The driver’s side of Eric’s car was riddled with bullet holes.
Sandra recalls screaming and crying and trying to get to the car. But the police blocked her way.
‘Terrified of the police’
The police, who had pursued Eric into neighbouring Orleans Parish after a confrontation during which he had allegedly flashed a gun at a shopping mall in Jefferson Parish’s Terrytown, later said they had found a gun and a bag of heroin under the backseat.
“That didn’t give y’all permission to kill my child,” Sandra says.
Eric, who had been struck in both hands by crossfire during a shooting in the neighbourhood when he was 18, had carried a gun for self-defence, his mother explains.
In his late teens, he had served several months in jail for possession of an unlicensed firearm, she adds.
The police officers claimed that their lives were in imminent danger as Eric attempted to reverse his vehicle after crashing into a pole. His girlfriend, who was later arrested, said the car simply jerked.
Sandra says Eric, who was on probation at the time he was killed, was fearful of the police, who frequently stopped him and “picked on him”. He had been beaten up and sprayed with mace by police officers in the past, she says.
“He was scared of them. Eric had always been terrified of them. Eric was the type of child they used to pick on. Eric couldn’t go nowhere. If Eric [was in his] car with his girlfriend, they stopped him.”
Because the Jefferson Parish Sherriff’s Office (JPSO) deputies had followed Eric into Orleans Parish, the New Orleans Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have launched a joint investigation into the incident.
According to a statement released by the JPSO after the killing, the deputies’ service weapons and the firearm belonging to Eric were confiscated. “Detectives also recovered a total of nine casings from the scene. All evidence recovered from the scene is being analysed as part of the ongoing criminal investigation,” the statement reads.
The JPSO has not replied to Al Jazeera’s numerous requests for comment.
‘A loving, caring boy’
As well as being a father to Carter, Eric had a five-year-old stepdaughter.
“Eric was a loving, caring boy,” Sandra says. “He was the type of person to pick you up in the rain at a stop sign and give you a ride home. He speaks to everyone. Everyone on my block knows him.”
“Everybody loved them some Eric,” she says, explaining how he would give food and clothes to people in their impoverished neighbourhood.
Growing up, he was a playful child who liked to make jokes, she says.
As an adult, he’d clean the house for his mother, who suffers from a heart condition and survives on disability benefit and with help from her family, and liked to play basketball video games while Carter was at pre-school.
At the time of his death, he had been hoping to obtain a General Equivalency Degree, or GED, an alternative high-school diploma. He wanted to find a job that would help him support his family and, one day, purchase a home, Sandra says.
The family hasn’t yet told Carter that his father is dead. “He’s too young to know that,” Sandra says, remembering how Eric would buy the boy new clothes and toys every week. “All he knows is that his daddy’s at work.”
In the living room of Sandra’s townhome – built after the Magnolia Projects housing development was revamped into the Harmony Oaks community in 2011 – the walls are lined with pictures of Eric, his older sister and 14-year-old brother.
In one corner, there’s a large cardboard cutout of Eric, a tall, thin man with tattooed arms and an infectious smile. On a small wooden table in the corner are several cards bearing condolences from neighbours and relatives.
When Carter visits, Sandra says he points at the photos and says: “That’s my daddy.”
“I just tell him, ‘Daddy’s at work, baby.'”
‘The only boy I got left’
Now, Sandra says that when she walks through the neighbourhood with her 14-year-old son, Tyrone, they try to avoid the police.
“Sometimes I’m scared to drive. I don’t want to have words with them, especially with what happened to my son. If I see [police], I walk in my house.”
Tyrone has become “terrified” of the police, she explains, adding: “I have to keep an eye on him because he’s the only boy I got left.”
Since Eric’s death, the family has been immensely vocal, regularly attending protests against police brutality and leading the call for justice for Eric and for the families of others who have been killed by the police.
They know that the future of racial justice struggles is punctuated with uncertainty, particularly following the election of Donald Trump, who has referred to black communities as “more dangerous than some of the warzones” and described them as dens of drug activity and gun violence.
Criminal justice disparities
Gretna, the seat of Jefferson Parish, has the highest per capita arrest rate in the United States, according to a groundbreaking investigation published in June by the US website Fusion, which deemed the 17,880-person town the country’s ‘arrest capital’. That investigation relied on Fusion’s analysis of FBI data.
The police in Gretna, the second-largest city in the county of Jefferson Parish, made 6,566 adult arrests in 2013, according to that data. Of that total, approximately 10 percent were for drug-related offences. Just 49 arrests were for “serious violent offences of murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault”, Fusion’s report states. And while only 34 percent of the city’s population is black, they accounted for up to two-thirds of those arrested – a number that includes residents and non-residents.
Dave Cabasso, an attorney in Jefferson Parish, says that police use “scare tactics” and “get away with so much” in Jefferson Parish.
