“Justice for EJ” Protesters Are Organized and in It for the Long Haul

(Source: Yumi Kimura, Wikimedia Commons)

Within a day after Emantic Fitzgerald “E.J.” Bradford Jr. was shot three times and killed by a Hoover police officer, Carlos Chaverst started making plans to speak out against the circumstances of his death. He announced plans through Facebook to protest at the Riverchase Galleria, where Bradford was killed.

The event posting included details that explained to anyone who planned to join the protest what they might expect. Warning that there would be likely arrests, the event page advised anyone who had outstanding warrants or who wasn’t in a position to take the risk of begin arrested to “step back when the cops say step back.” His posting also warned that people could be physically hurt during the protest.

Almost every day since, protests have taken place – from calling for a boycott of Hoover businesses, gathering to block roads and highways, speaking at City Council meetings, protesting at Hoover-area shops and the home of Hoover’s mayor, and holding a candlelight vigil and a “die-in” at the location in the Galleria where Bradford was killed. The protesters have applied continual pressure through protests, press conferences, social media and interviews.

Chaverst and Justice for EJ co-leader Le’Darius Hilliard began the protests spontaneously after the incident occurred, but they did not come as much out of the blue as they appeared.

“We (Hilliard and Chaverst) have been working together on issues in Birmingham for a very long time, from murders to arson in Ensley,” Hilliard said. “We’ve just been doing a lot and we have picked up a reputation where people just trust us.”

The Bradford shooting is an issue Chaverst and Hilliard hope will gain momentum and shine light not just on the incident, but on the issues that lie behind it.

He said he knows some people will fall out of the movement over time. But he expects a larger number will stay committed for what Hilliard described as the long haul.

“We are trying to grow our numbers every day,” said Hilliard, “but we are doing it the proper way – vetting everyone and training.”

Training the Protestors

As the protests continued daily for two weeks after Thanksgiving, Cara McClure, a veteran activist in Birmingham, saw the need to arrange for a two-day, nonviolent, civil disobedience training session for those who planned to continue protesting. McClure said the training would help keep protesters safe and help take the protests born out of outrage to strategically organized actions.

More than 90 activists attended the session, despite inclement weather and a two-day commitment to complete the training. Held at Beloved Community Church in Avondale, the sessions covered issues and activities ranging from building trust within the group, using media to control the message and planning creative ways to protest.

“This is not something warm and fuzzy like the Women’s March. This is a protest not a rally and there’s a difference.” McClure explained, “A rally is, ‘Hey, we’re having a rally’ and you can be laughing and talking and holding your sign. They know nothing is going to disrupted, there is nothing combative.”

BYP100, or Black Youth Project 100, and Blackout Collective, two national activist organizations, conducted the sessions.

“They know how to strategize and how to think it through. How to get our message across is important to them,” McClure said.

Hilliard said the training was essential to make sure people understood the risks and knew what to say to the media.

“It makes no sense just to have protest and not have meaning for the protest,” said Hilliard, “We don’t want people to think we are making noise because it’s time to make noise.”

Hilliard said that, while the protests started with him and Chaverst, “now we have committees with specific roles and a chairperson or chairwoman for each committee, and that makes up the leadership team.”

Hilliard said that setting up an operating structure was essential to sustain the effort.

“This is an organized body that literally meets every day and we plan out the week and we release the information to our followers the day of any planned actions,” said Hilliard.

McClure said that, while she wants to build the number of people who participate, she knows there’s a natural limit.

“I would love Birmingham to come out in numbers, but not everybody’s role is to block the street,” she said. “This is a different type of protest and not everybody is built for it. Of course, there are strength in numbers, but I also know what we are dealing with. This is still Alabama. It’s Birmingham. This is still a racist city. There are still scared folks.”

Six protestors have been arrested, including Hilliard and Chaverst, mostly on charges from loitering to disorderly conduct.

The shooting and protests have gained national attention. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson spoke at Bradford’s funeral and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund requested a federal investigation into the circumstances of Bradford’s shooting.

Ben Crump is the lawyer for Bradford’s family. Crump is a nationally recognized civil rights attorney who has handled several high-profile cases, including representing the family of Trayvon Martin, who was shot in Sanford, Florida, and Michael Brown, who was killed by a police office in Ferguson, Missouri.

Although Crump is representing the family, not the protestors, Hilliard said he is appreciative of the role he plays in bringing national attention to the issues for which the group is fighting.

“This is something we’ve been going through for a long time. His involvement speaks volumes,” Crump said.