The Fatal Shooting Of Black U.S. Airman By Florida Deputy Renews Debate About Race And Police Killings

Roger Fortson Photo: US Airfare

Hundreds lined up outside the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Stonecrest last Friday to say their final goodbye to Roger Fortson. The 23-year-old Black U.S. airman was shot and killed in his own home by a Florida deputy who responded to a call earlier this month “about a possible domestic violence situation at Fortson’s apartment complex.”

“In body cam footage of the incident, a deputy is seen knocking on the door and announcing himself as law enforcement. Fortson then appears while holding a gun pointed toward the ground. The deputy immediately fires multiple times. Fortson later died in the hospital,” NPR reports.

“He served his family, he served the country, served his friends,” Fortson family attorney Brian Barr. “And it’s just such a tragedy, from all angles, that — living this life of service doing what he was told to do — he was killed because he opened the door,” Barr continued.

Sabu Williams, president of the Okaloosa County NAACP branch, told NPR that he did not get the sense that the sheriff’s office thought Fortson’s race was a factor in the shooting.

But “bias certainly played a role in this thing,” Williams said. “From my perspective, we feel we don’t get the benefit of the doubt. It seems to be a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of thing.”

Fortson’s funeral was packed—the airmen in attendance filled up almost an entire section of the large church. Col. Patrick Dierig, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at the Hurlburt Air Force Base where Fortson was stationed in Florida, said, “As you can see from the sea of Air Force blue, I am not alone in my admiration of Senior Airman Fortson…We would like to take credit for making him great, but the truth is that he was great before he came to us.”

“The Air Force, we merely polished a diamond that you forged. Senior Airman Fortson was a combat veteran. He answered the nation’s call to take the fight to our enemies over the skies of Iraq, Syria,” added Dierig. “He took part in Special Operations missions, taking care of U.S. national security impact, and for the efforts he was awarded the Air Medal with a combat device in 2023.”

Rev. Jamal Bryant delivered the eulogy, including an anecdote about civil rights leader Medgar Evers serving in the Army during the Second World War. Bryant also point-blank called Fortson’s death murder, saying, “We’ve got to call it what it is: It was murder…He died of stone-cold murder. And somebody has got to be held accountable. Roger was better to America than America was to Roger.”

There was even a recorded video message from Rev. Al Sharpton, “He, as a young Black man, stood up, signed up to fight for this country. The question now is: ‘Will the country stand up and fight for him?’” Sharpton asked. “The family, the mother, brokenhearted. Do we have, though, a broken system? That is the question. And that is what we intend to get an answer to.”

According to the Statista Research Department, there has been an uptick in the number of fatal police shootings in this country. As of March 5, 2024, 178 civilians were shot, and out of that, 32 were Black. Last year “[i]n 2023, there were 1,163 fatal police shootings. Additionally, the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 6 fatal shootings per million of the population per year between 2015 and March 2024.”

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