Tragedy hit Elizabeth City, N.C., with the death of a 42-year-old Black man, Andrew Brown, Jr. He was fatally shot outside of his home by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies when they attempted to serve an arrest warrant.
“My dad got executed just trying to save his own life,” Mr. Brown’s son Khalil Ferebee told reporters outside the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office. “It ain’t right. It ain’t right at all.”
“The police didn’t have to shoot my baby,” said Martha McCullen, one of Mr. Brown’s aunts who said she raised him after his parents died, according to the Associated Press.
“Andrew Brown was a good person,” she said, her eyes teary. “He was about to get his kids back. He was a good father. Now his kids won’t never see him again.”
Exact details of what happened are fuzzy, as a judge ruled that release of body camera footage to the public will be delayed for 30 to 45 days. Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster ruled April 28 that the videos will only be disclosed to Mr. Ferebee, a few immediate family members and one attorney within 10 days.
The questionable refusal to release video footage was a major part of Rev. Al Sharpton’s eulogy May 3 during funeral services for Mr. Brown.
The civil rights leader likened handling of the Brown case to a playing card scam in New York’s Times Square. The object is to move a card or object around so that the suckers who bet on the game never find it.
Prosecutors, city, county officials and others debating about release of videotaped evidence are part of a sham, Rev. Sharpton declared.
“I know a con game when I see it. Release the whole tape and let the folk see what happened to Anthony Brown,” he said. The tape can’t prejudice the grand jury when the panel would have to see the tape anyway, he argued.
“If you got nothing to hide, what are you hiding?” he asked. “All we want is justice. We don’t want no favors; we don’t want nothing special. Just stop playing the shell game.”
“You serve warrants all the time but you don’t shoot people in the head,” the National Action Network leader said. And, Rev. Sharpton continued, talk about the record of the officers involved and the record of police abuses in North Carolina. Police officers are to bring the accused to the criminal justice system, not execute them, he said.
Brown family members and attorneys were initially shown a 20-second video of what happened. According to their words, Mr. Brown had his hands on the steering wheel of his car when he was killed. He had put his vehicle in reverse and backed out of the driveway, avoiding police, they said.
“I heard the first shot and got up, ran down here. By the time I get down there, the officers were standing behind where he was trying to get away,” said Mr. Brown’s neighbor, Demetria Williams, who witnessed the events. She said officers were standing in the driveway, and just started shooting. After they shot at him, Mr. Brown’s vehicle crashed into a tree.
“When he landed, he was already slumped over, and they snatched him out of the car and did chest compressions.”
The family and attorneys commissioned a private autopsy.
Results show Mr. Brown was shot five times, with a fatal bullet wound to the back of the head, according to the family lawyers.
Mr. Brown was killed less than 24 hours after a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd, whose death one year ago brought racial unrest to America.
“It’s an ugly horror movie that we keep seeing replayed over and over again, I would probably say, since America has been America. So I’m hurt. I’m hurt. I’m hurt every time I see it, and I can’t believe that we’re still here, having to deal with this blatant racist, ugly murdering of Black people by so-called law enforcement,” said Rev. Curtis Gatewood, founder of The Stop Killing Us Solutions Campaign.
He and his wife traveled three hours from Burlington, N.C. to Elizabeth City to fight for justice for Mr. Brown. They booked a hotel room, which ended up being the same hotel room that Mr. Brown stayed in for several months before moving to the home where he was killed.
He said the two places protesters gathered the most were the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office in downtown Elizabeth City. The city has seen nonstop peaceful protests, as family and activists demand transparency and accountability.
Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie Parker declared a state of emergency and curfew, which led to the arrest of protesters, including Rev. Gatewood.
“I thought it was an insult to injury,” he said. Rev. Gatewood also called it a violation of the constitutional right to peaceful protest.
During an April 28 hearing on release of body camera footage, District Attorney Andrew Womble said law enforcement opened fire only after Mr. Brown’s car came in contact with them. A search warrant that was made available to the public said Mr. Brown was selling cocaine, crack, meth and heroin. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the killing, and the FBI has launched a federal civil rights investigation.
Rev. Gatewood is skeptical of what that means.
“The sad thing about it is, it’s all a part of the systemic problem. Unfortunately, we’re under attack from a systemic form of White supremacy, a systemic form of White terrorism. So the fact that one part of the White supremacist system might investigate, sometimes, to me it’s kind of like the wolf coming to the henhouse and the hens having to depend on the wolves to investigate themselves,” he said.
