Activists prepare to undertake direct action as Greensboro City Council and the Guilford County district attorney wipe their hands of the Marcus Smith case.
With city leaders ready to move on from the controversy over the hog-tying death of Marcus Smith, activists pushing for police accountability signaled during a Monday-evening community meeting that they’re ready to undertake disruption, boycotts and other direct action to pressure city council and the district attorney.
The 60 people who gathered at Shiloh Baptist Church — including workers, professionals, students and people experiencing homelessness — listened to testimonials from Smith’s family members, who have traveled several times from South Carolina to seek answers and justice. Presenters such as the Rev. Nelson Johnson cited at least a half dozen cases of police abuse which have resulted in settlements, while arguing that the city has done nothing to address the underlying pattern of mistreatment of people of color and poor people at the hands of police.
But it was a question framed by Nikolaus B. Knight, an organizer who stood up near the end of the meeting, that instigated a flurry of ideas for taking on city council and the new district attorney, Avery Crump.
“What do we feel like direct action could look like?” Knight asked. “I want to know: What does disruption look like?”
One answer came from Alicia Muhammad.
“If we come up with a calendar of where they are, this city was born and bred off of sit-ins and boycotts, so we know all about it,” she said. “Or at least we read about it, and we can get down with the program because it doesn’t take too much energy to sit somewhere and to be somewhere. What the students did at that time was take shifts. ‘You go down there at this time, and we’ll go down there at this time.’ Maybe we have to follow these council members around on their daily schedule, and that’s what disruption looks like, to make them uncomfortable.”
Johnson added to the activists’ to-do list a request to research council members’ business connections.
“We need a Twitter army and a research team,” Muhammad echoed.
“I know some people are connected to stores that their family owns,” Johnson said. “Others are connected to legal offices. We just need to find out how are they connected to sources of money.”
Johnson cited the Kmart campaign in the 1990s, which addressed wage disparities between black and white employees. Johnson said after protesters blocked the facility, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce called the company headquarters in Michigan and asked them to resolve the dispute.
Mitchell Fryer, who was formerly employed at the Interactive Resource Center where Smith was a guest and where Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy is the executive director, called for an escalation of tactics.
“We have got to be in the streets,” he said. “If you guys want to know how the [Confederate] statues were pulled down in Durham and Chapel Hill, that was from people putting bodies physically in space, and forcing the state’s and the powers-that-be’s hand to respond. What we know right now is that city council is not responding to us. We’re not part of their larger political calculus.”
Ed Whitfield, a longtime antiracist activist, responded to a call by one person to shut down an interstate by cautioning that blocking traffic would be a “blunt instrument” that could hurt ordinary people who are trying to travel across town to get to a job.
Some participants suggested occupying city council members’ seats on the dais. Rev. Johnson noted that the tactic was used by a group of students calling themselves Spirit of the Sit-In Movement in 2010 to protest alleged discrimination against black police officers, and that clergy followed suit by blocking the front entrance of the police department, resulting in their arrests. One of the sit-in participants, Bradley Hunt, was in attendance at the community meeting on Monday.
“I want to suggest that we not go too far with particularities of plans,” he said, “but to take somebody’s suggestion, because we do need to make use of the element of surprise, and we do not need to have all of our business known by everybody before we do it.”
In addition to calling for the firing of police Chief Wayne Scott, activists want District Attorney Avery Crump to set aside a decision by her predecessor, Doug Henderson, and charge the police officers responsible for Smith’s death.
Bradley Hunt, a member of the Greensboro NAACP, said the organization’s president, the Rev. Cardes Brown, has met with Crump to discuss the case, adding that the district attorney has taken a noncommittal stance.
“She’s open I believe to hear from us, but I think it’s going to take more pressure from the people,” Hunt said. “She’s not going to do it just because it’s the right thing to do.”
After the NC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled in early December that Smith’s death was a homicide resulting in part from officers applying a Ripp Hobble, or hog-tie restraint, council members hastily voted to publicly release police body-worn camera video. Some members, including Mayor Nancy Vaughan said they wanted an explanation about why the initial city press release indicated that Smith “collapsed,” while omitting any mention of officers applying the restraint. City council members called for patience as they awaited a final determination from the district attorney’s office, which ultimately found no criminal liability on the part of the officers.
Since then, the Greensboro Police Department has amended its protocol to no longer use the Ripp Hobble to connect people’s hands and feet, in effect banning hog-tying. The change brings the department’s policies in line with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
And city leaders are exploring a proposal by Kennedy to deploy a mental-health team with police officers to provide crisis-intervention services, although budgeting and program specifics still need to be worked out.
“We are looking at ways to embed qualified mental-health professionals as first responders instead of police when these incidents arise,” Kennedy told Triad City Beat on Tuesday. “We want to respond to these incidents as a public health issue rather than as a criminal-justice issue.”
Council members have little appetite for calling on the city manager to fire the police chief. Kennedy, one of the three most progressive members on the council, said there’s a need for accountability but stopped short of calling for the chief’s ouster.
“I believe that any actions by any organization are ultimately the responsibility of the leadership of that organization, and accountability more than any place else should rest at the top,” she said.
During the meeting, several people expressed a belief that the lives of black people, poor people and those who struggle with mental illness are devalued by the police. They listened with rapt attention as Aisha Marcus described being Tased twice while undergoing what she described as a “marijuana psychosis episode.” Marcus said she felt like she could have wound up like Sandra Bland, a young, black woman who was found dead from hanging in a jail cell after a routine traffic stop in Texas in 2015. She said she was ordered to write a letter of apology to the arresting officers as part of her plea agreement in mental health agreement.
On Monday, Marcus read aloud from the letter she said she was not allowed to read in court.
“This letter is a modern-day slander and lynching based on an unfair plea agreement, as I myself have become a statistic of our criminal justice system,” Marcus said. “I feel like a puppet being tossed around with no care, regard or concern of my mental health, physical health or emotional stability that these life-altering situations have caused beginning November 2016.
“I apologize for being a black mother of three black sons that I try and teach to stay out of harm’s way with the police and abide so they do not get shot and killed,” the letter continues. “I apologize for knowing and believing I am a child of God and believing that a change is gonna come. I apologize for being a child of two parents that both suffer mental illness and have no hope of support for each other or myself. I apologize for trying, researching, learning and living a life of an unknown, true diagnosis. Am I bipolar? Am I schizophrenic? Am I normal? Why do I cause bodily harm? Why am I paranoid? Why does marijuana cause psychosis? What chemical imbalances are in what foods? Why do I have to take eight to 12 pills a day to function normally? What are you apologetic for.”
The activists collected about $200 to defray the Smith family’s costs from traveling to Greensboro. Mary Smith, Marcus’s mother, said they wouldn’t be back once they’re done seeking justice in Greensboro.
“It’s up to you guys,” she said. “I don’t live in North Carolina. It’s up to you to make that change. As Michael Jackson said, ‘Look at the man in the mirror.’”