The officer-involved shooting of a white teenager from McRae “is the message for this country that we will stand together,” according to Rev. Al Sharpton, a national civil rights leader who attended the memorial service for Noah Hunter Brittain on Tuesday at the Beebe High School auditorium.
The auditorium’s capacity of 1,250 was close to being met as family, friends and others gathered to celebrate his life. The 17-year-old from McRae would have been a senior at Beebe High School next month.
Brittain was shot and killed by a Lonoke County deputy during a traffic stop around 3 a.m. June 23 after his truck was stopped by Deputy Sgt. Michael Davis along Arkansas Highway 89. Brittain reportedly had stayed up late to fix the transmission in his truck so he could make it to work at 6 a.m. for his construction job and was test-driving the vehicle when he was pulled over.
Davis was fired late last week by Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley for not following department policy of keeping his body camera on during an encounter with a member of the public. It was reported that the camera was not turned on until the aftermath of the shooting. The Arkansas State Police are continuing the criminal investigation of the case.
As mourners filed into the auditorium, 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.
‘Right and wrong’
Before the service began, Sharpton and civil rights attorneys Benjamin Crump and Devon Jacob, representing the family, met with the media.
Sharpton said when he talked to Crump “and read what happened to Hunter,” and learned that the family wanted him to come to town, he did not hesitate.
“Someone said to me that ‘I only thought you come when it’s race.’ We hope the world knows this is not about black and white. It’s about right and wrong,” Sharpton said. “It’s like many whites stood with us for George Floyd [after he was killed in Minneapolis in May 2020 by a white police officer]. Hunter did nothing wrong, just like we felt George Floyd did nothing wrong. It is important for us to stand with this family, this grandmother who was his guardian, his uncle, Jesse, and good friend, Rick.
“We all need to show America that we will stand and grieve together and stand for justice together. I don’t want nothing other than to see justice. Sometimes shootings are based on race. I wonder if Hunter was in a high ritzy neighborhood would they have acted like this. Sometimes it is different variables, but whatever it is, wrong is wrong and we must stand together to fight wrong.”
Sharpton said Brittain “should have been entering his senior year, not entering a cemetery. That is human life. God gives life and God should be regarded at any time it is interfered with, and I hope that somehow people coming far and near will give some comfort to this grandmother and these uncles and his friends to know his life mattered. We chanted all over the world ‘black lives matter.’ We were just concerned about the disproportion in our community, but we are not saying anything today other than what we would say if it was anyone else.
“Someone asked me coming out of the hotel, ‘Why did you come, Rev. Al? This is not a civil rights case,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ He had the right to live. He had the right to the benefit of the doubt, and that is why I came. I did not come for publicity. I have my own show and all that. I don’t need publicity. I came because if I did not come for justice, I was wrong to come for others.”
Jesse Brittain called his nephew “a good boy. Like Rev. Sharpton said, he would have graduated this [coming] year. He did not deserve to be murdered and taken out of this world and we want justice.”
‘Justice for all’
Brittain received a standing ovation during the funeral 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.”
Family friend Rick Lehr of Romance said the news conference held backstage before the memorial service was just a seed that was planted and “it needs to be planted into every American that we have a job to do. It is up to all of us to tear down that wall of fear. To tear down that wall of racism and tear down the walls of injustice, not physically but spiritually.”
“We can’t walk around with anger and bitterness towards our own brothers and sisters because that is what’s destroying us – fear and anger – and it’s time to stop,” Lehr said. “We got to make some sacrifices here. We have to sacrifice our own pride at times, thinking that somebody owes us something. No, we owe our community something. We owe our nation something. We owe our people something and that is to love them and to encourage them, to embrace them and their differences. We owe others.”
Jacob, who said he is a former police officer, said it is his hope that Brittain’s death will help solve “the problem.”
“I called Ben and I said, ‘I need help this time,’” Jacob said. “Ben said, ‘Let me call the Reverend,’ and everybody showed up. George Floyd and his death started a movement and hopefully, Hunter’s death will end the problem that was started. Hopefully together, they will bring this issue to a close.”
