BEEBE, Ark. (AP) — The Rev. Al Sharpton and attorneys for George Floyd’s family on Tuesday mourned a white Arkansas teenager fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy, as they urged support across racial lines for efforts to reform police practices.
Sharpton eulogized 17-year-old Hunter Brittain, who was shot and killed by a white Lonoke County sheriff’s deputy, Sgt. Michael Davis, during a traffic stop June 23 near Cabot, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Little Rock.
The killing in the predominantly white community has drawn the attention of national civil rights activists such as Sharpton, who said concerns about police tactics aren’t just limited to the Black community.
“The issue of policing is not about Black and white,” Sharpton told a packed auditorium at Beebe High School, where Brittain was a rising senior. “It’s about right and wrong.”
Many attending the memorial wore jeans and shirts that read “Justice for Hunter,” in a ceremony that included Floyd family attorneys Ben Crump and Devon Jacob. Both are representing Brittain’s family.
Floyd died in May last year when a white Minneapolis police officer used his knee to pin the handcuffed Black man’s neck to the ground. His death sparked nationwide protests over policing and racial inequality.
Crump and Jacob invoked other people killed by police, including Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky woman who was fatally shot during a botched police raid. Crump led the crowd in chanting, “Hunter Brittain’s life matters.”
“Because he is not here, we all have to unite together and make sure people all over America know that we will get justice for Hunter Brittain,” Crump said.
Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley last week fired Davis for not turning on his body camera until after he had shot Brittain. Staley said the only footage police have is from the aftermath. Arkansas State Police are investigating Brittain’s death. Davis is white.
Authorities have released few details about the shooting. Brittain’s family has said the teenager was unarmed and was holding a jug of antifreeze when he was shot. Brittain’s family and friends have held protests nightly outside the Lonoke County sheriff’s office and have complained about the lack of information released.
Family members have said Brittain had been working on his truck’s transmission and had been test driving it when he was pulled over.
Staley on Monday said he welcomed those who want to peacefully protest, but that out-of-state activists could risk “inflaming an already difficult situation.”
“The people of this county are good, decent people and they, like me, want to see accountability and transparency in this situation,” Staley wrote on the office’s Facebook page.
The memorial included calls to pass federal legislation in Floyd’s name to overhaul police practices.
“Hopefully, Hunter and his untimely death will finish what Hunter’s brother — George Floyd — and his death started,” Jacob said.
Jesse Brittain, Hunter’s uncle, received a standing ovation when he called for an end to qualified immunity for police officers, a legal doctrine that frequently shields them from civil lawsuits for things they do in the course of their job.
“Your life had meaning, you’re loved and your family will not stop advocating until we have justice for you, Hunter,” he said. “And also justice for all of our other brothers and sisters dying at the hands of law enforcement hired to protect and serve us around this country.”
As mourners filed into the high school auditorium Tuesday morning, photos and video of Brittain were displayed on a large screen above his casket, which was decorated with blue and white ribbons, the Chevrolet symbol and “Forever Chevy 17.” Family members said Brittain dreamed of becoming a NASCAR driver after graduation.
“Hunter did nothing wrong, just like we felt George Floyd did nothing wrong,” Sharpton told reporters before the memorial. “But if we segregate how we react, then we’re wrong.”
It was unclear what impact Sharpton’s and the attorneys’ calls for action would have in Lonoke County, a rural county of 73,000 people that is 90% white.
Even before the memorial service, Brittain’s friends and family were calling for change at the state level with petitions urging the Legislature to require officers to wear body cameras that would be turned on as soon as their shift begins.
“I never thought anything like this would happen until it hit so close to home,” said Scott Hendrickson, whose son was close friends with Brittain and who is . “Once it happened to my son’s best friend, I said it could happen to my son so it was too close to home to not do anything about it.”
Dozens of people gathered outside the sheriff’s office after the memorial service for a rally with Brittain’s family, attorneys and the NAACP
Melissia McMahan, who is the Brittain family’s mail carrier and knew the teen since he was a toddler, said she had thought about the need for police reform before Brittain’s death but hadn’t thought it was something her own community would face.
“I never expected anything like what happened, especially not just a country boy working on his truck and taking it for a test drive,” she said.