"I'm losing my breath," was all Eric Harris could muster as he lay dying of a gunshot wound on a Tulsa, Oklahoma, street.
“F--k your breath,” was the response offered by a police officer on the scene.
The killing of 44-year-old Harris by a 73-year-old reserve sheriff's deputy over the weekend was captured in yet another disturbing video, and is eerily reminiscent of the case of Eric Garner, who died in police custody last year in New York.
Garner had repeatedly told police, “I can’t breathe” after being held by an NYPD officer in an illegal chokehold.
As overwhelmed and powerless as many people feel in light of these ongoing stories of police violence, one group of young activists is hopeful that we’re on the verge of some very big change -- and they have a great idea about how we can get there.
Mapping Police Violence, a project started by WeTheProtestors.org, aggregates and publicizes data related to police violence against black people through interactive maps, charts, stories and infographics. The idea is that giving people access to data about police violence that's specific to their own communities will empower them to systematically hold their own representatives and policymakers accountable.
Sam Sinyangwe is a 24-year-old Stanford graduate, data scientist, policy analyst and member of the Mapping Police Violence Planning Team. Sam is also an activist dedicated to helping achieve quality education, health, and justice for low-income families and young black men. Sam told MTV News that his career as an activist started when he first experienced discrimination as a sixth-grader attending a private school in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.
“I was one of the only black kids in school,” Sam said, “and I noticed that my sixth-grade teacher always seemed to pick on me for doing things that all the other kids were doing too.”
Sam said he didn't discover until much later that lots of research has been done around the tendency of teachers to call out black and brown kids more for the same things that white kids do and to punish them more severely. As a sixth-grader, though, he didn’t have any data to back him up -- he was just experiencing it firsthand.
He decided to take action. He informally organized his friends, and he said that, in part, the noise they made about their teacher's apparent biases led to her eventually losing her job.
"It really embedded within me this sense of agency," Sam said, "knowing that if there was a particular injustice, I could do something about it.
As a student at Stanford, Sam studied political science and worked to gain a better understanding of how race interacts with politics, economics, and class. He said that when Trayvon Martin was killed just 15 minutes away from his Orlando hometown, he realized that it easily could have been him or one of his friends who was shot.
“At that moment, it really became something I needed to do something about," Sam said. "I needed to do something about police violence not only to make myself feel safer, but also to help other people in my generation feel like they weren’t just being constantly victimized by these power structures.”
Sam met the other two members of the Mapping Police Violence Planning Team on Twitter. The project started when he reached out to the other organizers to offer support through policy analysis, policy briefs and, perhaps most importantly, data collection.
“I had been very frustrated that there weren’t official statistics that were comprehensive about police killings nationwide,” Sam said. “We know that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report as well as their Arrest-Related Deaths counts have been undercounted by more than 50 percent. Without accurate information, we can’t tell where police violence is most severe or where it’s not as big of a problem. We can’t talk about what’s working and what’s not until we have data regarding rates of police killing by place.”
“We need to be able to hold elected officials and police departments accountable for reducing the numbers of police killings that take place until no more police killings take place," Sam continued. "And the only way we can do that is with the data, by tracking trends over time.”
As it turns out, the map shows that police violence has actually increased over time, that it's widespread across the U.S. and that it's not tied to local crime rates. "We’ve been able to chart that out in such a way that the data really speaks for itself," Sam explained. "This is an issue that’s happening everywhere, and our solutions need to be at the same scale as the problem.”
Speaking of solutions, Sam said he’s in favor of body cameras for police, but that he thinks we could do even better than that.
"I’d like to see state money and city money supporting residents, supporting young people to not only be filming the police, but to actually be training the police on how to interact with them," he said. "Our tax dollars fund the police department. Their job is to serve us, so we should be the ones training them on how to best do that.”
Despite the dire picture the data paints, Sam also said there are lots of reasons to stay hopeful.
“We’ve had more protests [around this issue] than this country has ever seen -- multiple times more than even the Civil Rights Movement saw," he argued. "We’ve had a national conversation about police brutality that hasn’t happened in decades. We’ve had over 40 bills proposed in the legislature in Missouri. We’ve had dozens of bills proposed in at least 12 states so far, and we’ve had action at the federal level with the Obama Administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Change is underway.”
On April 13, over 100 protesters began a nine-day march from New York City to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the ongoing police violence in the United States. The marchers will sleep in churches along the 250-route, and eat food and water donated by volunteers. When they get to Washington, they'll meet with lawmakers to discuss what they're dubbing "The Justice Package."
"This movement has empowered young people across the country,” Sam said. “If you aren’t connected yet, get on Twitter, reach out to us or to others in your community to figure out how you can get involved. There are actions happening across the country all the time, and this movement is just going to continue to grow.”