Crump added, “We want all of our children to get home safely to us whether they are black, white, Asian, Hispanic. We all want our children to get home safely to us, so just like George Floyd’s blood is on that proposed legislation [the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act]. Breonna Taylor’s name is on that legislation. Now, Hunter Brittain’s blood will be on that proposed federal legislation, and that’s why we’re here in Arkansas because Hunter Brittain’s life matters.”
Taylor was a 26-year-old black woman in Kentucky who was fatally shot in March 2020 during a botched police raid. Former Louisville Detective Brett Hankinson was indicted for three counts of wanton endangerment and has pleaded not guilty. His trial has been moved to February 2022.
Jacob and Crump represented Floyd’s family. Former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murdering the 46-year-old black man and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison.
Sharpton said Brittain was an unarmed teenager and that the presumption of fault was against him instead of for him. According to his family and a witness in the vehicle with him when he was pulled over, Brittain was shot when he got out of his vehicle holding an antifreeze jug to put behind a wheel because the truck was rolling backward.
“He was carrying an antifreeze can, not a weapon, not a kid doing anything wrong,” Sharpton said. “He was trying to fix his car. He had the civil right to live. He had the right to go on and graduate from high school, and I think that if we didn’t come then we would not be who we say we are. This is not just about the color of our skin, it is about the character in our hearts, and if we are against unarmed people being abused in a way that is wrong by law enforcement, we have to do that for everybody, and I think Hunter is the message for this country that we will stand together.”
Crump said he thinks “Hunter paints a very vivid picture that now everybody can fathom that this can be my child that the police kill unjustly. I believe, Rev. Al, that this will help get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act get passed since we haven’t had federal police reform in 57 years.
“Hunter Brittain is the latest sacrificial lamb in our quest to get policing reform so we can prevent these unjust killings.”
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives 220-112 on a mostly party-line vote, but the Senate has not voted on it. It calls for multiple changes that are targeted at combating police misconduct, excessive use of force and racial bias, including requiring law enforcement agencies to get federal funding to “ensure” that body and dash cameras are used.
Body-cam law change
Rebecca Payne told The Daily Citizen last week that the family wants to push for state legislators to pass a “Hunter’s Law” so police body cameras have to remain on all the time until an officer is off duty.
“We have to ask, ‘Why was the body camera turned on after Hunter was shot and in this bill, it would never have been off so clearly we are talking about doing things that would prevent other grandmothers from having to go through what Ms. Becky is going through because we want to know what happened before you turned the camera on,” Sharpton said. “Why was the camera off in the first place? In Hunter’s name, we are going to fight for that.”
Crump said, “We have a federal government that is trying to help with the problem, so if it’s we don’t have enough money to get dash cam videos on all of the patrol units, they should be champion for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act because a component of that is federal allocations for the resources to have dash cam videos.
“If they don’t have enough for body cam videos, then they should be championing for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act because a part of that is allocation for body cam videos. If they feel they don’t have enough patrolmen, if that is an issue, I think President [Joe] Biden has spoken to that issue being part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to make sure that not only are our communities are safe, not only to make sure that our children are safe and can get home to us but, Rev. Al, they are also talking about making sure police officers are safe so they can get home to their families.
“So this bill speaks to all these issues and that is what needs to happen because in conclusion I will say this, people keep asking why should this be a national issue in this small town in Arkansas and it goes without saying and we have heard it a million times, an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and so that’s why we are here in Arkansas.”
Sharpton agreed with Crump that “the resources needed for this legislation is for a little town and this little town should be part of that national call because if they don’t stop shooting and killing of police or civilians in little towns ... it’s not a big town thing or a big city thing, it’s because we all need it, this legislation. ...
“I think the whole fight around the right to vote was a little town, Selma, Ala. Sometimes little towns are part of a big movement and I think that Hunter’s name is going to be resounded. I am in Washington later this week, [and] I will be talking about Hunter and George Floyd.”
During the celebration of Hunter Brittain’s life, Crump shouted “Hunter’s life mattered” and the crowd joined in with him, repeating it several times.
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. Dozens of people gathered outside the sheriff’s office after the memorial service for a rally with Brittain’s family, attorneys and the NAACP. A
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.
A group of protesters also was reportedly in Searcy on Wednesday doing burnouts in a parking lot.