‘I thought I came to a safe land’
Killing of Patrick Lyoya destroys family, outrages many who condemn police shooting as execution
by Naba’a Muhammad and William P. Muhammad
ARTICLE FROM The Final Call @TheFinalCall
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—An immigrant family from Central Africa is in mourning after the killing of their unarmed son by police during a “routine” traffic stop on the city’s Southeast side.
Activists and advocates, however, blasted the death as another example of out-of-control policing. Many condemned the loss of Patrick Lyoya as an execution. He was shot in the back of the head and died during the traffic stop.
News of Patrick’s horrific death spread around the U.S. and the globe as weekend protestors took to streets here and other places around the country.
Patrick’s parents, Peter and Dorcas Lyoya, wept at a community forum.
“What is making me cry more is to see my son killed by a police officer for a small, small mistake,” the father said. “My life has come to an end,” declared the grieving parent. He spoke through an interpreter.
“When we run away from war, I thought that I came to a safe land,” Dorcas Lyoya said via an interpreter. “And now, I’m surprised and astonished to see that my son is shot here.”
Since the fatal shooting April 4 there have been demonstrations, questions of implicit bias, questions about police procedures and excessive police violence.
Why did a man have to die in what was a traffic stop? That’s the incredulous question that keeps coming back.
In the video, the White officer approaches Patrick asking questions about his vehicle and giving orders. Miscommunication seems to take place and at one point Patrick turns and runs away from the officer.
Throughout the encounter, Patrick tries to avoid the officer, never attacking him but the officer pursues him. Police officials say there is a struggle over a taser. Lyoya family lawyers say the officer escalates the situation, his life is never in danger and there is no justification for drawing his weapon.
Recorded by multiple cameras in the area, including a cell phone video taken by his car’s passenger, the shooting death of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old father and immigrant to the United States as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, reenergized protests against police violence.
The killing stunned family and friends in the Congolese immigrant community here.
Pastor Njandu Amisi, a spokesman and advocate for the West Michigan Congolese community, told The Final Call the killing of Patrick Lyoya has been especially traumatic. Many émigrés who fled the brutal fighting over the Congo’s highly sought-after mineral wealth came to America only to see their loved one killed during a traffic stop, he said.
“As one of the leaders in the Congolese community, we feel that we are not safe in Grand Rapids after the shooting,” Pastor Amisi added. “This gave us another view from the perspective of looking at life and the situation in America. We heard in Africa (about) the racism in America, but now, it has been concretized in the killing of our son.”
Though the family had not yet received official word from the Congolese embassy at Final Call press time, family interpreter and spokesman Israel Siku said Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge, prime minister for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had weighed-in on the killing as news spread through DRC media.
“So far, they have not called, but there is news that said the government and the prime minister condemned it,” Mr. Siku said. “Patrick was a loving brother, a loving son, a hard-working man and was a very respectful kid,” the family interpreter said.
“It was very difficult to watch,” proclaimed Atty. Benjamin Crump during a press conference at Renaissance Church of God in Christ describing what witnesses called an execution-style killing as Mr. Lyoya laid pinned, face down on the ground, and shot in the back of his head by a yet unnamed police officer. “What you see in that video is (the) unnecessary, unjustifiable, excessive use of fatal force,” said Mr. Crump who is representing the family.
State police are investigating the shooting and the officer involved is on paid leave.
Patrick’s death invokes thoughts of the White police officer who killed Daunte Wright, a Black teen in Minnesota, in 2021. The officer, who was eventually found guilty of two counts of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison, shot and killed the young father during a traffic stop there. The officer said she mistook her service weapon for a taser. Her service weapon, however, was on the opposite side of her body. The Wright family is fighting to have her lenient sentence overturned.
Leaders want action
Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack represents the 17th District and hosts a popular talk show, “Pulse of the City,” on 102.5 FM The Ride. He told The Final Call the Lyoya family doesn’t speak English and they feel sandbagged by bureaucratic indifference, if not outright racism from Grand Rapids city government.
