To end 2023, in a frustrating trial that lasted three months, Tacoma Police Department officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank, and Timothy Rankine were acquitted of all charges related to the 2020 killing of Manuel Ellis.
It didn’t matter that once again another Black man was killed on camera. It didn’t matter that for three months after his death, the Pierce County Sheriff’s office hid the fact that one of their deputies was involved in the incident. And it didn’t matter that Ellis was shocked, beaten, and restrained face-down on a sidewalk… pleading for his life.
No. None of that mattered. Another one of our community members is dead after a fatal encounter with police, and we are still searching for answers and accountability. The system killed Ellis and failed his entire family — it failed all of us. It continues to fail.
I want to be a more optimistic person in 2024. I actually had every intention of dedicating this year’s first installment of ‘On the Fence Line’ to talking about just that: optimism. However, after learning of the not-guilty verdict, I cannot in good conscience write about anything else. My heart just won’t allow it. My heart is broken for our community.
Instead, I want us to talk about justice. Or well, maybe injustice is the more appropriate word here. As an abolitionist, I don’t believe that incarceration actually equates to justice, or that prisons contribute to safer communities. But because we’ve been so conditioned as a society to accept a prison sentence as justice, to hear anything but “guilty” in this case feels like a slap in the face — an injustice.
That’s what makes the verdict so complicated and difficult to digest. And dang, we’ve been taking losses for so damn long. Maybe a guilty verdict was just what the doctor ordered to help ease our pain. Heck, maybe this time our pain will actually motivate us to effect real change.
It has to, right? I’m not totally sold.
But I want to bring our discussion back to justice. What does that even mean? Would incarcerating the three officers for their actions have been justice and accountability? Would three cops sitting in a prison cell, probably moonlighting as prison snitches, have made our communities safer places?
Though some counterrevolutionary individuals believe that if only these killer cops could take some water down classes at a “wonderful” prison such as Monroe’s Washington State Reformatory, the world could be a much better place.
I personally just don’t have answers.
However, I do know that we’ve got to do something different, something real. We’ve got to stop having faith in a system that continues to prey on our most vulnerable and tricks us into doing its dirty work by making us believe that there is no alternative to maintaining the status quo.
It’s time to dismantle and rebuild. That means all of us looking in the mirror and deciding what that really means to each of us.
For me, as a community organizer who wholeheartedly believes in abolition, that means rejecting surface level reforms to the (in)justice system that only strengthens the state and the police. What that also means to me is no longer allowing liberal reformers to infiltrate and hijack our movement in order to push their own reformist agendas.
I’m talking about those who read our books, learn our language, and then quote Mariame Kaba only to turn around and use those terms to work and reinforce a white supremacist system where only they are allowed to benefit, while simultaneously working to deradicalize real abolitionist spaces and leave the most impacted communities out to dry.
Because truth be told, it’s these same counterinsurgents who continuously disrespect and undo generations of sacrifice and progress made by communities of color, making concessions to “The Man” on our behalf and without our consent.
Yes, it’s these same reformists that are the tokens of the state who are just as dangerous as killer cops, if not more. It is their watered down “solutions” that do nothing to solve issues plaguing communities of color, instead working to further marginalize the people who are making real change… whose lives actually depend on these changes.
For instance, it was these same reformists who campaigned around Initiative 940 (I-940), which passed in 2018. That directive was supposed to make it “easier” to prosecute police who wrongfully used deadly force, yet has done nothing to actually save lives.
According to MappingPoliceViolence.org, since the passing of I-940 in 2018, there have been at least 180 civilians killed by police officers in Washington State. What’s more appalling, the 310 civilians killed by police between 2013-2022 in Washington ranks 19th in the country. In 99% of these instances, charges weren’t ever filed.
Meanwhile, abolitionist demands like those to defund the police and shutdown prisons, and that all power be restored to all the people are routinely rejected by mainstream system-aligned reformists that don’t even dare to dream radically, let alone move radically.
We have to demand better for our people, y’all. We cannot afford to lose any more Manuel Ellis’ to state violence, just like we can’t afford to lose any more Charleenas. Their lives mattered. We can’t be afraid to sacrifice for real progress; to fight for the world we want to see; to begin again.
For 2024, that’s my commitment and challenge to community. I still believe in us. Damn, maybe this piece was about optimism after all! Happy New Year, family. Until next time, keep dreaming.
Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him with questions for “On the Fence Line” via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, PO Box 900, Shelton, WA 98584.