“If you’re black, you don’t want to be out at night. There’s no crime or violence, but they arrest low-income people for anything,” says Cabasso, who has worked in the greater New Orleans area since the late 1980s. “If you’re rich in Gretna, you don’t have problems.”
But the disparities in the criminal justice system are not limited to Jefferson Parish.
Of the 993 people killed by police at the time of writing, 24 percent are black, almost double the percentage of African Americans in the overall population, according to The Guardian’s database tracking police killings.
In 2011, black Americans accounted for nearly a third of people arrested for a property offence – such as vandalism, burglary and theft, among others – and 38 percent of those for violent crimes, according to a 2013 report submitted to the United Nations by The Sentencing Project.
“Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men,” says a fact sheet published by The Sentencing Project, adding that people of colour make up around 67 percent of the 2.2 million people in the country’s prisons and jails.
These disparities, particularly the killing of African Americans by police, sparked the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a popular civil rights movement aimed at ending police violence and dismantling structural racism.
A week before the presidential election, police in Paterson, New Jersey, shot an unarmed black man, 41-year-old Larry Bouie, in front of his two sons.
‘White supremacist in highest office’
President-elect Donald Trump has drawn the ire of communities of colour, particularly African Americans, for his lengthy history of racist comments and offensive descriptions of black communities.
Since Trump’s electoral victory, protests have erupted in cities and towns across the country, and mainstream media outlets have reported an increase in hate crimes targeting communities of colour, including black communities.
In early November, a fire-damaged African-American church in Mississippi was spray-painted with the message “Vote Trump”.
“What is true today – and has been true since the seizure of this land – is that when black people and women build power, white people become resentful,” Black Lives Matter said of Trump’s election in a statement.
“That resentment manifested itself in the election of a white supremacist to the highest office in American government.”
In July, during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas, a military veteran shot and killed five police officers.
Dallas Police Department officials said the shooter – a 25-year-old named Micah Johnson, who was killed by police after a standoff – carried out the attack in retaliation for the ongoing deaths of black people at the hands of US police forces.
Following the incident, Trump released an online video calling for “solidarity” with law enforcement.
Denouncing the shooting as “an attack on our country”, Trump said: “We must stand in solidarity with law enforcement, which we must remember is the force between civilisation and total chaos.”
In September, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the country’s largest police union, endorsed Trump over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
“He’s made a real commitment to America’s law enforcement and we’re proud to make a commitment to him and his campaign by endorsing his candidacy today,” FOP president Chuck Canterbury said in a statementat the time.
More militarisation of the police?
In addition to planning to push for legislation that would deem attacks on law enforcement to be “hate crimes”, Trump also said he supports reinstating “stop-and-frisk”, a New York Police Department (NYPD) policy that was banned after a judge ruled that it constituted “indirect” racial profiling.
According to NYPD data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU), 88 percent of New Yorkers stopped-and-frisked by police in 2013 were innocent of any criminal activity. Of the 191,558 times officers used the tactic that year, 56 percent of those targeted were black, 29 percent Latino and 11 percent white.
Trump has promised to back law enforcement with federal grants without conditions and pledged to continue a programme allowing for the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments.
In a May 2015 executive order inspired by an outcry over the 2014 police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama banned local police departments from receiving certain types of military equipment. Trump has threatened to repeal that measure.
Years of programmes run by different federal agencies, however, have already resulted in the militarisation of police. According to a 2014 report by the ACLU, the monetary value of military equipment being used by state and local police agencies across the country increased from $1m in 1990 to $450m in 2013.
Jose Woss, a legislative associate for domestic policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, says further militarisation will be disastrous for communities struggling with the “systemic issues” of law enforcement.
“Often what we see is that [military-grade equipment] is heaviest in communities of colour. What we’re likely to see is more incidents like Ferguson, more images of protests turned violent,” he says, referring to police use of rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters in 2014.
“We’re also going to see more use of force in areas that are largely communities of colour,” Woss adds. “Nonviolent peaceful protesters were treated like they were essentially on a street in Kabul. We saw the same military equipment from warzones come back to the US.”
Back in her New Orleans home, Sandra Harris says each day has become a struggle for her family since her son’s death. The nights are the toughest, she says, describing how she breaks down in tears each evening before going to bed.
“I’m struggling,” she says. “It’s hard for me. I’m trying to stay strong and focused, but sometimes I just can’t.”
On the eighth of each month, she visits Eric’s grave.
Because she is unable to work and survives on a monthly disability payment, Sandra has started an online fundraising account to help raise money towards the remaining $3,000 she must pay for his funeral.
Before Eric’s killing, Sandra says she would turn off the television whenever there was a news report about a police killing. “I hate to see it,” she says. “It’s something I never thought would touch my life. Who in the world would expect Eric to be gone? None of us.”
Now, she hopes for a nationwide overhaul that will put an end to militarised policing and killings that disproportionately affect people of colour, especially black Americans.
“[Police violence] needs to be stopped. Something needs to be done,” Sandra says. “After y’all killed my child, who else y’all going to kill?”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_