By Sam P.K. Collins
As family members of Mike Brown prepare to observe the ninth anniversary of his police-involved killing, both they and loved ones of Rekia Boyd are coalescing around a legal battle against the U.S. government that they have taken to the international stage.
Attorneys representing Brown and Boyd’s families recently filed a merit brief with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The brief argues that the U.S. government committed human rights abuses against Brown and Boyd by failing to hold officers accountable for Brown and Boyd’s deaths.
The July 5 filing of the merit brief counts as the Brown and Boyd families’ latest strategy in their seven-year human rights crusade. While protests in the aftermath of the killings have shed light on the prevalence of police violence, both families have been unsuccessful in their attempts to secure prosecutions and get cases reopened.
Delia Addo-Yobo, a U.S. staff attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and one of five people who filed the merit brief, said that the families’ journey highlights how local and state governments, and well as the federal government, have remained complicit in the state-sponsored violence committed against Black people.
“We hope that there would be some acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the U.S. government about what they’ve been doing with families,” Addo-Yobo said. “This petition is not just a legal document, it’s a political document. We want it to set a legal precedent in the international setting that different grassroots organizations can look to. The families have exhausted all of the remedies in the U.S., so this is a last resort.”
Looking Back at Two of Several Police-Involved Killings
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has filed the merit brief in collaboration with Howard University (HU)’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has six months to file a response. DOJ’s public affairs office didn’t respond to the Informer’s request for comment.
On August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. That shooting sparked protests in Ferguson and inspired the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot!” a reference to what witnesses said Brown did before Wilson shot him six times.
Much to the chagrin of family members and activists, an FBI investigation later concluded that Brown didn’t put his hands in the air. During the latter part of 2014, a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing, saying that Wilson shot Brown in self-defense. In 2020, St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell announced that Wilson wouldn’t be charged with manslaughter or murder.
Lezley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, didn’t respond to the Informer’s request for an interview.
Two years before Brown’s death, Dante Servin, an off-duty police detective, shot and killed 22-year-old Boyd in Chicago. He approached a group of four people who had been partying in Douglas Park on the west side of Chicago. During a verbal altercation, Servin fired shots at the group, hitting Boyd in the head and another person, Antonio Cross, in the hand. He claimed that someone in the group had been holding a gun, but that object was later found to be a cellphone.
In 2013, Servin was charged with involuntary manslaughter. In 2015, Judge Dennis J. Porter cleared him of all charges, saying that first-degree murder would’ve been the more appropriate charge.
Boyd’s family later received $4.5 million as part of a wrongful death settlement. Servin resigned in 2016, just two days before the start of a departmental hearing to determine whether he should be fired. He later unsuccessfully attempted to get the case expunged from his record.
The Bigger Picture, as Explained by a Global Organizer
In 2015, shortly after the verdict in Boyd’s manslaughter case, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and HU’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center started the petition to IACHR.
IACHR, headquartered in Northwest, functions independently of the Organization of American States (OAS). It’s charged with defending human rights, as expressed in the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. IACHR has seven independent members, each of whom are elected by the OAS General Assembly but do not represent their country of origin or residence.
This fall, IACHR will conduct in-person and virtual hearings during its 188th Period of Sessions. Attorneys working on behalf of Brown and Boyd’s families are in the process of submitting an application for a hearing.
In recent years, IACHR has weighed in on the issues of extrajudicial killings in Venezuela, the overrepresentation of Afro-descendent women in penitentiaries, equal rights and non-discrimination in the U.S., the right to self-determination of Indigenous people, and how to protect political prisoners.
Justin Hansford, executive director of HU’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, expressed gratitude for IACHR’s willingness to take on the U.S. government in the realm of human rights. Hansford, who also serves as a member of the United Nations (UN) Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, said that African Americans appealing to the UN and other international entities has been part of a long tradition where diasporic Africans have circumvented their governments to fight for their human rights.
As the UN Permanent Forum of People of African Descent continues to shape its Declaration of the Rights of People of African Descent, Hansford said that time is of the essence for Black organizers across the globe to build tighter bonds to fulfill goals as it relates to securing the human rights of Africans in the U.S. and all around the world.
The case before the IACHR is an example of a human rights issue, Hansford said, because U.S. police officers have executed a level of force much greater than what international authorities, and many countries for that matter, have deemed reasonable.
“In the human rights world, you have to use force proportionally [but] police officers didn’t explore those minimum standards,” Hansford told the Informer.
“It’s part of the attack that has gone on for 400 years,” Hansford continued. “We have to use all of the tools at our disposal [to fight back] and I hope more of us look at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We have a long legacy of creating a global platform to fight for our human rights and this is another step in that direction.”