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The Killing of Aura Rosser: One Year Later and Still No Justice

Almost a year ago, Ann Arbor police shot and killed 40-year-old Aura Rain Rosser in her home. In the final hour of the night of November 9, 2014, Ann Arbor police officers Mark Raab and David Ried responded to a police call from Rosser’s partner, 54-year-old Victor Stephens who claimed she attacked him with a knife. Within 5-10 seconds of entering in their home, officer Raab discharged his taser and Ried discharged his firearm, striking and killing Rosser, who they claimed approached them with a kitchen knife.

The Ann Arbor to Ferguson movement was born in the city’s streets on November 25, 2014, the night after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough announced Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not face charges for shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. McCullough’s announcement was a provocation for action and we answered. Hundreds of citizens from Washtenaw County and the University of Michigan gathered on the Diag in solidarity with people fighting against oppression in Ferguson, Palestine, and Mexico. Most importantly, we gathered and marched for Aura and her family.

While we organized, Michigan State Police investigated the Reid’s use of lethal force. On January 30, Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie declared that Ried “acted in lawful self-defense.” Mayor Christopher Taylor released a statement on his Facebook page the evening of Mackie’s announcement. He continued the city’s policy of evasion in response to the killing. He also denied that racism played a factor. Taylor called Rosser’s death a “tragedy of mental illness and drug abuse unabated.” Then he claimed that the killing was “not the tragedy of racism,” which was “loathsome and unacceptable to everything Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor police stands for.”

Ironically, as Taylor denied that race played a factor in Rosser’s death, his actions only illustrated how much the city and county government’s response to her death resembled that of the authorities in St. Louis, Cleveland, and New York City, all of which exonerated police officers for killing African Americans and then downplaying the fact that police officers kill African Americans at a disproportionate rate.

It has been a year since Aura Rosser’s death. I wish I had more positive news to report. Unfortunately, I do not. I wish I could say the city apologized for her death. I cannot. I wish I could say the city took responsibility for her death. I cannot. I wish I could say Prosecutor Mackie at least brought Officer Ried to trial. I cannot. Rosser’s family is still waiting for justice. These were our demands. We protested. We organized. We know city leaders were aware of our presence. They heard us protest, but they fail to listen.

The city of Ann Arbor announced it would invest in body cameras and upgrades to in-car videos last December. Then-Police Chief John Seto also informed us he was reviewing diversity training programs for officers. The AAPD has neither publicly acknowledged whether or not these trainings were instituted nor whether the trainings would be mandatory for all officers. And while some may see body cameras as a step in a positive direction, no one should forget that police cameras caught police officers shooting and killing Samuel DeBose in Cincinnati, Ohio, Ricardo Diaz-Zeferino in Gardena, Calif., and in Sandra Bland’s arrest in Texas.

The city of Ann Arbor dragged its feet in considering whether or not it would establish a civilian review board to oversee law enforcement. The Human Rights Commission released its report calling for civilian oversight last Friday. There is no guarantee that city government will approve and institute a civilian oversight board. We still have to play “wait and see.”

This glacial pace of institutional change and lack of action specifically around Rosser provokes the following questions: Does Aura Rosser’s life matter? Did her life matter to the mayor who could only muster a Facebook response, not even an apology? Did it matter to the prosecutor who declared that her killing was justified? Does it matter to our local government, which has moved too slowly to reform the city’s police practices? I also wonder if Aura Rosser’s life mattered to the University of Michigan. Officer Reid shot Rosser on former police Chief John Seto’s watch, the same person who the University of Michigan recently hired as director of housing security. Chief Seto continues to collect a handsome pay while Aura Rosser’s family waits for justice.

Some may ask what justice would look like after a police officer shoots and kills a citizen. Ultimately, if the city of Ann Arbor wants to lead on the issue, it must do so by reorienting its justice systems away from punishment toward restorative measures. In Rosser’s case, it would include the city formally apologizing to the family for her death, paying for Rosser’s funeral costs to relieve the family of undue burden, and firing Officer Ried. Performing these acts of contrition would send a signal to the city that police officers would be held accountable for taking a citizen’s life. Obviously, doing all, or a combination of any of these tasks, surely would not resurrect Rosser from her grave, but they could have gone a long way toward healing the family and rebuilding trust between the police and the Ann Arbor community, especially the city’s African American residents.

The presence of justice reflects a society’s willingness to explore and enact measures that restores confidence and heals aggrieved individuals and communities. We live in the shadow of authoritarian justice. In such a reality, authorities, and people who blindly defend law enforcement and the criminal justice system, assume people of color, queer, and transgender citizens should trade their individual liberty for security. Then we are blamed for our own deaths if we commit any infraction. The discretion that individual officers enjoy in policies like “broken windows” policing, empowers them to demand submission. And if citizens do not comply with demands, they are subject to tasers, chokeholds, being tossed across a classroom, or being shot to death. The criminal justice system turns our streets, parks, apartment complexes, and stores into execution grounds. Laws that allow police officers discretion to administer a form of authoritarian justice mocks the concept of due process.

The assumption embedded in contemporary styles of policing is that the criminalization of bodies of color and space are necessary. And citizens must be willing to submit for the police to differentiate between those who abide by the law and those who break the law. Organizing a society in such a way is immoral and contradicts many of this nation’s ideals, unless the principles of liberty and freedom are really conditional and do not apply to the most marginalized. Theoretically, a justice system should be accountable to its citizens first, because, presumably, the system is a public institution that should serve a public good. If we are to continue to have police, if we are to continue to have a justice system, we need to recreate one that is more democratic and less authoritarian.

The reactionary slogan, “All Lives Matter,” reflects the cynicism around race and disregard for black life in American society. Obviously, if we lived in a nation where all lives mattered, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi would not have invented the black lives matter slogan. This dense mantra also points to our adjustment to injustice in this country. If all lives mattered, we would close the racial wealth gap, address African American unemployment, which is twice that of whites. If all lives mattered, black Detroiters would not have to worry about water shut offs. If all lives mattered, we would care more about the conditions that produce urban uprisings, not the fate of a CVS drugstore. If all lives mattered, we would care more about murdered transgendered women. Addressing these issues, and many more pertaining to all of the injustices that people of color face in America, would be top priority for everyone. The founders of Black Lives Matter call on us to act on expanded definitions of humanity in policy and practice. We can no longer remain comfortable with injustice.

The absence of restorative justice is why we have marched, blocked intersections, and shut down city streets and city council meetings in Ann Arbor. We do so because Rosser has remained virtually anonymous to the Mayor, the city council, the police and the University of Michigan. One does not perform these acts if authorities listen and take citizens’ demands seriously. One does not engage in civil disobedience if the system is just. We will continue to act to keep the spirits of Aura Rosser and other black women who have died at the hands of police and armed citizens in Southeast Michigan such as seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones and nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride. We will not stop until black women’s lives matter to the University of Michigan, Washtenaw County, and the state of Michigan. Authorities should rise to the challenge of #BlackLivesMatter. This nation is always looking for inspiring leadership. But if local leaders continue to fail to act with urgency, then we will push them. The longer Rosser’s family has to wait for justice and the longer we wait for changes to the local justice system, the more we will demand. That is how protest works.

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Austin McCoy is an activist with Black Lives Matter and a PhD student at the University of Michigan. He lives in Ann Arbor.

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