WASHINGTON: The fatal shooting of an unarmed African American man by an off-duty white police officer under mysterious circumstances has fueled outrage in a North Carolina town, where residents and relatives of the victim protested Thursday night.
The death of Jason Walker threatens to catapult racism back into the spotlight as Black Americans demand justice over several killings that have highlighted the United States's struggles with gun laws, police impunity, and racial inequality.
Fist raised, prominent civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump led a “rally for justice” where the crowd chanted “Jason Walker matters,“ a WRAL TV live feed from Fayetteville showed.
“Just like the truth was revealed” for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, “the truth will be revealed for Jason Walker,“ said Crump, referencing three high-profile killings of Black Americans by active or former police officers over the past two years.
Crump represented the families in all three cases, which sparked nationwide protests over police violence against minorities.
“My prayer is there will be peace,“ said Walker’s mother at the rally.
Earlier in the week, small clusters of residents marched through the city, demanding the arrest of Jeffrey Hash, the off-duty police officer who shot Walker on Saturday.
The officer, who had been employed by the city since 2005, was driving his vehicle with his wife and daughter when they neared Walker, an unarmed 37-year-old Black man crossing the street near his parents' house.
Moments later, Hash opened fire, and soon Walker lay dead of gunshot wounds. Exactly what transpired is in dispute.
In an amateur video, filmed just after the shooting and posted online, the police officer explains to colleagues called to the scene that Walker jumped into the middle of the street and that he braked to avoid him.
According to Hash, Walker then threw himself on the vehicle, tore off a windshield wiper, and used it to hit the windshield, prompting Hash to draw his weapon to protect his family.
But witnesses said Hash hit the pedestrian before stopping.
“I saw him brake, completely stop, and then keep going,“ Elizabeth Ricks told an ABC station. “I saw him hit Jason... then his body was slammed into the windshield.”
Ricks said she then heard shots fired.
“I think he fired the first shot through the windshield and three more times outside the vehicle,“ she added.
According to police, Hash's black pickup truck had no visible dents and Walker's body did not show any signs of impact other than bullet wounds.
The officer was placed on administrative leave but has not been arrested or charged with a crime. State investigators have begun a probe into the killing.
Crump said the family and the broader Fayetteville community were demanding to know why Walker was “senselessly shot and killed” by an off-duty officer.
“We have reason to believe that this was a case of ‘shoot first, ask later,‘ a philosophy seen all too often within law enforcement,“ Crump said in a statement earlier in the day.
US police officers kill an average of 1,000 people each year, with an overrepresentation of African Americans among the victims.
Police are rarely prosecuted, although the major anti-racism protests of 2020 prompted some changes in the courts, with convictions against some police and others in high-profile shooting deaths.