“One of their biggest needs is for Africans of the Diaspora to understand our connection to them and support our family,” Commissioner Womack said of Patrick’s parents and of Grand Rapids Congolese community. “Leadership in Grand Rapids (must) make sure they’re not being taken advantage of by the government and the system because of the language barrier and inexperience of working through these governmental processes.”
Traffic stops, police shootings and Black deaths
It is difficult to understand how frequently police use their weapons since there is no comprehensive nationwide database, despite the FBI’s attempts to build one for years. Private organizations have instead compiled data.
News accounts, social media posts, and police reports track and verify police-involved shooting deaths as does Mapping Police Violence and the Gun Violence Archive.
The New York Times recently published an investigation on how routine traffic stops by police for minor violations often escalate into fatal encounters for motorists and passengers in the United States.
Police killed more than 400 people over the last five years during traffic stops, and Black drivers were overrepresented in the deaths. Only five officers were convicted for using deadly force in all those deaths. It is not uncommon for local police officers, state troopers, or sheriff’s deputies to respond aggressively when they encounter disrespect or disobedience such as a driver talking back, revving an engine, refusing to exit a vehicle, or exiting without permission.
According to police jargon, this is known as “contempt of cop.” In all too many instances, the sentence for this infraction is death as police morph into judge, jury, and executioner, not considering whether an encountered person even understands their commands.
Krystal Muhammad, national chair of the New Black Panther Party, said her organization has been flooded with complaints of police misconduct.
“We are constantly getting emails about people getting brutalized by the police, about people getting brutalized into jails. It is nonstop,” she told The Final Call.
“The problem is systemic. There is no way around it. The pace of abuse hasn’t slowed down in any way. It’s just not getting the airtime. Meanwhile, the media focuses on other distractions, such as Ukraine and Russia. People are losing their lives out here at the hands of the police who work for the state. It’s ethnic cleansing and genocide,” Ms. Muhammad said.
Olabanji Olatunde of the Grand Rapids Royal Black Panther Party said their communications within the African community and respect for the elders’ wishes best qualified them not only to call for demonstrations, but also to hold protests in a spirit of righteousness, dignity and respect for Patrick’s memory.
“We met the parents, we met the family and came together to dialogue about what was going on and what needed to be done,” Mr. Olatunde told The Final Call. “It’s been a hard time for them, especially that they are not a native here.”
Adding that local Panther Party officials expressed concerns over opportunists and the likelihood of provocateurs infiltrating the crowds, Mr. Olatunde stated that unruly conduct and violence only distracts from the goal of justice. It plays into the hands of those wanting to undermine a serious investigation and to downplay the nature of Patrick’s death, he added.
“The turn out in numbers was pretty good,” Mr. Olatunde said of the hundreds who participated in an April 16 protest march. “But with the so-called White allies, there were a lot of instigators and a lot of chatter going on. They have an agenda themselves,” he continued.
The politics of accountability
Patrick’s death may also help expose ill treatment towards African expatriates and refugees in America.
On the domestic front, civil rights leaders agreed escalations during a traffic stop should not lead to death.
“There is absolutely no reason this encounter should have turned deadly,” said National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial and Urban League of West Michigan President and CEO Eric Brown in a joint April 15 statement. They expressed alarm at an overreaction by a Grand Rapids Police Department officer and apparent inconsistencies in the initial description provided by the police about the incident that resulted in Patrick’s death.
“A problem with a vehicle tag is not a situation that posed any immediate danger to the officer or the community. Another tragic death of a young Black man at the hands of police comes down to an officer’s eagerness to escalate a non-violent encounter unnecessarily,” Mr. Morial said.
Mr. Brown agreed, adding that the released video is confirmation of a gross mishandling of an encounter of a Black man with police that quickly turned to an unnecessarily one-sided confrontation. These actions lead to unnecessary escalation of an already confusing situation instead of de-escalation, he said.
“It’s unclear what even prompted the stop, other than blatant racial profiling,” Mr. Brown added. “How did the tag scanner detect an improper tag from the front in the first place?” The state of Michigan only requires license plates to be displayed from the rear of a vehicle.
