Alexis Dunlap and her daughter had joined the throngs last weekend at Seattle’s Westlake Plaza to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. They were fleeing the choking tear gas, she said, when she looked up to see the woman next to her holding a sign bearing a picture of her son, Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, a 17-year-old shot and killed by police three years ago.
“I thought, ‘That’s my baby,'” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s why I’m here.'”
Even before her son was killed, Dunlap had been seething at the injustice of it all. She recalls that the videotaped shooting and death of Philando Castile in Minnesota in July 2016 had infuriated her. “I wanted to do something,” she said. “I wanted to run out into the street. I thought everybody should be mad.”
Six months later, her own child would die in a hail of police gunfire. She and her ex-husband, Frank Gittens, were told Chance had shot at the deputies — it wasn’t true, although the department held to that story for more than two years. As it turns out, the boy had been shot four times in the back running away from a botched, and as it turned out, misguided attempt by deputies to arrest another teenager for a crime he did not commit. Chance had a gun, but it didn’t have a bullet in the chamber and wasn’t fired. The sheriff’s deputies told the public otherwise, and left a news release containing false information on its social media site for two years.
As people across the nation have filled the streets to protest Floyd’s death, Dunlap-Gittens’ family and the families of other Black people killed by police have found themselves swarmed by traumatic reminders of their own lost loved ones — a grim catalog of injustices that were seldom met with demonstrations or public calls for change.
“Those people in the streets aren’t just fighting now for what happened to George Floyd, but for all those things we’ve never seen or that have been kept in the dark,” said Frank Gittens.
In early May, the teen’s parents settled a civil-rights lawsuit against King County for $2.25 million, an apology from Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and a promise that the sheriff will pursue a policy in Chance’s name requiring deputies to wear body cameras.
The deputies involved returned to their jobs without being disciplined.
So last month, Dunlap, 48, who works as a Metro driver, was home in Kent and looked up to watch, in growing anger and dismay, the video of George Floyd dying in the street as he begged an indifferent police officer to let him breathe. “All I could say was, ‘Again? Really?'”
Frank Gittens was simply stunned by its inhumanity.
“I really could not believe what I was seeing,” said Gittens, 52, a car-sales executive. “That one person could do that to another, for nothing. He just took it upon himself to take that man’s last breath, while three or four other people watched.
“Think about the privilege they must feel to do something like that and walk away from it,” he said, real amazement in his voice. “Even the worst criminals think about getting caught. But that was the furthest thing from their mind.”
“I don’t hate police,” Gittens said. “I might say things behind closed doors that anger me about police, but I do not hate.”
The circumstances of George Floyd’s death “brings back so many memories,” said Gittens, who has a giant painting of Chance on his wall and a memorial to his son in his living room.
Gittens believes the campaign and election of President Donald Trump have given permission for racist behaviors and beliefs once “kept in the dark to come now into the light” and the public outrage over George Floyd’s death is backlash to it.
“You scoop up 10 people out there, and you’ll get 10 stories of racism we’ve never heard about,” he said.
Annalesa Thomas’ 30-year-old son, Leonard, was shot by a Lakewood Police Department sniper in 2013 — a killing resulting in one of the largest civil-rights and wrongful-death verdicts against police in the state’s history — likewise said the video brought back a flood of awful memories and guilt.
“It’s been so difficult,” she said from her home in Tacoma, where she and her husband, Fred, are raising their grandson, Elijah. The boy was just 4 years old when he was pulled from his dying father’s arms by a SWAT officer after a four-hour standoff at the home where he and his father lived in Fife. Officers responding to the home to investigate a misdemeanor domestic violence incident called in a SWAT team, which surrounded the unarmed man’s house the night of May 23, 2013. Police quickly decided he was holding his son hostage — although he had custody of the boy — and that he intended to kill the child and commit “suicide by cop.”
In reality, Thomas, who had been sober for a year, was despondent over the death of a close friend and had started drinking again. Annalesa, concerned about the child, went there to retrieve the boy. Thomas and his mother got into a scuffle, and Annalesa called police. They responded with an armored vehicle and 29 heavily armed police officers. Testimony at the trial showed 28 of the officers were white.
Negotiators had persuaded Thomas to let the boy go home with Annalesa, and then police would return in the morning to sort out the misdemeanor. Thomas was on the porch, with the child and a backpack containing a change of clothes, when Lakewood Officer Mike Wiley breached a basement door with explosives and shot the family dog as his team forced their way into the home. Thomas, startled, reached for the boy and Brian Markert, a Lakewood sniper, shot Thomas in the belly from across the street. The round missed the boy by inches.
Elijah was pulled from his father’s arms while Leonard Thomas begged officers not to hurt the child, according to testimony at the civil trial. He bled to death at the scene. Markert said he believed Thomas was lunging with the intent to harm the child when he fired, and the public was told Thomas was using the child as a “human shield.” No weapons were found in the house and testimony at trial showed Thomas had never threatened the boy or police.
