A rally in support of Carlos Riley Jr. (Courtesy of carlosrileyjr.weebly.com)
Carlos Riley Jr. was alone, black and unarmed when he was pulled over by a Durham, North Carolina police officer on the cold morning of December 18, 2012. In the altercation that followed the stop, Riley was badly beaten, the officer was shot in the leg and his gun went missing. More than seven months later, Carlos Riley Jr. sits in jail under $1 million bond, still waiting to face federal and state charges. He has spent Christmas, the New Year and most recently his twenty-second birthday behind bars. The cop who pulled his gun during the traffic stop hasn’t spent a day off the job.
“This is America, this is the kind of judicial system we live in,” says Carlos Riley Sr., his father. “It’s degrading. I have no faith in the judicial system now, for them to allow something like this to happen.”
Riley Sr.’s indignation—bolstered in recent months by a coalition of grassroots organizations that have come out in support of Riley Jr., including the local NAACP and SpiritHouse—is rooted in what he understands to be the facts of the case. And in the shadow of the verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty for the killing of Trayvon Martin, his son’s story follows a painfully familiar script.
At around ten in the morning on December 18, 2012, Carlos Riley Jr. was stopped for an alleged traffic violation by officer Kelly Stewart, who was wearing civilian clothes and driving an unmarked car. Riley maintains that the officer grabbed him through his open window after demanding to see registration, putting him in a chokehold and threatening to kill him. Riley says Stewart then shot himself in the leg as he drew his gun, an event with plenty of precedent among such encounters. Fearing for his life, Riley says he pulled the gun away from the officer and fled, tossing the weapon and turning himself over to the authorities within hours.
The Durham Police Department disputes this version of events. The federal District Attorney accuses Riley of muscling the gun from Stewart, firing it at him and then stealing it, charging him as a felon in possession of a gun. Despite originally alleging Riley also stole Stewart’s handcuffs and badge, those items, as well as the gun’s holster, were eventually discovered by police investigators, strengthening Riley’s insistence that he discarded everything in the area.
“It makes it an easier charge if the gun is missing,” notes Walter Riley, Carlos Riley Jr.’s great-uncle and an attorney working with the Durham NAACP to file civil police misconduct charges on Riley Jr.’s behalf. “I don’t know how many drop-gun cases Durham has had to deal with,” he says, referring to the practice of police officers conspiring to tamper with gun evidence to absolve themselves of illegal shootings. “But the big cities do all the time.” In his assessment, “There are only two possibilities for the gun. Either Carlos knows where it is, or someone found it, either the police department or a civilian.” Walter Riley’s experience as a Bay Area litigator leads him to suspect it’s the latter. Even if the gun wasn’t disappeared by police, he points out, “It’s a nice piece of equipment. It has resale value.”
He has reason to question the police’s version of events. In the United States, police, security guards or armed vigilantes kill one black person every twenty-eight hours. In fact, Walter Riley found out about what happened to his great-nephew while preparing to speak at an event on police brutality. “I was about to co-MC a program at Laney College,” he told me. “The auditorium was packed for Justice for Alan Blueford. Angela Davis was the keynote speaker.” Alan Blueford was an unarmed black teenager pursued and killed by an Oakland police officer around midnight May 5-6, 2012. Miguel Masso, the officer in question, shot himself in the foot in the course of the encounter. After receiving a call from Riley Sr. about what had transpired, Walter Riley canceled his engagement. It was too much for him to handle. “The similarities shook me.”
Durham County in particular has earned a reputation for being one of North Carolina’s most racist. Incarcerating its black population at nine times the rate for whites, Durham’s is the highest racial disparity among the state’s 100 counties. On a daily basis, black residents are 162 percent more likely than whites to be searched in stops for the same crime. As with the Zimmerman trial, this pattern assumes the black body to be a weapon, treating the mere fact of someone’s blackness and youth as justification to stop them.
Carlos Riley Jr. is only the most recent victim of Durham’s racial policing. In a report compiled at the UNC School of Law, Reginald Woods, a 39-year-old former city employee, describes being stopped at a traffic light while obeying all traffic laws. When he reached for a cigarette, he was assaulted and tased so violently that he later had to be put on sleeping pills and antidepressants to treat the trauma. A judge later dismissed the case against him, finding officers “had no reasonable suspicion” to ever have stopped Woods.
In October 2012, Navy veteran Stephanie Nickerson faced charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer after being beaten—suffering a broken nose and blackened eyes—for informing her friends of their Fourth Amendment right to ask police for a warrant. Following months of organizing on the part of many of the same groups rallying for Riley’s freedom, the offending officer was forced to resign and all charges against Nickerson were dropped. “I’m still scared of police,” says Nickerson. “I don’t like looking at them. I don’t like interacting with them.” She fits Carlos Riley Jr.’s case into a longstanding tradition of racial harassment she had the misfortune of experiencing firsthand.
In this light, the prospect of Carlos Riley Jr.’s word against the department’s seems discouraging. The odds are so stacked, says Walter Riley, that Riley Jr.’s federal attorney was able to talk him into a plea deal so he couldn’t spend more than a decade in prison. While he faces a federal sentencing date in November, state prosecutors have so far kept him in the dark. As Walter Riley points out, “You don’t have the right to a speedy trial in North Carolina.”
Thinking of her own story, Nickerson still believes in the community’s power to alter the stakes. Why did her campaign end in success? “It’s harder to fight against a group of people than one person,” she emphasizes. “The officer knew what he did was wrong, he saw that people were fighting for me. That I had people that I didn’t even know fighting for me and fighting with me.” After months of working with community groups and fielding interviews, the Riley family deeply understands the social dynamics at play. They’ve knocked on doors and organized rallies against police brutality and racial profiling across the community, most recently convening a “Block Party for Justice,” featuring musical performances, speeches and a cookout in an East Durham park. They’ve seen young people becoming empowered, many of them speaking out against their shared experiences of police harassment for the first time.
When the dust finally settles and the gavel lands, whether or not the truth of what happened on that road on December 18, 2012, unshackles a young black man, the fear and hatred that jailed him will in many ways linger. Riley Sr. recalls a police investigator’s stinging statement to his younger son Ledarius during questioning: “You’re going to keep your black ass in prison, just like your brother.” This is the darkness shrouding Durham’s path forward. It is the haze through which Carlos Riley Jr. sees his future.
“I can’t even describe how it makes me feel,” says Riley Sr., thinking about his son who he can only speak with via telephone through glass. “I just want justice.”
Read Aura Bogado’s “Animating Black Bodies” here.