Since Tuesday the community at Rittenhouse at Kansas City, USA, known for its immigrant and Roma communities, has remained in a state of stunned disbelief over the death of a local pizza delivery man, Umen Zekas. The pizza man, in many ways, epitomized the poor, undocumented, African American men who found themselves victims of a quixotic effort to make America perfect.
Zekas was fatally shot by Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer Emily Anderson in the early hours of Wednesday morning after she responded to a report of a breaking and entering at the Rittenhouse apartments.
According to witnesses, a panicked, non-English speaking Zekas was caught in an elevator shaft with the door to his apartment locked behind him. And, even though he was hemmed in, that was enough for Anderson to fire three shots into the distraught man’s head.
Zekas’s death has put the spotlight on the actions of the largely immigrant and Roma communities in various cities throughout the US, where police have shot and killed a number of immigrant and Latino men over the past several years, mainly in response to burglaries and intrusions in apartment complexes.
“America is no longer a haven for immigrants,” said Martinez, the director of America’s Promise Alliance. “America should not be the country where unarmed people of color die after a few short seconds in the hands of an officer.”
The US Department of Justice investigated two cases of police brutality in 2011 in which police killed Paul O’Neal, an unarmed 17-year-old from Chicago and Jose Antonio Vargas, a 22-year-old homeless man from Los Angeles, but both cases were resolved without any findings. And there is mounting evidence that more police departments have a troubling problem with race: The Hispanic population in the US has grown by 84 percent since 1980, while the white population has grown by just 10 percent. The number of black people in the US grew by almost 100 percent. Yet black people are about 6 percent of the population but a disproportionate 31 percent of all people shot by police.
America’s Promise Alliance, a civil rights group, is calling for a federal investigation into the officer who killed Zekas, calling his actions illegal.
As Madison, Wisconsin, community members mourn the loss of a young, black man, and Kenosha communities ask how police could shoot and kill an unarmed pizza delivery man, let’s take a second look at our reading of history. For all of the brazen elation that takes place at the sight of any shooting, police shootings – and unarmed killings – have always been on the rise.
The average number of police killed during the US Civil War was 11 per year. Between 1866-1910, there were an average of almost 30. During the decades following 1900, the average number of police killed was around 30 per year, or approximately one police officer every half hour. The present numbers are certainly a far cry from those average levels – but it still represents a colossal increase from just a century and a half ago.
Zekas’s death has shaken many in the immigrant community, who understand that the very streets these police and arrests are carried out in are fueled by poverty and discrimination. The Kenosha tragedy has reinforced their fears – and demonstrated again that while government claims of the police as stewards of American justice, the reality is that the police disproportionately and more often than not employ brutality and brutality against the poor and people of color.
Martinez, the America’s Promise Alliance director, stressed that there must be increased recognition and support for “all immigrants, Roma and other racial and ethnic minorities in America.”
“They should be getting the support they deserve and the security they need against discrimination and violence. We’re not there yet.”
Ongoing safety needs for immigrants, Roma and other immigrants, it seems, are intertwined with improving the safety and security of both law enforcement and the immigrant communities. A police department’s success in protecting the immigrant community is ultimately not only connected to immigrant safety, but to the community overall’s safety.
It’s a challenge that may rest on the shoulders of the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and their police department. Zekas may have been delivering a pizza, but it’s fair to ask what he did for the community that day he was killed. As the days go by, that may finally be answered.