Mr. Morial and Mr. Brown said the video confirmed that what occurred after the officer’s initial communication resulted from a lack of respect for the cultural and language barriers Patrick faced. They shared the Lyoya family’s dismay over the delay in releasing their son’s body so they could mourn him in dignity. Family members told The Final Call at press time that a funeral was tentatively scheduled for April 22.
Several Michigan political figures released statements of concern and demanded transparency in the investigation as pain, anguish, shock and outrage continues to reverberate throughout the state’s immigrant communities.
Members of Michigan’s Black Legislative Caucus released statements after a City of Grand Rapids press conference about the deadly shooting.
“As a father, a son, and a brother, I am devastated for the Lyoya family,” said State Senator Marshall Bullock-D, 4th District and caucus chairman. “As a Black man, I am angry, scared, outraged and completely frustrated that we are, yet again, revisiting a tragedy that occurs too often in the Black community. The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus is calling for justice and demanding full accountability and transparency in this tragic murder,” he wrote.
“But the fact remains: Justice is not justice when another Black body lays face down, dead from an execution-style shooting. Justice cannot exist in a system where accountability and proper training for the police, who are supposed to protect and defend an entire community—and not just people who look like them—is an afterthought. I hope and pray the legal outcome of this incident brings some semblance of peace to the family. Until then, I am calling on the Grand Rapids Police Department to be accountable and transparent with the community they serve,” State Senator Bullock said.
State Senator Adam Hollier-D, 2nd District, also called what happened an “execution.” The video is indicative of the threat that Black people face from an uncontrolled, ill-trained, and systemically flawed policing system, he said.
“Every time I leave the house, anyone who loves me tells me to be safe, because they know death comes swiftly for young Black men, especially when interacting with the police,” he said. “It’s time to stop saying ‘another senseless death’ or calling a traffic stop ‘routine.’ It’s time to truly address the root cause and effect of over-policing Black people. The level of savagery that this human life was taken with would be incomprehensible if it were not so common in our society. It feels like every day, one more thing gets added to the list of things you must teach your sons about when interacting with the police and survival,” State Senator Hollier said.
“For all the focus on justice that has happened in our nation and our community in recent years, another young Black man is dead, and our community cries out for answers, and for justice. For all the voices raised to testify that Black Lives Matter, that justice must include us all, we are a long way from a just society,” added 75th District State Representative David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.
State Senator Jeff Irwin-D, 18th District from Ann Arbor, slammed the state legislature for its failure to take up efforts to pass measures that reform and increase police accountability. “While the family of Patrick Lyoya and the people of Grand Rapids grapple with the release of video documenting his killing, I want to remind you that the Michigan Legislature has done nothing to improve the laws that govern police,” he said.
New Detroit, a racial justice group, is also among those demanding a full and transparent investigation, including the identity of the officer and for the release of the medical examiner’s report. “We demand urgent action by all investigators and the release of any materials that will shed further light on the events leading up to and of the moment that ended Mr. Lyoya’s life,” the group said in a statement.
Family interpreter Israel Siku said the Lyoyas’ have only been in the United States since 2014 and desire the unity of the African immigrant community with Black Americans. They need all the support they can receive without violence, said Mr. Siku.
“The reason why a lioness is very strong is because they hunt together,” Patrick’s father told The Final Call through the interpreter. “A buffalo weighs 3,000 pounds and the lioness is only 125. But the reason why they bring that buffalo down is because they work together. The buffalo in this country is racism and injustice,” Mr. Lyoya said.
Sultan Z. Muhammad, student minister of the Nation of Islam Grand Rapids Study Group, agreed that Black unity is vital. He became aware of the shooting the morning it took place, a few blocks away from the study group headquarters.
“As Minister Louis Farrakhan told us, we are looking at the unraveling of a great nation, and ever since he said that in 2020, we’ve seen the acceleration of what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad called ‘The Fall of America,’ ” Student Minister Muhammad said. “The masthead on the old Muhammad Speaks newspaper had the image of a Black man in America reaching over the water and locking arms with his brother from Africa, showing how our unity is going to be key for our (collective) survival.”
(Michael Z. Muhammad and Final Call staff contributed to this report.)