Community members say they’re not going away as they plan for ways to commemorate the life of Marcus Smith, who died at the hands of police, on the one-year anniversary of his death in September.
Dozens of community members gathered at Shiloh Baptist Church in Greensboro on Thursday evening to talk about the upcoming one-year anniversary of the death of Marcus Smith, who died after being hogtied by police during last year’s North Carolina Folk Festival.
“We have a problem of dying while black in this community,” said the Rev. Steve Allen, who serves as the pastor at the church. “And no one cries except for us.”
Smith’s parents, Mary and George, drove up from South Carolina to attend the public meeting that was held to give an update on the legal proceedings around their case and to plan action for the upcoming anniversary.
“I try to forgive and forget,” said George. “But sometimes, I can’t.”
Smith’s family filed a lawsuit against the city in April for wrongful death under federal civil rights law that charged that the defendants violated Smith’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by subjecting him to excessive force and “unreasonably failing to promptly attend to his severe medical needs.” In addition to the city of Greensboro and Guilford County, the suit also names the eight police officers and a paramedic and EMT that were present during Smith’s death in September.
In June, the city and county filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit against all those involved.
According to Graham Holt, the family’s attorney, motions to dismiss are standard in lawsuits like this one, but he said that the city and those involved could still choose to do what he says is the right thing.
“They don’t have to do that,” Holt said on Thursday. “The city can make whatever choice they want to; they don’t have to fight this. They can choose to do the right thing at any point. Just because there’s a lawsuit filed doesn’t mean they have to fight it, but they are.”
In addition to Holt, the Smith family is also represented by Flint Taylor, Ben Elson and Christian Snow of the People’s Law Office in Chicago. Taylor represented plaintiffs seeking redress in the 1969 murder of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton by the Chicago police, and was also part of the legal team that won a wrongful death civil suit against the city of Greensboro and members of the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre.
“I think we’re gonna be successful,” said Holt. “There’s risk in every lawsuit but that’s just part of it. We’re very confident that we’ve got the best lawyers around who are completely committed to this case and it’s going great so far.”
The suit seeks “substantial compensatory damages” from the city and county, along with punitive damages from the individual defendants “because they acted in a malicious and/or willful and wanton manner.”
The first step towards getting closure, however, would be to get the city to admit their wrongdoing, said Mary Smith.
“We have not gotten closure,” she said. “I have not went to see my son’s grave yet and it’s almost been a year. What can I go tell him? When I go to his grave, I want to be able to go and tell him the truth about what happened. We have had lies told to us… We had to tell the whole community Wayne Scott’s lies.”
After Smith’s death on Sept. 8, the police department released a misleading press release that omitted several facts of the situation and stated that Smith had been “a disoriented suicidal subject running in and out of traffic,” and that he “became combative and collapsed.” The press release made no mention of the officers applying restraints to Smith, which a state medical examiner found to be the cause of Smith’s death, eventually classified as a homicide.
On Friday morning, Scott announced at the end of an online video that he plans to retire on Jan. 31.
“During the time between August and January things will remain the same,” Scott said in the video. “I’ll still be the chief…. We’ll still be doing what we do day to day.”
The police department’s public information officer said that the Smith case did not affect Scott’s decision to retire.
“He has been with the department long enough that he’s had his time in,” said the spokesperson.
Several activists spoke during Thursday’s meeting, urging the community to take action for Smith.
“Marcus’s name means to harvest,” said Zalonda Woods, a member of the Homeless Union of Greensboro and the Justice for Marcus Coalition. “It’s harvest time for Greensboro. We need to bring this home. We need justice for this family and for this community. Marcus represents all of us.”
For the next half hour, about 25 advocates brainstormed ideas to increase public awareness around Smith’s case and appropriately commemorate his life on the anniversary of his death on Sept. 8.
“You’ve been to meetings where people talk up all the time and then wobble out the door,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center. “And there was no sense of unity and movement.”
Hester Petty, an activist with Democracy Greensboro, mentioned gatherings that she and others have been planning on Mondays in front of city hall to protest Smith’s death and demand action from the city. Woods advocated for a storytelling night where those in the community, who have been wronged by police, come together to share their experiences. Johnson also asked ways in which they could mobilize local churches, universities and neighborhoods in time for the anniversary. Others suggested a vigil or pamphlet distribution during the Folk Festival which takes place on Sept. 6-8 this year.
“The Folk Festival probably will not be happy day for us, because that’s the day he died,” said Mary Smith, at the end of the meeting. “But we will join you. And we thank you so, so much. Doing this for Marcus, it’s a movement for Greensboro. And we would like for y’all to take this opportunity, Marcus Smith, to make a change.”