Darnesha McMillan, Lola Whitworth, Ruth Beltran and Stephanie Pinkey speak at the forum on September 22.

On September 22, Party for Socialism and Liberation – PSL and Answer Suncoast held a benefit concert, potluck and forum for this year’s survivors of police brutality in Sarasota. The concert was quickly followed up by a protest at the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) on October 2 to demand justice, during SPD’s “Night Out Against Crime” festival.

The events came as the latest in a series of protests and speak outs stretching back to March. The families, supported by the community and organizations such as PSL, Answer Suncoast, Black Lives Matter Manasota and The Rodney Mitchell Foundation, have spoken out at City Hall, held a press conference and protested to raise awareness and demand accountability.

McMillan’s daughter at the October 2 protest: “People who’ve been hurt need to have justice in their lives. Black lives matter!”

This year, there have been at least three documented cases of brutality by SPD against people of color. Each case involved excessive or deadly force by the same officer, Brandon Vermillion, along with other officers. SPD and Chief Bernadette DiPino have taken a hard stance in defense of the officers.

On March 22, Officer Vermillion, who is white, beat and tased Chad Washington thirteen times, while other officers helped pin Washington to the ground. The violence, caught on video, started while Washington was having a medical emergency in his fiancé’s home and waiting for paramedics to arrive. His fiancé, Darnesha McMillan, and her five children witnessed the attack. In September, Washington was convicted on three counts of battery on a police officer and one count of possession.

On April 13, a few weeks later, Jeremy Trebbles and two other teens were parked at Janie’s Garden apartment complex, a couple blocks from where the incident with Washington occurred. Vermillion and another officer approached the SUV at night allegedly because they thought it looked “suspicious”. Startled, the teens drove away. Officer Vermillion quickly opened fire into the SUV, shooting Jeremy Trebbles and another occupant multiple times.

Trebbles and the teens survived and drove themselves to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. There were no allegations that the teens were armed or committing a crime when the shooting took place. Trebbles was charged with aggravated battery on a police officer and held on $150,000 bond, later reduced to $75,000. He was held in the custody of Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office during his multiple surgeries and post-operative recovery at the hospital, then transported to Sarasota County Jail’s medical ward with a bullet still in his upper left shoulder.

Perla Esparza at the October 2 protest: “I never thought that I was going to go through it. So I’m so glad that I have a group that is supportive and understands where I’m coming from.”

On May 27, Vermillion and other officers brutally attacked the family of Perla Esparza on her wedding night at a party at her home near Tuttle Elementary. Police were called when an altercation began between family members. When the officers arrived, they escalated the situation by “yelling and throwing people on the floor.”

According to family members, officers viciously beat, tased and pepper sprayed them without justification. Four family members—Jose Esparza, Rafael Esparza, Maria Ramirez, and Victor Esparza— were injured and arrested. The groom was taken to jail straight from his wedding in Sarasota and later deported to Mexico.

The benefit show, held at Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center on September 22, reached many new community members in Sarasota. Local bands Physical Plant and Lesa Silvermore performed, donating all proceeds to the families. These donations helped offset a small amount of the expenses incurred due to legal and medical bills.

Lesa Silvermore performs at the benefit concert.

Dozens of local activists and the families contributed dishes to the potluck. Afterwards, the forum featured an analysis of police brutality by PSL, followed by talks by Darnesha McMillan, fiancé of Chad Washington, Stephanie Pinkney, the aunt of Jeremy Trebbles, and a letter written from Mexico by Perla Esparza, who was visiting her husband Victor Esparza. McMillan, Pinkney and Esparza talked about the attacks and the devastating impact they had on their lives.

“It was a nightmare. It was devastating and very traumatizing to witness something like that in front of my children,” said McMillan.

“My husband and his family were the only ones arrested and wrongfully accused that night. We tried to fight each one of the cases against them but it’s very costly and time consuming,” wrote Esparza. “The prosecutors are out to prosecute no matter what. I guess they will never understand great disappointment, stress, depression, and hardships these police officers put on the families and on the community.”

Stephanie Pinkney speaks about what happened to Jeremy Trebbles, her nephew.

“When Jeremy got to the hospital, they wouldn’t let his mother see him, or my mother, or his sisters. And Jeremy and his sisters are very close. So, it was a devastating event that could have caused a lot to have taken place to hurt our family. My mother ended up having a stroke behind all this. The whole time Jeremy was in there, he had no contact with his mother or anyone,” said Pinkney.

“What they did to this young man,” she continued. “They put him in jail with a bond where we could not afford it. We had several bond hearings trying to get the judge to lower the bond. He wouldn’t do it. Jeremy ended up missing his high school graduation. He graduated early, with a 3.8 GPA, had 27 out of 30 offers to prestigious colleges. And a lot of people do not realize how it affects the family. Not only the one that was hurt, but it goes in a broad spectrum. And trying to get the one that was hurt to heal is a long process.”

McMillan and her daughters lead the march on SPD’s “Night Out Against Crime.”

On October 2, the families and their supporters marched on the Sarasota Police Department’s “Night Out Against Crime” with their own “Night Out Against Police Brutality.” SPD’s event featured two monster trucks, an armored vehicle, a bomb-exploding robot, and games for children. Marching through the event, over twenty activists held signs saying “Justice for Jeremy, Chad, Victor and their families!” and “Drop the charges! Fire the officers,” chanting “No justice, no peace!” Local news stations were conspicuously absent at the event.

“We’re here today to demand justice for the families affected by police brutality here in Sarasota. We’re here today to demand that the violent racist criminal officer Brandon Vermilion, be fired, and the charges against Jeremy Trebles must be dropped. We’re here today because our police are terrorizing our community, and the whole system must be changed from the ground up,” shouted Ryan Francis into a bullhorn, standing in front of the SPD’s armored vehicle.

Cde. Lola Whitworth speaks to demonstrators at the protest.

“Police do not keep us safe. We the people keep each other safe. We are powerful in our unity and we will get justice for the families here today. We will not let the police walk away today thinking we are not paying attention,” Lola Whitworth told demonstrators, the red and blue lights of a police cruiser flashing behind her. “Our message is that these injustices cannot continue. We will continue to be vocal about our struggle and we will continue to organize and we will continue to get stronger. With each coming day, we are that much closer to justice.”

A GoFundMe fundraiser has been set up to help the families as they continue their struggle for justice.