“It’s just brought back all of those overwhelming feelings right after Leonard died,” she said of Floyd’s death. “I kept telling myself, ‘This shouldn’t have happened, this couldn’t be happening.'”
“And then realizing it happened, and there was nothing you could do,” she said. “It’s just an overwhelming loss.”
After Leonard’s death, the Thomas’s filed a $3.5 million claim against the city, alleging its militarized response to a misdemeanor domestic violence call was unnecessary and created a mindset among the officers that almost inevitably led to violence. The claim was rejected, and the family sued and took the case to trial in U.S. District Court, where a jury heard 13 days of testimony and deliberated for three days before awarding the family $15.1 million, including $6.5 million in punitive damages against the SWAT commander at the time, Mike Zaro — now Lakewood’s police chief — and two officers, Wiley and Markert. The city appealed, but settled for $13 million.
To this day, the Lakewood Police Department has never acknowledged its officers did anything wrong, and its attorneys have blamed the verdict on jurors fearing backlash from the Black Lives Matter movement if they didn’t deliver a verdict against police. Richard Jolley, one of the lawyers representing the Lakewood officers, argued that “what the jury found here is that they weren’t going to go back to their individual communities and tell the people … we found in favor of white cops that shot an unarmed black man.”
Senior U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, the trial judge, said those comments were “insulting” and wrote that the idea that the justice system could be so easily manipulated in favor of a Black man accusing police of misconduct to be “painfully ahistorical.”
Annalesa Thomas is convinced that racism was an underlying cause of her son’s death. During the trial, the family’s attorneys argued that it was not a coincidence that Fred Thomas, who is Black, was arrested for interfering when he tried to talk his way through the police cordon to persuade his son to surrender. The elder Thomas, seeing all those officers with guns, has said he almost knew what the outcome would be if he didn’t try. The jury awarded him $500,000 individually for false arrest.
He was in jail the next morning when he learned police had killed his son.
The night her son was shot, Annalesa Thomas was waiting at the end of the sidewalk to take Elijah home, according to trial testimony, and she watched her son shot before officers swept her away. The George Floyd video brought all of that rushing back, she said.
“Your kids are always your kids,” she said in a recent interview. “They grow up, but they’re still your child. I couldn’t fix things for him that night. It’s been seven years now, and still at times I ask myself why I did it, why I called (police) for help.”
While Fred Thomas claims to be an “optimistic person,” he holds out little hope that much will change. His arrest that night left a bitter taste in his mouth, made worse by the involvement of Wiley, the SWAT team leader, in the death of another young man last month. Wiley has been identified as the officer who shot Said Joquin, a 26-year-old Black man from Fayetteville, S.C., on May 1 in Lakewood, after saying he believed Joquin may have been reaching for a gun on the car’s floor. The shooting is under investigation. Wiley identifies as Asian America, according to the city of Lakewood.
“I am hoping there will be some small changes this time,” he said. “But realistically, a month from now I wonder whether anyone will remember (George Floyd’s) name. I mean, doesn’t anyone remember the name of the young man who died May 1?”
Aside from tragedy, something the parents of Leonard Thomas and Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens have in common is the driving motivation that comes from needing the lives and deaths of their children to mean something.
Alexis copyrighted a poem written by Chance just before his death, which was read at his funeral and before members of the Metropolitan King County Council, and plans to establish a foundation in his name. Already, she has asked the County Council to name a new youth rights ordinance after him. The four parents have traveled the state in support of the reforms contained in Initiative 940, which changed the law governing police officers’ use of deadly force and requires significant new de-escalation and bias training for officers.
All of them believe I-940 is a start but doesn’t go far enough. They have also worked closely with Not This Time!, an organization of the families and survivors of police violence.
The Thomases have begun their own police accountability organization, Next Steps Washington (nextstepswa.org).
As for the violence that has erupted from the George Floyd killing, the Thomases and Chance’s parents see little good coming from it.
“I don’t know whether any of what happened because of the death of George Floyd will change anything,” said Fred Thomas. “But I do know what will happen if we do nothing. So we’re going to stand up and do something.”
Alexis Dunlap hopes the outrage over the George Floyd case will result in real change, but isn’t optimistic.
“I wonder if it actually is different, or if it’s just the latest,” she said. “I still don’t understand why there wasn’t more outrage over my son’s death. I mean, people should look at this like, what if it was someone in your family?
“You know, when I was a kid we had Officer Friendly, and he’d come into the classroom and you’d think he cared for you and was going to look out for you,” Dunlap said. “But then you find out that’s not true, and it probably never was.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Lakewood Officer Mike Wiley as white.