CHICAGO, Illinois – There was a time when civilian witness and police accounts represented the most definitive source of information when trying to assess right versus wrong, particularly with something as emotionally charged as a homicide. Those times are gone.
When his son Flint was gunned down by a Chicago police officer on June 7, 2011, Emmett Farmer believed, like many of us, that the killing of a black man in Chicago with only eyewitness and police accounts would not be taken seriously by authorities. For months he believed that Flint was yet another black male mistakenly killed by police in a poor inner-city neighborhood.
“I figured they might be rookie cops, in Englewood, scared of any black man that does anything,” said Farmer as we spoke on the front porch of the family’s Rosewood, Chicago residence on June 5th. “It’s the middle of the night, and there they were, just scared, and shot him. I heard something about the police superintendent saying ‘shoot first’ so I figured that was the case for the first few months.”
Emmett Farmer was led to believe that Flint’s cellphone may have been mistaken for a handgun when the officer, allegedly “fearing for his life,” opened fire killing Farmer.
Four months went by and “the whole time, I was still wondering what happened to Flint, why Flint was killed,” stated Farmer.
Then in October of 2011, the Chicago Tribune contacted Emmett Farmer for an article on Chicago police officer Gildardo Sierra, a veteran cop involved in 3 shootings during a 5 month span of 2011, 2 of which resulted in fatalities. Sierra’s 2nd shooting fatality was Flint Farmer.
Emmett Farmer did an interview with the Chicago Tribune about his son’s case and received notice that a video of the incident would be available to the public online. Prior to that moment, Emmett Farmer did not even know that a video of the incident existed.
In an experience hardly imaginable a few decades ago, video technology made Emmett Farmer a witness to his son’s execution at the hands of a public authority.
“When I had seen that dash cam, it really brought everything to light. When I saw the video I found out that this guy executed Flint.”
The newly released video showed Chicago cop Gildardo Sierra firing 3 fatal shots into the back of Flint Farmer as he lay face down and motionless on the ground. Farmer, unarmed and attempting to evade Sierra, had already been fired on more than a dozen times. Sierra, who claimed that he “feared for his life,” is seen distinctly firing 3 shots into Farmer’s back at point blank range, as evidenced by 3 distinct gun-flashes observed on the dash cam video of Sierra’s cruiser, captured as his partner drove around the block in pursuit of Farmer.
When it was all over Sierra had discharged a full clip of 16 bullets from his 9mm pistol, and an unarmed man was pronounced dead on the scene.
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Unlike the mood of that tragic evening, it was a pleasant, sunny afternoon on June 5th when I was invited to speak with Emmett Farmer at the family’s Rosewood, Chicago home. Three generations of Farmer men had resided there at some point, though only two are currently living. Flint’s 91 year old grandfather continues to reside there. Flint, 29 at the time of his death, was raised there.
While we sat on the front steps of that home, Emmett Farmer, a 52 year old minister, began to recall events from the night of June 7, 2011. He received a phone call at 4 am. A friend said that Chicago police had killed Flint. Emmett Farmer hurried to the scene of the murder some 40 blocks north at 62nd Street and Wolcott Avenue.
“There were a lot angry folks standing out there when I got there. They knew what happened.” said Farmer. Oddly, when Emmett Farmer arrived on the scene, he was told by eyewitnesses that police “had taken the body and threw it in the back of the police car.” Farmer began to walk under the police line, “and they said ‘no, you can’t come over here’ and I said, ‘well, where’s the body?’”
He was finally allowed to see Flint’s body later that day. “I went to the coroner’s office and identified the body. And then everyone came back here,” said Farmer pointing to the family’s Rosewood house. “There was a lot crying. We actually had the funeral a day before Father’s day.”
According to Emmett Farmer, Flint was recently laid off and moved to a shared residence at 62nd Street and Honore a week earlier. He was staying there only until he could find work. On the night of June 6, Flint and his girlfriend began to argue and got into a physical altercation. Farmer’s girlfriend called police. When cops arrived, Farmer ran out the back door and into an empty lot.
“Flint was unarmed,” said Emmett Farmer. An eyewitness said he saw Sierra firing rounds as Farmer attempted to run away. “Sierra tried to say that Flint had a cellphone and that’s why he shot him. But whatever, when Flint was laying on his stomach, he was no threat then even if he was a threat before. He would’ve been shot up but he wouldn’t have been dead.”
Farmer’s assertion was substantiated by the coroner, Dr. Mitra Kalelkar, who wrote in a report that the three shots fired into Farmer’s back, the same shots captured on video, “coursed downward, hit Farmer’s heart and lung” and were “definitely fatal wounds,” according to the Tribune.
Even with the existence of the dash cam video and the autopsy report stating that Farmer had been shot a total of 7 times, the official homicide investigation absolved Sierra. The Chicago Police Department ruled the murder a “justifiable homicide.”
“The police said [Sierra] was in fear for his life. You can imagine what I think about that,” said Emmett Farmer. “I think it’s a bunch of crap. How are you in fear for your life with Flint laying on the ground?”
Farmer received the police report two weeks before the Tribune made the video of his son’s execution public last October.
After seeing the video, Farmer began to more actively seek justice for Flint’s death. In November, members of the Farmer family, community members, and activists went to the office of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to demand Sierra’s arrest. A week later, an assistant to Alvarez called Farmer and notified him that the State’s Attorney was working with the FBI to indict Sierra.
“Thursday has been a year, and we want to see [Sierra] arrested,” stated Farmer. “The City of Chicago, they’re trying to blow past it as much as possible I’m sure, because it’s the police. It makes the city look bad. But we are going to keep on keeping on them.”
I asked the minister and former Air Force serviceman how the struggle for justice over the past year helped him cope with the loss of his son:
“I actually did my son’s eulogy, and that released a lot of pain and pressure. I’m comfortable knowing that Flint is at peace, but I’m still not comfortable with the injustice. Until this man is indicted, tried and convicted of murder for my son, we will not be satisfied. As far as his death, I’m ok. I’m fine. Crying can’t bring him back, money can’t bring him back, none of that, like I said, justice shall prevail. I just believe in God that it will.”
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Before there were cameras on police, the public mostly had to believe police accounts of events. In all but a few instances, official Truth was constructed by the purveyors of law under the sign and authority of that law. The “benefit of the doubt,” so to speak, was almost universally granted to the state’s “objective” officers, their narratives of events typically held up as Truth.
Today, video captures not only civilians acting beyond the bounds of legality against the state and its laws, but also egregious instances of police officers breaking the very laws they are sworn to uphold. Technology presents us with the unforeseen potential to hold public officials accountable for their actions in swift and certain terms, as equal members of society, ending the reign of “official” Truth and shattering the traditional impunity of law enforcement officers.
While the age of camera phones and mounted surveillance cameras is radically altering this centuries-old construction of official Truth, it is also transforming civilian expectations of justice.
Before seeing the dash cam video, Emmett Farmer had nothing more to go on than to believe that his son was just another African-American man killed by police in a South Side neighborhood.
The video now raises the question of why someone would shoot Flint 3 times execution-style in the back at point blank range as he lay on the ground, already shot 4 times. Furthermore, it forces us all to ask how this person could be allowed to walk free for any period of time.
Emmett Farmer sees a distinct relation between Sierra’s actions and the high levels of impunity enjoyed by police officers, but notes that “Sierra wasn’t expecting to get caught.”