People started gathering outside the Westerbeck Recital Hall last Thursday at Pasadena City College (PCC) at least half an hour before the screening of “When Justice Isn’t Just.” By the time lights were turned off inside the theater, 250 people were sitting in silence.
The documentary directed by Oscar-nominated David Massey is a condemnation of the police brutality against African Americans and of a judicial system incapable of treating with equality people coming from different socioeconomic status.
But Massey’s intention is not only to denounce. Most urgently, he wants to start solving the problem.
“I felt the need to make the movie to start a discussion and find a solution,” he said during a panel at the end of the screening, joined by the film’s writer Dawn Alexander, activist Joseph Williams from Black Lives Matter, and Dolores Alleyne of Save our Sons, an organization that puts in place educational programs for black males in the justice system.
The film has three chapters. The first one goes straight to the point showing videos of unarmed black people getting shot, in some cases fatally, by police officers. We have already seen these images on TV and on the internet, but how Massey puts it, ”it is still troublesome to watch these videos of unarmed persons getting killed.”
From the start of the film the audience is plunged into violence. Once more we see the killings of Samuele Dubose, 43, stopped on July 19 of 2015 by three police officers of the University of Cincinnati for a missing license plate. The black unarmed man was fatally shot. The police officer responsible for the shooting, Ray Tensing, was charged with murder and his trial will begin later this month.
We watch Eric Garner, whose call for air, “I can’t breathe,” is sadly famous. Garner was known to the police for selling untaxed cigarettes nearby Staten Island Ferry Terminal and was stopped in Staten Island, NY, on July 17 two years ago. In the video we see police officers Justin Damico and Daniel Pantaleo handcuff him, put him in on the ground, and wrapped their arms around Garner’s neck. A grand jury declined to bring charges on his death.
“The fact of the matter is that black people are getting killed by people that are supposed to protect them,” Williams said at the end of the movie.
As the film continued we listened to Michael Brown’s father talking about his son, an unarmed black teenager fatally shot on Aug. 9 of 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson, who was found innocent, in Ferguson, Mo. We witness the shooting of Tamir Rice, 12, a black sixth grader fatally shot on Nov. 22 of 2014 in a playground in Cleveland. He was playing with a toy gun when a man called 911 informing of an armed juvenile at the park. In the video we see patrolman Timothy Loehmann shooting Tamir without hesitation. A grand jury declined to indict the officer involved.
“People are getting killed because of traffic violations,” Massey said at the end of the movie talking to the audience. “Nobody has to be killed because of a tail light.” Williams added, ”Why do we continue to watch this happen?”
According to a Washington Post database, police officers shot and killed almost 1,000 people last year. Only eighteen officers faced charges for such shootings that year and, as stated in the Post, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to die at the hands of police.
The film’s second chapter is about violence within the black community.
Talking to the audience Alexander put it in few words.
”It’s all about gun control. There are guns everywhere. We are going to kill each other, they won’t even need to put us in prison.”
The film features Rev. Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray, who worked on conciliating police and rioters in April 1992 during the L.A. riots. He says that 90 percent of African American held in prison are there because of substance abuse and related violence problems. Judge Otis T. Wright explains during the film how fake stash robberies cause the incarceration of black people for sentences up to 25 years without solving the problem of drug dealing but just to incarcerate African Americans.
“What have you accomplished?” asks Wright in the movie. “You learned that stupid poor people jump at the chance to make some easy money. We already knew that.”
Delores Alleyne was sitting on the panel with a story to tell. Her son was sentenced to 29 years in prison and she feels he did not get a fair trial because he is African American and the jury was largely Caucasian. For her, the prison industrial complex is “the new form of enslaving black [people].” Fighting against the legal system for her felt like being “ants going against a giant.”
The conversations after the screening kept going for more than an hour. Many left during the discussion–including the two police officers from PCC who were initially very visible because they were sitting in the second row. Everybody noticed they were gone. But those who stayed kept going in a more intimate and engaging conversation.
At one point Williams asked the audience to repeat with him Kendrec Mcdade’s name. Mcdade was shot dead on March 24 of 2012 in Pasadena when he was 19 years old. He was black and unarmed. At the time of his death, McDade had just transferred to study at Pasadena City College and was due to start the following Monday.
PCC students spoke up, displaying empathy with racism’s challenges. Questions about how to support the cause and how to approach diversity of cultures were answered in an exchange moderated by PCC history professor Christopher West.
“I have a 15-year-old son,” he said introducing the film. “And I worry about him. Is he citizen enough? Is he human being enough?”
”I never know when it will be my ethnicity turn,” the last student to speak said. Her name is Mai Trinh and she is 17 years old. “So I want to do something about this. I’ll help someone else and myself at the same time.”
Activist Williams’’s reply to her was a strong one.
”The previous generation kicked the door for you, now your generations need to walk through that door…Change will happen because of people in this room.”