Smile Politely

Rantoul Police cleared in death of Black youth 

Three photos of Azaan Lee, a young Black man. From left to right: Lee posed in black jeans, a light blue jean jacket, and a neon yellow knit hat. Lee posed with his father, both wearing black tshirts. A photo of Lee wearing a red Rick & Morty hoodie, smiling and looking into the camera.
Lee family

It’s been three weeks since Azaan Lee ended up dead after an encounter with Rantoul police. In a rare move, Rantoul police quickly released video of the incident. Often it can take weeks or months for video to come out. Surely, this was an attempt to quell public concern. 

There is body cam footage from the two officers involved, Jose Aceves and Rikki McComas. It shows clearly what happened, but a few things still remain unexplained. There is no evidence I am aware of connecting Lee to the car that was reported stolen, a silver Ford Focus. The car had already been recovered when police stopped him. The keys that police were looking for were not found on him. 

In a letter to the editor that appeared in the News-Gazette, Erik S. McDuffie, professor in African American Studies at the University of Illinois, observed that the newspaper’s coverage of the death was one-sided and only represented the police version of the story. In the end, McDuffie writes, “it seems ridiculous that someone lost his life over a property issue. Wealthy White people commit crimes everyday, but their communities are neither targeted nor over-policed.”

The day after my initial article was published by Smile Politely, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz released her report finding that the use of deadly force was “justified” and went on conservative talk radio defending the officers. By the end of the week, on Friday, Rantoul police posted video and related documents on the city website

The video should come with a trigger warning, it is deeply disturbing to watch. It shows officers conducting a search, with Lee emptying his pockets. He has a square-looking object in his hoodie that is showing under his coat jacket. Officer Aceves reaches inside the pocket of Lee’s hoodie, and there’s a struggle. Aceves admits in an audio recording that he pulled the trigger to Lee’s gun. A METCAD operator asked, “Did we fire any shots or just him?” Aceves responded, “I used his own weapon. 10-4. There’s blood. He’s hit.” 

(Listen to: METCAD Radio Traffic Primary Channel, 5:45 min.)

Indeed, it’s troubling that Lee was carrying an illegal gun, but he had been living in Chicago, and many Black youth carry guns for protection. There are around 400 million guns in the United States for a population of 330 million, we know from gun registration records. How many illegal guns there are is more difficult to estimate. We are the most weaponized country in the world, by a long shot. As rapper Guru from Gang Starr said, “Tons o’ guns, real easy to get / Tons o’ guns bringing nothing but death.” 

The Marshall Project recently published a story about police shootings in rural America, suggesting that the shortage of body cameras leads to a lack of accountability. This reveals the naiveté of the mainstream media. Rantoul police were the first to acquire body cams in Champaign County, and still the results of this incident are the same. The state’s attorney who reviewed the case, as well as the local police department have failed to admit any wrongdoing — even when there is video. 

In Lee’s case, was he illegally searched? Why was he searched for a stolen car that had already been found? Was it because he was young and Black?

A peaceful vigil for Azaan Lee is being planned for Tuesday, March 7th at the location where he was stopped by Rantoul police.

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