Featured photo: Marcus Smith’s father and mother, George and Mary Smith, speaking at the press conference on Thursday. All photos by Carolyn de Berry.
After three years of resistance from the city, activists and the family of Marcus Deon Smith are taking their fight straight to the US Department of Justice.
On Thursday, dozens of community members joined the Smith family in downtown Greensboro, to call on the people of Greensboro to get involved in the movement to bring justice for Smith. In September 2018, Smith killed by police officers, who hogtied him while he was in the midst of a mental-health crisis on a downtown street during the Folk Festival. Now, more than three years later, activists and the family say they are turning to a “higher power” to seek accountability.
“We had no choice but to go over their heads,” said Hester Petty, a member of the city’s homeless union and longtime community activist.
The letter released to the public on Thursday was delivered by US mail and emailed to Steven Rosenbaum, the chief of the specifical litigation section at the US DOJ. The four pages of the document outline specifics about the Marcus Smith case, but also urge the DOJ to “open a pattern and practice investigation into racially and sexually discriminatory policing by the Greensboro, North Carolina Police Department, as well as into the grossly inadequate supervision, discipline, and training with regard to police brutality and misconduct.”
The letter comes after several failed attempts by former city council member Michelle Kennedy to open an independent investigation into the death of Marcus Deon Smith. The most recent failed attempt took place in June, just two months before Kennedy would resign. At the time, Kennedy and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson supported an independent investigation but some of the remaining members of council, including mayoral candidate Justin Outling, didn’t support the idea, citing that the investigation would be too broad and that the civil litigation underway already acted as an investigation.
The letter released on Thursday was signed by a coalition of activists and former local politicians. None of the current city councilmembers signed onto the letter or were in attendance at Thursday’s meeting.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, reached by text message on Thursday afternoon told TCB that she hadn’t read the letter yet but that “it is in their right to pursue whatever remedies they think are available to them.”
City attorney Chuck Watts responded by saying, “I’m sure the DOJ will do what they think is appropriate.”
As previously reported by Triad City Beat, the bulk of the letter to the DOJ outlines findings that have come out from the three-year long lawsuit between the Smith family and the city of Greensboro. Most notably is the fact that in the nine months prior to Smith’s death, which was ruled as a homicide, there were about 50 incidents of hogtying by the Greensboro police. Of those 50 incidents, 38 victims or 76 percent were Black and 39 or 78 percent, were people of color. The incidents, which spanned from Dec. 19, 2017, to Sept. 7, 2018, show a “pattern and practice of racially and sexually discriminatory hogtying, often accompanied by the use of excessive force,” the letter states. The letter also notes that 84 percent of the hogtiers were white and 48 percent of the victims were women. Seventeen percent of the victims had been suffering a mental-health crisis similar to the one Smith was experiencing when he died.
“What happened to Marcus is not an isolated event,” said Bradley Hunt, the president of the Greensboro branch of the NAACP, during the press conference. “It didn’t happen in a vacuum.”
One of the most shocking examples of hogtying during that period includes a Black woman who was restrained with her legs at less than 90 degrees from her body, who was left prone on the ground for more than five minutes and her breasts exposed. Several victims expressed that they could not breathe, according to the Smith legal team’s findings. The city of Greensboro officially banned the use of the RIPP Hobble, or restraining someone by their hands and feet, in November 2020 and banned hogtying in 2018, after Smith’s death.
While the DOJ did not conduct investigations of police departments during former President Trump’s tenure, US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced in April that his office would once again be investigating local law enforcement agencies for systemic constitutional violations, according to reporting by PEW Charitable Trusts. Some examples of police departments that have been investigated by the DOJ in the past include departments in Ferguson, MO, Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans. In August, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ opened an investigation into the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department.
According to a DOJ fact sheet, an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ would “determine whether a police department has engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory and or unconstitutional policing.”
The process involves gathering information from the police department and community members and culminates in the DOJ releasing a public report of its findings. If the DOJ finds fault with the police department, then a negotiated agreement, otherwise known as a consent decree, that incorporates specific remedies will be enacted by the department. The fact sheet noted that the DOJ stays involved throughout the implementation of the remedies to ensure that meaningful and sustainable change occurs. This this process typically takes years and the police departments must comply for several years before the jurisdiction is released from federal oversight.
According to the PEW reporting, in the past three decades, the DOJ has conducted more than 70 investigations of local police departments. In the case of Ferguson, MO, the city initially rejected a 2016 consent decree because of heavy costs. When the DOJ sued them the next day, the city signed onto the 12-page consent decree a month later.
While a core group of activists has been engaged in seeking justice for Smith since 2018, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 brought about renewed interest in the case, with some in the city calling Smith, “Greensboro’s George Floyd.”
Mary Smith, Marcus Deon Smith’s mother, said that the ongoing legal battle has been tough on her and her family, who have to travel from South Carolina every few weeks to come to Greensboro.
“This has been one of the most trying times I will probably see in my lifetime,” Smith said on Thursday. “…We do not understand after three years and over why we’re still coming to Greensboro.”
In addition to announcing their letter to the DOJ, the coalition of activists stated that they are gathering stories from community members who have been harassed or brutalized by the police. As Rev. Nelson Johnson stated during the event, the idea is for the community to come together to form a “strong, disciplined justice movement.”