Last year, nineteen month-old Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh was sleeping peacefully in his playpen in Habersham County, Georgia. The Phonesavanh family had recently moved to Georgia from Janesville, Wisconsin after their home had been destroyed in a fire, and the family — including the four young Phonesavanh children — were temporarily living in a converted guestroom of the house owned by Bounkham Phonesavanh’s sister.
At 2 am on May 28, 2014, Bou Bou and his three older siblings were asleep when a team of militarized Habersham SWAT officers — conducting a “no-knock” raid of the family home — broke down the door and blindly threw a stun grenade into the room. The grenade landed in Bou Bou’s playpen and exploded just inches from the toddler’s face. Bou Bou immediately started screaming from the injuries of the devastating explosion: the grenade detached Bou Bou’s nose, permanently disfiguring him, and create a gash in his chest that collapsed his left lung and prevented the infant from breathing on his own.
SWAT officers prevented Bou Bou’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, from approaching her child. Instead, they downplayed the injuries; in a later interview, Alecia Phonesavanh recollects:
“I asked if he got hurt. And they said, ‘No, your son is fine. He has not sustained any serious injury,” Alecia Phonesavanh remembers. “They ended up telling us that he had lost a tooth.”
But her husband became alarmed after seeing a pool of blood and the condition of the crib. “Burnt marks on the bottom of the crib where he sleep[s],” recalls Bounkham Phonesavanh. “And the pillow blown apart.”
Bou Bou was rushed to a hospital in Atlanta where he was placed in a medically induced coma for months. Although he survived the grenade explosion, Bou Bou underwent multiple surgeries with more scheduled. In total, medical bills have already surpassed $1 million dollars.
The Habersham SWAT team raided the Phonesavanh home to execute a search warrant on the home of suspected dealer of methamphetamine, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, who is Bounkham Phonesavanh’s nephew. However, the Phonesavanh family says that Thonetheva was estranged from his mother, Bounkham Phonesavanh’s sister, and that they never saw him in the house at any point that the Phonesavanh’s were staying there. Thonetheva was later arrested peacefully at his actual place of residence, and charged on drug possession with intent to distribute without the use of SWAT or a “no-knock” raid.
With more frequent sales of military surplus equipment to local police forces and a growing tolerance of miltarized police, SWAT team use has become progressively — and distressingly — commonplace. SWAT, originally intended to be teams of specialists to handle dangerous hostage situations, are now being increasingly deployed to execute warrants on people suspected of non-violent crimes. Even local police are now patrolling streets with repurposed tanks and all-purpose vehicles. This leaves us with a cop culture where officers are over-armed with military-style weapons, under-trained in their proper usage, and protected from any accountability by the blind fraternity of the ‘thin blue line’.
In Habersham County, the SWAT team members who threw a grenade into Bou Bou’s crib were not indicted on any criminal charges. The officers who threw a grenade into a room full of sleeping children faced no charges of assault, recklessness, or criminal endangerment. One can’t help but draw the parallels to yet other stories where the lives of non-White (and typically, Black) victims were devalued following assault or murder at the hands of cops, with no police officer facing any consequences for his actions. Instead, the same record plays over again: it is the victim — not their assailant — who is at fault. Michael Brown shoplifted. Fong Lee was armed. Eric Garner was obese. Rekia Boyd was being loud. Duy Ngo was racist. Freddie Gray severed his own neck.
As for Bou Bou Phonesavanh? In February of this year, the Phonesavanh family filed a lawsuit on behalf of their son Bou Bou, against the Sheriff’s office accusing police of wrongdoing when they obtained and executed their May 28, 2014 search warrant leading to Bou Bou’s injuries. At the end of March, the Sheriff’s office filed their reply to the complaint.
In it, they blame Bou Bou Phonesavanh’s injuries on his own “criminal conduct”. What conduct would that be? Apparently the toddler was breaking the law by sleeping in his own crib in the middle of the night.
In it, they also blame Bou Bou Phonesavanh’s injuries on “failure to exercise ordinary care”. What ordinary care would that be? Apparently, the foreknowledge to not sleep in one’s own bed on the same night that police were planning a surprise, military-style raid on the house.
Finally, they blame Bou Bou for “failure to avoid consequences” in the attack. What failure to avoid consequences would that be? Apparently, the nineteen-month-old child is liable for his wounds because he didn’t lift himself out of his playpen to escape the grenade’s blast when it landed inches from his face in the middle of the night.
This is inexcusable. This is incomprehensible. We have literally reached that moment when cops would rather blame a nineteen-month-old infant for being wounded by a grenade explosion then to entertain meaningful discourse over whether our law enforcement forces have been given too much political, legal and cultural latitude. We are literally at the point where we are calling a sleeping baby a criminal who brought his injuries at the hands of over exuberant cops upon himself.
Habersham County reached a $1-million settlement in weeks after the Sheriff’s office filed this absurd defense. While about $500,000 of that money can be used to help offset some of the costs for Phonesavanh’s previous surgeries, the Phonesavanh family still owe more than half a million dollars in medical bills, with more medical bills likely to accrue over Bou Bou’s lifetime.
A federal investigation into the maiming of Baby Bou Bou Phonesavanh is ongoing.
Act Now! If you are outraged by this story — and you really should be — here’s how you can get involved. The JusticeForBabyBouBou.com website lists several approved fundraisers for Bou Bou Phonesavanh including a toy drive for Bou Bou’s upcoming second birthday. A separate Crowdrise fundraiser has also been set-up to offset medical expenses.
You can also sign the following Change.org petition urging Habersham County to follow through in the payment of the settlement to the family.
If you would like to contact the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office directly, you can do so here:
Sheriff Joey Terrell
1000 Detention Drive
Clarkesville, GA 30523
You can also share this post and tweet to #JusticeForBouBou.