Militant Journalism

The system is racist: Tacoma killer cops walk free

On Dec. 21, a jury in Pierce County, Washington, found three Tacoma Police Department officers not guilty of the 2020 killing of Manuel Ellis. Ellis, age 33, died with an officer’s knee on his back after telling cops “I can’t breathe” at least five times as captured on video. The city of Tacoma had already settled a civil suit with the family. 

Ellis was killed March 3, 2020. After the start of the George Floyd uprising at the end of May, 2020, his family and supporters drew parallels between the cases.

In 2020, a state initiative, I-940, which removed “malicious intent” as a requirement for criminally charging a cop who had caused an on-duty death had just gone into effect when Ellis was killed. Initially no action was taken to hold these officers accountable. Only after protests erupted in the context of the national rebellion against racism did the state and other authorities start a more independent investigation and eventually move to charge some of the law enforcement officers who participated in Ellis’s killing.

After the verdict was announced, about 100 people, including Ellis’s sister Monet Carter-Mixon and activist and Tacoma city councilmember-elect Jamika Scott, walked to the police precinct to protest the verdict. A moment of silence was held for the duration of Ellis’s encounter with the police, during which time he was beaten, tased, knelt on, had a spit hood placed on him and pleaded for his life. The police were present at the protest, but stayed far away. Protesters then took the streets to march to the Manuel Ellis Mural for a vigil with candles and pictures of Ellis and others killed by TPD.  

As protesters marched, they chanted, “TPD, KKK, IDF they’re all the same” and “Jail killer cops!” 

The whole system is guilty

Ellis’s family and supporters, including members of the Tacoma Action Collective, were present every day at the trial. Despite passage of I-940, it was clear to observers that the system was stacked against accountability for the cops. The judge and defense attorneys appeared friendly with each other. Prosecutors had promised they would not allege the officers acted with racial bias. When special prosecutor Patty Eakes stated that the officers treated Ellis as “less than human,” Judge Bryan Chushcoff admonished her for using that statement for bringing in a “racial” component:

“You, earlier in this case when we were having motions on this, you said the state is not claiming in any way whatsoever that the actions of these defendants was racially motivated. … And when you suggest that they treat him like an animal, like something less than human, it invokes all the stereotypes of Nazi Germany. And what does that do in terms of stirring people’s emotions, except to suggest that there’s some kind of white supremacist, bigoted activity going on here. … What am I supposed to do with you when this repeatedly occurs? Did I not say to you you’re on the boundary, don’t push it any further? That is how obtuse you are.” (Seattle Times)

Even more shockingly, one of the defense attorneys used the word “boy” to address the family’s attorney, the well-known lawyer James Bible, who is African American. This occurred while Bible was attempting to defuse tensions in the courtroom after Chuscoff rebuked Eakes and Eakes responded to defend saying that the officers treated Ellis as less than human. The officers in their own testimony described Ellis as making “animalistic” noises during the encounter prior to killing him. (Seattle Times) 

As typically has occurred in police brutality cases, the victim was put on trial. His legal and health history was brought up, and the accounts and phone video from several eyewitnesses were flatly contradicted by the officers’ accounts. 

Tacoma PD asserts an investigation of the incident will wrap up soon. It is highly unlikely this case would even have gone to trial without the intervention of mass struggle on two fronts: the mass movement to put I-940 on the ballot, which made it even possible to try the officers, and the 2020 national anti-racist rebellion. The verdict in this case shows that reforming the system is not enough to assure justice. 

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