Hog-tied and left on the ground to die

November 26, 2018

Bri M., Ryan Tardiff and Chris Black report from Greensboro on a struggle to expose the truth about how police killed a homeless man — and win some measure of justice.

FAMILY AND friends are working with activists to win justice for Marcus Deon Smith, who was suffocated to death by police in Greensboro, North Carolina, in September.

Smith was apparently suffering a mental health episode at the time and asked police for help. Instead, they detained him, although they did not place him under arrest. Smith panicked, and police responded by hog-tying him. They left him face down, and he suffocated to death. He was pronounced dead on arrival when he was finally taken to a hospital.

At a press conference on November 14, Smith’s family members and their lawyer, along with Marcus Hyde of the Homeless Union of Greensboro, read statements, answered questions, issued demands to the Greensboro City Council and expressed their frustration with the way Marcus’ death has been handled.

Marcus Deon Smith's mother Mary Smith (left) and sister Kim Suber (center) address reporters
Marcus Deon Smith's mother Mary Smith (left) and sister Kim Suber (center) address reporters (Jordan Green | Triad City Beat)

“Being a mother, this is pain I will have to endure for the rest of my life,” said Mary Smith, Smith’s mother. “I buried my child and didn’t even know why.”

THE 38-year-old Smith was a beloved member of Greensboro’s Interactive Resource Center (IRC), a day center for individuals experiencing homelessness, where he often donated his time cutting hair as a talented barber.

On September 8, he was apparently walking in and out of traffic before asking police to help him. After repeated requests, the police eventually called an ambulance. But according to police reports, he was detained, in spite of not committing any crime, and placed in a police car.

Family members say they have since learned that when Marcos panicked and began to kick, he was pulled back out of the car and tossed to the ground. Police bound him with a “hobble tie,” binding feet and hands behind him, with each connected together. Left like this on his stomach, Smith suffocated.

At the press conference, attorney Graham Holt pointed out that “[p]eople have died all over the country from being hog-tied in police custody. The term is positional asphyxiation. Being in that position makes it difficult to breathe. Basically, they die from not getting enough oxygen.”

Greensboro police naturally took no responsibility for Smith’s death. Afterward, the department issued a one-paragraph statement claiming that Smith had died after he “became combative and collapsed.”

Had it not been for the efforts of local activists and friends of Smith, known also to the community at the IRC as “Scar,” this case likely would have been swept under the rug. The Homeless Union of Greensboro was one of the first to cast doubt on police reports, noting discrepancies with the police claim that Smith was “suicidal” and the statement of friends and community members that he never showed any signs of this.

OPPONENTS OF police violence in Greensboro stress that Marcus was never placed under arrest and that he himself asked for help while suffering a mental health crisis.

Greensboro police been criticized in the past for lack of preparation to respond to mental health calls. The department hasn’t reached out to mental health professionals for training on how to de-escalate encounters with people undergoing a crisis.

At the press conference, Smith’s sister, Kim Suber, underlined this failure, pleading for police to “[f]orget about the uniform, can you just be human for a second and help him? Just care for him and let him see that it’s going to be okay.”

Rev. Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center and a member of the Poor People’s Campaign of North Carolina, stated: “Poor people are treated differently. It’s baked into the culture of the United States of America, so in some sense, we are struggling against this culture.”

In Greensboro, police brutality and cover-ups are commonplace. Members of the community who spoke at the press conference expressed concern about the numbers of deaths that involve police and anger at the department’s lack of action.

According Johnson, there are multiple cases in the past couple years where police killing a Greensboro resident body-cam footage being withheld from the public. Greensboro police have also been exposed for having ties to the Ku Klux Klan. The department went so far as far to protect the imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights, Christopher Barker.

Smith’s family and the Homeless Union of Greensboro have put forward demands that police release video footage of violent encounters. They also want a clear answer as to whether or not officers are trained to hog-tie individuals.

Yet after the passionate words of the family, the department and the city of Greensboro were unmoved.

Before the press conference, a police spokesperson stated: “All methods of restraint used are within the national standards.” Afterward, the department said its investigation was concluded pending completion of an autopsy, and there was no wrongdoing.

Community leaders and organizations have committed to continuing to organize, but as with all police brutality cases, it remains an uphill struggle. The demands for the release the video of the incident and for hog-tying to be banned, have started the movement in a positive direction, but it remains to be seen how far this fight will go.

The victory achieved in Chicago when the police killer of Laquan McDonald was sent to jail shows that bold demands can be won and police held accountable, but this persistence and mobilization, not just in the courtroom, but in the streets as well.

Marcus Deon Smith’s death shows that the fight against police brutality involves broader struggles as well, such as the right to safe, affordable housing; access to mental health services; and response networks that don’t result in people suffering a crisis being hog-tied, but getting them the care they need.

Organizing for the release of the video footage and for an indictment of the officers involved in Marcus’ death will be important rallying points to both give confidence to his family in their fight for justice, and to mobilize the broader forces needed to push back against Greensboro’s history of racist police violence.

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