Chanting “You can’t kill Africa,” dozens of people on Saturday marched from Los Angeles Police Department headquarters to skid row to protest the fatal police shooting of an unarmed homeless man during a struggle with officers.
Cue Jn’Marie, a skid row preacher, said police should have sent a mental health team to handle Charly “Africa” Leundeu Keunang, whose March 1 shooting was caught on video and viewed by millions of people. Keunang, who was convicted of armed bank robbery in 2000, was committed to a psychiatric prison hospital three years into his 15-year federal prison term.
Police said Keunang had robbed and assaulted another skid row man, began fighting officers when they arrived and grabbed a rookie officer’s holstered pistol, prompting three others to fire.
The video showed an officer on top of Keunang punching him. Keunang appeared to reach toward the officer’s waistband in the area of his holster
“Brothers and sisters, what do we need on skid row? It’s not more police,” Jn’Marie told the crowd, standing on the wall at the LAPD’s Central Division, which patrols skid row. “We need mental health professionals.”
A native of Cameroon, Keunang was living under the stolen identity of Charley Saturmin Robinet, a Frenchman, authorities said. Jn’Marie and other protesters said his shooting was not an aberration but rather part of a pattern of abusive police incidents that also included the death of Carlos Ocana, 54, a mentally ill homeless man.
Ocana fell from a skid row rooftop last May after officers with the LAPD’s Metro Division shocked him with a Taser. He died of blunt force trauma to the head. The encounter is under investigation by the Police Commission’s inspector general as an “in-custody death,” authorities said.
“We had a town hall meeting with the LAPD [after Ocana’s death] and said their mental health resources were inadequate, and they agreed,” Jn’Marie said, “and now here it is 2015 and we have 150 officers patrolling 50 blocks of skid row and not enough mental health.”
An LAPD spokeswoman declined to respond to the protesters, who lay down briefly in the middle of two intersections to mark the spots where Ocana and another man died in police encounters.
At the tree where Keunang pitched his tent, demonstrators raised their fists during a moment of silence. The tree was ringed by homemade signs, bouquets and a cross of white chrysanthemums.
Shoppers and diners held up cellphones to take photos and videos as the protesters walked down the middle of several downtown streets. A Danish tourist, Baijie Christiansen, 25, said she was appalled by the video of the police shooting.
“It was absolutely awful, and it’s about time somebody took a formal look at what is going on down here,” Christiansen said.
One man at the shooting site yelled loudly that Keunang had brought it on himself by fighting the officers.
At police headquarters before the march began, Adam Rice, an activist with Los Angeles Community Action Network, called for disbanding the Safer Cities Initiative, a special police task force that has patrolled skid row for the last nine years. Rice said the unit had cost millions of dollars. “Imagine how much housing that could buy,” he told demonstrators.
Organizers linked the killing of Keunang to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City during police encounters, and said they were planning another local march April 14, as well as an action in Washington, D.C.