Al Sharpton leaned into the microphone to make sure his local audience of hundreds, and his national audience of millions, got the point:
A 19-year-old black New Havener was shot and killed inside a car by a white state trooper earlier this month. This injustice must not go unnoticed, and the increasing trend of police officers serving as judge, jury, and executioner for black men accused of crimes “can’t be normalized.”
The 65-year-old civil rights activist, MSNBC talk show host, and Baptist minister lent his voice Sunday afternoon towards amplifying that message during an hour-and-a-half memorial service for Mubarak Soulemane.
The service, held at First Calvary Baptist Church on Dixwell Avenue in Newhallville, brought out roughly 300 attendees, including Soulemane’s friends and family, members of the Ghanaian-American community from throughout the Northeast, local politicians, police accountability activists, church parishioners, and Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police in 2014.
Sharpton’s New Haven sermon and memorial service appearance came towards the end of a month that has seen three fatal officer-involved shootings in Connecticut, including Soulemane’s on Jan. 15, when State Trooper Brian North shot and killed the teenage Fair Haven resident after a high-speed car chase from Norwalk to West Haven.
State police allege that Soulemane had a knife and had carjacked an Uber driver in Norwalk prior to the chase. Middlesex State’s Attorney Michael A. Gailor and other inspectors with the state Division of Criminal Justice are currently investigating the fatal shooting.
“Mubi isn’t the only one accused of a crime,” Sharpton said from the pulpit on Sunday, using the nickname of the late Gateway Community College student and Notre Dame High School in Fairfield basketball and lacrosse star whom family say suffered from schizophrenia.
“There are people in different sections of Connecticut accused of the same thing. But they’re not shot down like they’re worthless.”
“We always give a lot of thought before we give a national profile” to an incident where a person has been killed by the police, he added during a pre-service interview with the press. “We would hope by bringing a national profile that they [state police and investigators] would understand that people around the country are watching them as they deliberate.”
Over the past decade, Sharpton has used his celebrity stature, media savvy, and bully puplit to draw national attention to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Garner, and a host of other young black men who have been killed, often by white police officers.
Before and during Sunday’s service, Sharpton placed Soulemane’s name in that ever-increasing list of what he described as victims of police brutality. He hinted time and again that Soulemane was singled out for uniquely brutal treatment by the police not because of his actions, but because of his race.
“In other communities, people are not killed around carjacking,” he said. “You arrest people. That’s why you have a court. That’s why you have a jury. That’s why you have a judge.” There was no need in this incident, he said, for North to shoot at Soulemane seven times while he was in the driver’s seat of his car, blocked in by police vehicles.
He said he wanted to draw national attention to this case because “lives matter, and you should not be able to do wrong in the dark. The job of activists is to put a spotlight on dark situations.” He promised to bring up Soulemane’s case on national television Sunday night during his MSNBC’s talk show, PoliticsNation.
“You cannot normalize police saying: There’s a carjacking, and therefore we’re going to just shoot and shoot and shoot,” he warned during the pre-service interview. “Because then, as you normalize that, that means that we’re now operating in an environment where police are given the power to be judge, jury, and executioner at the scene of the crime.”
Carr, who joined Sharpton last year in testifying before Congress on behalf of police reform, said she too felt compelled to travel from New York to New Haven Sunday to draw attention to the similarities between Soulemane’s death and that of her son.
“He was someone’s son, like Eric was my son,” she said from the pulpit. “Whatever he was doing, it should not have been a death sentence.”
“We must not get comfortable with America killing our children.”
During a pre-service interview, she amplified Sharpton’s primary message that, if police believed that Soulemane had committed a crime, they should have done everything in their power to bring him to court. “They didn’t mean for this young man to live,” she said. “They shot and asked questions later. It shouldn’t be like that.”
One of Soulemane’s uncles, Imam Hassan, closed his eulogy for his nephew by posing a rhetorical question to the state trooper who shot and killed his nephew. “How did you feel when you went back home to see your family? Did you feel good to see your own son, knowing that you have taken the life of an innocent child.”
No one has control over where they are born, whom they are born to, or the color of their skin, Hassan said.
“The only one who has control over that is God. Why do you hate me for something I do not have control over.”
“A Soul You Would Meet Once In A Lifetime”
Sunday’s memorial service was not just about national civil rights activists working to elevate Soulemane’s story to the national stage.
The vast majority of the service was dedicated to family and friends grieving the loss of a young man on the cusp of adulthood.
“We want this to be a celebration today,” Rev Boise Kimber of First Calvary (pictured above at right) said at the top of the service. A celebration of “what [Soulemane] did, what he stood for, what he believed in.”
Row upon row of cushioned fold-out chairs were filled with men, women, and children, many wearing brightly colored headscarves and black, flowing dashikis. Several of Soulemane’s cousins wore white T-shirts bearing green script that read:
Mubarak was a
“Our Mubarak was loved by many because he had such a kind and thoughtful soul,” said his mother, Omo Mohammed.
He didn’t deserve the tragic fate he suffered, she said. “But God willing, justice will be served.”
“He was always inquisitive,” said Soulemane’s uncle, Tahir Mohammed. “He had a thirst for knowledge.”
“He was a funny, outgoing young man whose smile lit up a room.”
Mubarak “is remembered for his infectious smile and his willingness to help others,” said his cousin Ayesha Adams (pictured above, shaking Sharpton’s hand), reading from Soulemane’s obituary.
“Mubi was a soul you would meet once in a lifetime,” added Kira Ortoleva, who had organized and led a 250-person march from City Hall to city police headquarters on Tuesday on behalf of her late friend. He was always there for people who needed help, and gave them a place to stay when they had nowhere else to go.
“I want the federal government and the state government to know that our eyes will be on them every second of every day.”
Many in attendance daubed tears from their eyes and both sobbed and smiled as they watched a five-minute video of a pre-teen Soulemane dancing with his brother atop a green-and-white striped bed.
Mayor Justin Elicker, who had walked side by side with the protesters earlier this week and had brought up Soulemane’s death during his speech at last Monday’s MLK, Jr. service at Varick Memorial church, reiterated his condolences to Soulemane’s family, and his condemnation of the state trooper’s actions.
“This afternoon we remember someone who should absolutely be here today,” said Elicker (pictured).
“Mubi had his challenges. We all do. But what we need to start talking about is how we can prevent the loss of members of our community, particularly young men of color. We need to talk about how we can ensure that real economic and educational support reaches our black and brown communities in this city and in Connecticut. How we can ensure their lives aren’t taken early because of an overzealous police officer.”