Patrick Lyoya’s life mattered

The harrowing execution of Patrick Lyoya, a Congolese refugee in Michigan, and the unfulfilled promise of resettlement in America.

Bus Stop, Grand Rapids, MI, 1990. Image credit Tom Powell via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In 2014, eighteen-year-old Patrick Lyoya resettled with his five younger siblings and their parents, Peter and Dorcas, in Michigan, United States, where they joined a growing population of Congolese refugees seeking better lives. That same year, Michigan native Christopher Schurr traveled to Kenya for a mission trip, where he and his then fiancée (both white Americans) married. On the morning of April 4th, 2022, the two men would meet for the first and last time.

Early that morning, Lyoya was pulled over by Schurr—now a police officer in Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city—allegedly for driving with an unregistered license plate. In a matter of minutes, the traffic stop turned into a foot chase (a high-risk behavior increasingly discouraged in police reform circles), a struggle, and ultimately, an execution. While pinning Lyoya down and kneeling on his back, Schurr fatally shot Lyoya in the back of the head.

More than two months later, on June 9th, Kent County prosecutor Chris Becker announced murder charges against Schurr, in a rare but welcome turn of events. This is an important development in the fight for greater accountability for police use of deadly force. Over the past two months, local leaders and activists have kept up the pressure. Groups like the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors, which includes the support of nearly 70 local pastors from across denominations; the Grand Rapids NAACP, the Black civil rights organization; and other local leaders have been pressing authorities for transparency, accountability, and police reform in Grand Rapids. The police department there has been under investigation since 2019 by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. In his statement, Becker argues that Schurr’s use of deadly force cannot be characterized as self defense. The defense disagrees, saying Lyoya’s murder was “justified.” The Lyoya family will now have to endure the lengthy and painful legal battle ahead.

Perhaps Schurr’s mission trip to Kenya is irrelevant to this latest example of America’s lethal problem of over-policing of Black communities. But we should acknowledge the cruel irony of a White Savior dressed in blue—who dressed “like an African” for his Christian mission wedding—pinning down a Congolese refugee and fatally shooting him in the back of the head in the name of self-defense. Not only was Patrick Lyoya the victim of a violent reality in America where Black people are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police than white people. He was also the victim of American austerity economics where policing stands in as a response to the defunding of social services and resettlement means acculturating to the impossible mathematics of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps without a safety net.

Born in Uvira, Democratic Republic of Congo, 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya lived for over a decade in the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi (the camp receives 300 new arrivals on average monthly, the majority from the DRC) before being resettled with his family in Lansing, Michigan’s state capital, at the age of 18. According to The Washington Post, Peter and Dorcas Lyoya worked “odd jobs,” and the family of eight shared a small apartment when they first moved to Michigan. Patrick Lyoya later moved to Grand Rapids where he moved between family and friends’ homes and where he most recently worked on the factory floor of an auto manufacturing plant. Not long before he was killed, Patrick had just moved into his own place, a milestone for the 26-year-old refugee.

According to people close to him, Lyoya worked hard to take care of his family. He wanted to buy or build a home for his mother as part of his quest to achieve a comfortable middle-class American life. He was also a father of two and an active member of the Congolese community, where he was known to help new arrivals find their footing. Lyoya attended the Restoration Community Church of the United Methodist Church, where Pastor Banza Mukalay, also a refugee who resettled in the US, remembered him as a hard working young man who “tried to make his future better.”

As much reporting has highlighted, Patrick’s life was complicated. According to Pastor Joshua Munonge Kibezi of Kalamazoo, MI, who lived in Malawi as a refugee with the Lyoyas, Patrick sometimes worked three jobs to support himself and his family. But existing media profiles have highlighted Patrick’s legal troubles dating back to 2015 without meaningfully reflecting on the ways in which resettlement policies intersect with anti-Black biases in America that place refugees like Patrick firmly into a violent cycle of over-policing and under-resourcing of Black immigrant lives.

In recent years, Grand Rapids, MI, has become an important place of resettlement for refugees from the DRC. According to one source, between March and October of 2019, 319 out of 490 refugees who resettled in Michigan were Congolese. And according to resettlement agency Bethany Christian Services, Grand Rapids was becoming the “no. 1 place” that Congolese refugees requested for resettlement as part of the process of “secondary migration” by which refugees seek to follow or reunite with family members through the resettlement process. As of 2019, Grand Rapids was home to about 8,000 refugees from the DRC and 11 Congolese churches.

However, national resettlement numbers have significantly declined in recent years, particularly under the former Trump administration. This has meant that social services have also been slashed. Resettling in the US is exceptionally hard, as sociologist Heba Gowayed shows in her new book that details American resettlement policies and their implications for Syrian refugees. Resettlement in America relies heavily on the notion of “self-sufficiency,” treating newcomers as “American low-income workers” and denying them crucial services for integrating into American economic and social life.

But the story doesn’t end there. Where state and federal support services fall short, the growing Congolese refugee community in Michigan has been working hard to uplift and support its members. Pastor Kibezi (who was close to Patrick) runs a nonprofit called African Community Kalamazoo. It gained official nonprofit status in 2019, formed to “cater to the needs of all Africans, African refugees in Kalamazoo County, Michigan and by extension, the United States. Also, we promote the unity of Africans, and support the development of our host community.” Among their services, African Community Kalamazoo works to ensure members of the community have adequate access to food, translation, and interpretation services for non-English speaking immigrants and refugees within the community. (You can make a donation to their cause here.) According to their website, they are currently working to open a childcare center and provide help with finding affordable housing solutions for its community members. They are also looking for volunteers and donations of household goods, including food and diapers. Patrick Lyoya was involved in this work, too—work that the refugee community is doing to improve the lives of those whom American resettlement practices have failed to protect and uplift.

Now, in light of the recent tragedy that has struck the refugee and Black community of Grand Rapids, Patrick’s father, Peter, cautions those who may be thinking about seeking asylum in the area: “I want to say for those people who are seeking asylum here, refuge, I don’t want you to think this is a safe place. I thought it was a safe place, but it seems like we are in danger even when we come here.” As Swahili speakers, the Lyoyas have relied on translators for interviews. It is unclear from media reports how strong Patrick’s English skills were—but New York Times reporting indicates that language was a barrier for him, possibly even in his encounter with Schurr on April 4th.

Earlier this month, Michigan banned Swahili (and Spanish) dictionaries in its prisons, claiming that the “books’ contents are a threat to the state’s penitentiaries.” But this move begs the question: how many among the growing Congolese population in Michigan are landing in the prison system? Statistics are not readily available. However, data compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that while Black people make up 15% of Michigan’s population, they make up 53% of the state’s prison population (and 37% of its jail population). According to The New York Times, Patrick Lyoya had spent some time in and out of jail. And according to some readers’ comments, Patrick’s legal troubles seem to justify his murder, which is a sad reflection of how too many Americans uncritically think about crime—violent and nonviolent—as a reflection of the individual more than as a reflection of America’s austerity economics and deepening social divides.

Patrick Lyoya’s case has drawn national attention. The Reverend Al Sharpton eulogized Patrick at his funeral on April 22nd, and Patrick’s parents hired well-known civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Davionne Smith, a Black Lives Matter activist and cousin to Breonna Taylor (a Grand Rapids native), has helped organize marches calling for justice for Patrick and his family.

Patrick Lyoya’s life mattered. Black Lives Matter.

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