Greensboro can’t sweep police murder under the rug

December 10, 2018

Alan Hedrick, Chris Black, Ryan Tardiff and Robert Wilson report on the growing movement to hold Greensboro police accountable for the death of Marcus Deon Smith.

THE SWELLING public support behind Marcus Deon Smith, a man killed by the police after being hogtied in Greensboro, North Carolina, this fall, yielded its first successes in early December.

An autopsy report from the state’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner concluded that Smith’s death was a direct result of police conduct, and shortly thereafter, the city of Greensboro released a graphic video of the incident. These developments have further inflamed public sentiment against the police and city officials.

There’s a long history of sweeping cases of police brutality under the rug in Greensboro, so simply getting access to evidence of police misconduct and having it confirmed by the state is considered a victory in and of itself.

Marcus Deon Smith's sister Kim Suber (center) and father George Smith demand justice
Marcus Deon Smith's sister Kim Suber (center) and father George Smith demand justice

This time around, however, the community wants more than acknowledgment — it demands justice. Spearheaded primarily by the Homeless Union of Greensboro and faith leaders, activists and clergy have succeeded in building broad enough awareness to elicit some response from city officials.

THE VIDEO released by the Greensboro Police Department (warning: the video is disturbing) begins with chief of police Wayne Scott describing to viewers what they are about to see, editorializing liberally to justify his troopers’ conduct. It’s no wonder that many activists are now pushing for him to be fired.

The video shows nine police officers detaining and then hogtying Marcus Smith as he repeatedly pleads with the officers that he is not resisting, a refrain he repeats until his last breath. Anyone with eyes and a shred of empathy will agree with the Chief Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, which ruled the incident a homicide.

Following the medical examiner’s report, the city council organized a small meeting on December 2 intended for select community leaders. Activists had something else in mind, inviting themselves to the meeting to confront the council.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan urged the crowd to remember that “homicide does not mean murder,” a refrain repeated over and over again. She also told the audience that the city often takes up to three years to release body-camera footage, commending herself and the city for expediting the process.

Council members were also quick to point out that Smith had drugs in his system and heart disease — an attempt to deflect blame from police. The mayor and council members Michelle Kennedy and Sharon Hightower discussed the willingness of the council to create a mental-health response team that would be embedded within the police force.

Councilperson Goldie Wells explicitly said she didn’t think the video depicted an act of police brutality. “It didn’t look like a murder to me,” she said of the footage. “The men were saying, ‘Come on buddy, calm down...If they kicked him around and said ‘n*****’ do this or get in here, I would have felt they were being brutal to him, but they were not.”

Members of the community raised a myriad of issues surrounding this particular case as well as the high frequency of police violence in Greensboro generally.

The next day, community activists and faith leaders held a community meeting at Shiloh Baptist Church. After replaying the video, Marcus’ sister Kim Suber said that “this video breaks my heart, hearing...him gasping for breath.”

Although the police and paramedics weren’t present at this meeting, Ms. Suber addressed “each and every police officer, each and every paramedic that was there,” saying: “You failed your profession. There was no compassion.”

Calls for firing the police officers, the paramedics and the police chief were frequent and loud. Demands coming from the crowd also included the indictment of those responsible for Smith’s death and the formation of a special mental-health response team staffed by social workers, instead of the police department.

AFTER THE meeting at Shiloh Baptist, the community turned its attention to a city council meeting the follow night. During the public-comment period, the passion and fury of the night before returned. Calls for the firing of the chief of police, the firing and indictment of the officers on the scene, and other complaints and requests were raised.

One after an other, community members raised concerns about Smith’s treatment, with at least two comparing it to a “public lynching.” The senior class president at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black research university in Greensboro, described how her years at A&T had been marked by yearly trips to the city council to protest the killing of Black bodies by the police.

Cherizar Crippen, a local organizer and member of the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Committee, noted she was unable to speak out about issues raised in meetings of the Police Review Board (PRB) because all members were threatened with jail time and fines if they shared details of investigations, past or present.

“Reforming the police department through these means would be nothing short of a magic trick,” Crippen said. “There aren’t a few bad apples in the police, there’s a bad orchard, and it stretches back into policing’s inception.”

Other community members agreed. Another speaker, Irving Allen, said that the Non-Disclosure Agreement is, according to a lawyer he had look at it, one of the harshest he’d even seen.

A theme arising from the many speakers was how to reduce the role of the police in responding to mental health crises. Billy Belcher, a member of local grassroots organization Working-Class and Homeless Organizing Alliance (WHOA), opposed this, saying that it’s a mistake to put more money “in hands that will not even notice when they’ve choked the life out of you.”

In response to the public comments, the city council members variously attempted to quell the opposition, alternating between tacit support and open hostility. Council member Sharon Hightower described Smith’s death as a “horrible sign of oppression” of people of color.

Council member Marikay Abuzuaiter, on the other hand, known for working with police to surveil protests, began her remarks by noting that according to doctors she consulted, the drug MDMA has been known to give people “superhuman strength” — in another attempt to absolve police of responsibility for Smith’s death.

Abuzuaiter’s remarks were shouted down multiple times, with one local activist yelling over her to say: “They murdered someone, this is the time to judge them!”

WHERE THE movement will go next to win justice for Smith remains an open question. The community is planning more vigils and protests, and local activists, faith leaders and community members will continue to keep the pressure on elected officials and police.

The level of anger remains high, and yet a concerted campaign with clear demands and targets has yet to cohere. The struggle against police brutality in Greensboro, as in most places, is a longstanding one, and the collective memory of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre still haunts the community.

In their analysis of the movement that brought Chicago killer cop Jason Van Dyke to justice for the murder of Black teenager Laquan McDonald, Todd St Hill and Brian Bean wrote: “Grassroots mobilizations for justice are essential — in the short term to win justice for Laquan, but also in the longer term to build organizations and the kind of power that can challenge the racism of city institutions and advance toward abolishing prisons, ICE and the police in general.”

Organizations of this type are taking shape in Greensboro, including the Homeless Union, WHOA, Southerners On New Ground (SONG), not to mention the many veteran activists and organizations that have been on the ground for decades.

The next steps will surely include these organizations coming together around a comprehensive list of demands and plans to draw together all those outraged at Smith’s death to win meaningful change in the city.

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