By Walter L. Fields
When I first viewed the video of Walter Scott being gunned down by North Charleston, S.C. Police Officer Michael T. Slager, my mind raced up north to Teaneck, N.J. The horrific scene of Scott being shot in the back multiple times, eight shots fired to be exact, was eerily similar to the killing of 15-year-old Phillip Pannell by White Teaneck Police Officer Gary Spath in 1990. Scott and Pannell posed no threat to the policemen and in the case of young Phillip, he was gunned down with his arms raised in a surrender position.
It hardly seems possible that Phillip Pannell was killed 25 years ago today but the killing of Black men by police has been so epidemic that a death two decades ago can be casually forgotten. Yet, what happened to Phillip is so symbolic of the experiences of Black youth that his death cannot be in vain.
I came to the Pannell incident as a local NAACP leader and became involved after waking up to news reports the morning after he was killed. At the time, I was a graduate student at New York University and just weeks from receiving my degree when the news served as a splash of cold water in my face. Hearing that a Black child had been killed by a police officer in a community that neighbored my hometown seemed surreal at the time. It became very real the next evening when the anger of youth erupted at a prayer vigil for Phillip and bands of young people vented their frustration by burning police cars, breaking windows in the municipal complex and in the shopping district.
What might bring justice for the Scott family is the existence of eyewitness video that shows the victim was no threat to the officer. After the videotape of the shooting surfaced, the North Charleston police department acted swiftly to charge Officer Slager with murder and remove him from the force.
In Phillip’s case, the initial autopsy was botched by the Bergen County coroner and a grand jury refused to indict Officer Spath. However, when a second autopsy was conducted, it clearly showed that Phillip was shot in the back and had his arms held up in surrender. Phillip posed absolutely no threat; he was cornered in a backyard with a high fence and had given himself up.
During the first autopsy, the coroner had failed to properly test the jacket Phillip was wearing when he was shot. When it was examined and matched against Phillip’s arms, all the bullet holes aligned. New Jersey Attorney General Bob Del Tufo, with the support of then-Gov. Jim Florio and the county prosecutor, Jay Fahy, ordered a second grand jury and Spath was indicted. Still, months later, an all-White Bergen County jury acquitted the officer. There would be no justice for the Pannells.
For Black youth, there was a palatable and understandable anger. I had to escort the best friend of Phillip to the dead youth’s funeral because Teaneck police had arrested him on a trumped up charge related to the incident the night of the prayer vigil. It took the county prosecutor to arrange for the young man to be turned over to the neighboring Englewood police, and then to me, so he could pay his final respects to his friend. A grief stricken young man who spoke during the funeral service asked simply, “Who is protecting us from the police?” Those moments in that church remain some of my most heartbreaking.
Making matters worse was the local police union organizing a massive march and rally at the county courthouse for Officer Spath that attracted thousands of police officers from across the country. We also had to confront the local press, the Bergen Record, because it ran a mug shot of Phillip from a prior juvenile offense. I called the owner of the paper, Mack Borg, and to his credit he ordered his editors into a conference room with me and other community leaders I selected to address the inappropriateness of using the mug shot. The paper never used the photo again in its coverage of the incident after that meeting.
My hope is that the family of Walter Scott receives real justice in the form of a conviction of Officer Slager for murder and an appropriate sentence. No family should feel the pain the Pannells felt 25 years ago, and continue to carry today. My conscience will not allow me to forget the young boy I first met as he laid in an open casket. It is an image that I cannot forget and a hurt that no amount of time can heal. Phillip Pannell is not forgotten and his death serves as a reminder that we can’t take a day off in the struggle for justice and dignity.
Walter Fields is executive editor of North Star News.