Remembering Tony Sullivan

Lexington police confronted black youths returning from a march to city hall in October 1994. More than 100 protested the fatal shooting of Tony Sullivan by a white officer.
Lexington police confronted black youths returning from a march to city hall in October 1994. More than 100 protested the fatal shooting of Tony Sullivan by a white officer. Herald-Leader

The tragedy of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., attracted worldwide focus to the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. Instantly, Lexington was forced to revisit the pages in one of its darkest chapters.

Twenty years ago, on October 25, 1994, an 18-year-old black man was killed by a white Lexington police officer. The victim was Tony Sullivan. He was also unarmed.

The circumstances of Sullivan's shooting and death remain controversial for many in our community. On that day, reports indicate a police investigation focused on Sullivan, and led officers to an apartment in the Bluegrass—Aspendale housing projects. With an arrest warrant in hand, policemen entered the apartment to find Sullivan hiding in a closet. As he emerged from the closet, Sullivan was struck by a gunshot fired from the weapon of Sgt. Phil Vogel. The officer claimed his gun fired by accident. Vogel was not indicted or criminally charged.

Sullivan's death sparked public protest that exposed pre-existing racial tension throughout Lexington. It led to dozens of community meetings and public forums on race relations, and gave rise to the city's effort to establish Partners for Youth, a non-profit organization focusing on grassroots advocacy for youth initiatives.

The apartment where Sullivan was killed no longer stands. The housing project was demolished years ago to make way for long-planned housing revitalization.

While these improvements have great value, challenges are still present in the area: high unemployment, limited educational resources, lack of economic independence. On the surface, our community is primed for future growth. However, a new generation of youth, particularly black males, continues to face decades-old obstacles and barriers.

The circumstances of Sullivan's untimely death have become too familiar and too routine for communities all across America.

Over the past eight weeks, there have been at least five high-profile deadly encounters between police officers and black men, from Los Angeles to New York to Ferguson. The recent protests of these killings have resulted in louder calls for justice, in defense of young black men across our nation.

Thinking back to October, 1994, I was still a newcomer to Lexington. I was then a freshman football player at the University of Kentucky and living some 650 miles due north of my hometown of Tallahassee, Fla.

I first learned of the Sullivan shooting while watching the national nightly news, from my dorm room at Kirwan Hall.

What I observed that evening from the news report was almost surreal. A black teenager was shot to death without justifiable cause. This was 1994, years before the evolution of today's non-stop cable news networks and all-accessible social media environment. The public displays of outcry and unrest were closer than I then realized — less than two miles from our football dormitory on UK's campus.

I did not know Sullivan. But, as with other black men, he and I share a common ground; and our ground surfaces often are marked by rough terrain and uneven platforms. We black men know this reality and understand it clearly.

My experiences as a young black man were not much different than most, in relation to confronting barriers. I was born to teenage parents and was raised by my grandmother in a modest, working-class household. Fortunately, we embraced education. Both my mother and grandmother later earned college degrees. And, like my father, I excelled athletically. Luckily, I had chances.

The odds against black males maturing into manhood without exposures to hostile and/or violent encounters with law enforcement and institutional authority are far higher than we'd expect in 21st century America.

Regrettably, Sullivan, Brown and others could not survive these odds.

As a younger man, I held unfavorable impressions of law enforcement. Fear, distrust and acrimony — these were my feelings for the police.

I, too, had my growing pains. As a college student, my inexcusable choice to get behind the wheel while impaired, and later, the mistake of placing my unloaded handgun under a car seat both illustrate lapses in judgment which exposed me to prosecution by the criminal justice system. Lawful accountability for life's lessons was necessary for my maturity.

The degrees of separation, which have allowed illumination for my aspirations while extinguishing the light of unlimited potential for Sullivan's, can be counted on one hand.

In anticipation of my arrival at UK, I drafted a 12-page manuscript titled, "A Black Ant Lost in Bluegrass." This work was intended to serve as my journal of college experiences while living at a distant and then unknown campus. Lexington would be new for me; social and cultural adjustments surely would be required.

I have yet to resume work on this project. If I ever begin, I now realize, this is not only my journey.

In many ways, it's our journey. We are young black men in pursuit of a chance. If given further opportunity, Sullivan likely would have found his path forward. Others have.

Many of us know black men who lead productive lives, despite facing long odds. These are our fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, neighbors and friends.

In the 20 years since the Sullivan tragedy, our world has greater access and exposure to recurring incidents of violence against young black men by local authorities.

Meanwhile, the societal dynamics which allow these manifestations of injustice to persist — racism, bias, prejudice and objectification — have not changed enough.

For many, the blind eye of justice is not so blind. Numerous cases can be cited when law enforcement officers responsible for killing unarmed and defenseless black men have avoided prosecution and/or escaped criminal conviction. This must end.

We need more activism, such as now displayed by emerging national leaders Daryl Parks and Benjamin Crump. These Tallahassee-based attorneys are leading the fight against the use of excessive force by local law enforcement and against expansion of "stand your ground" laws.

The Kentucky General Assembly should finally endorse a proposed constitutional amendment to allow automatic restoration of voting rights for former felons.

The League of Women Voters of Kentucky reports our state has the second-highest African-American disenfranchisement rate in the nation.

Lexington police are actively employing community-policing strategies to rebuild bridges of trust, communication and respect within the black community. We need more of each.

In honor of Sullivan's memory, Lexington leaders should continually work to engineer common ground with black boys and young black men in our community. Doing so must go beyond the occasional superficial allegiance with our team's favored and privileged athletes, among whom I once was counted.

Twenty years have passed, but we have not forgotten Tony Sullivan.

We must never lose sight of these important lessons in humanity. The lives of young black men matter — each and every one.