Initially, seven deputies were placed on leave, two resigned and one retired. Four of the deputies who were placed on leave, Lt. Steven Judd, Sgt. Michael Swindell, Sgt. Kenneth Bishop and Sgt. Joel Lunsford, have since returned to active duty. The three deputies who fired their weapons, Investigator Daniel Meads, Deputy Sheriff II Robert Morgan and Cpl. Aaron Lewellyn, are still on leave.
“I feel like when there’s an abrupt retirement or something happens when there’s some type of murder or misconduct, these police officers are resigning or retiring so they can keep their pension. I’ve worked on several cases here in North Carolina, and I’m noticing a pattern, a troubling pattern of conduct which lacks accountability and transparency, and it’s all tied to the system of racism and White supremacy,” said David Bell, founder of the Indy Left Pac, to The Final Call.
Elizabeth City lies in eastern North Carolina, which he said is a hotbed for corruption. He pointed to White state trooper William A. Hardison as an example. In 2010, Trooper Hardison tased a Black man, Clayton Earl James, several times during a traffic stop, resulting in his death. Another Black man, Sheldon Dancy, said the trooper assaulted him in 2011, causing him to get 19 stitches in his head. Then in 2016, the trooper killed 18-year-old Kinston, N.C. resident Derianté Deon Miller.
“Derianté was murdered in March of 2016. The body cam and the public records law went into effect on October 1 of 2016, but I have the documents where the sheriff’s department used that law retroactively to deny access to those public records. So they basically broke their own law that didn’t even exist at the time to deny justice and transparency,” Mr. Bell said.
“In 2016, North Carolina changed the state law around police body camera footage and how it’s released. And as part of those changes, it now requires a court order from a Superior Court judge to order the release of that footage, and that’s for public release. There’s also a part of that law that allows the disclosure of body cam footage to a number of entities, or parties, some of which are people who are captured on body camera footage, some would be representatives of those, a representative or family member of someone who is either incapacitated or no longer living,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard of the ACLU of North Carolina.
He said the judge’s ruling on the body camera footage in Mr. Brown’s case “seemed to place unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions on the family’s ability to have the representation that they think is appropriate with them when they’re viewing that footage.”
Activists are pushing for a law that would require body camera footage be released within 48 hours unless a law enforcement agency asks a court to delay its distribution.
Rev. Kirsten John Foy, president and CEO of The Arc of Justice, has been working with the family, working with community leaders and working with the attorneys to hold Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten accountable for the actions of his officers and the county accountable for the lack of transparency.
“The public has a right to know what transpires. The reason that they use their taxpayer dollars, the reason that we as taxpayers purchased these cameras, the reason why we as voters elect people to mandate their use is so that we can have direct access; unfettered, unfiltered, unadulterated access to the truth,” Rev. Foy told The Final Call. “And the sheriff and the county attorney and the district attorney of Pasquotank County have all been complicit in the denial of transparency and the disrespect of the Brown family, the disrespect of Elizabeth City residents and voters, and the disrespect of Pasquotank County voters and citizens.”
He believes the footage holds incriminating evidence against the deputies involved in the death of Mr. Brown.
And, he said, White supremacy and White privilege need to be uprooted from law enforcement and public safety needs to be reimagined, including investing in community resources and infrastructure, taking a preventative approach to crime and building infrastructure that emphasizes mental wellness and wholeness.
Rev. Gatewood said the standards of becoming a police officer need to be raised, including having a background check for White supremacist affiliations. “We have some police officers who are Confederacy sympathizers, who are part of the Proud Boys, who are a part of the KKK, neo-Nazi and a lot of White supremacist terrorist groups,” he said.
Kerwin Pittman, a social justice activist out of North Carolina, has been on the ground in Elizabeth City, helping with strategy, organization and mobilization.
“To continue to see this level of violence plaguing Black males from law enforcement is extremely, extremely disturbing, heartbreaking, but sad to say, not nothing new. At this point it’s just hashtag who else name would go there,” he said.
Whether deputies fired a shot or not, all of them need to be held accountable, he added.
Kathy Greggs of the Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Task Force has been in Elizabeth City since the first day of protests.
“I love the fact that Elizabeth City and the communities are coming together, and the citizens are coming out. More activist groups (are) coming out to assist with the awareness to show everybody what’s going on,” she told The Final Call.
She said there are bad apples on every level of law enforcement and government in the area. “We need an investigation, and we need to get (Attorney General) Josh Stein out,” she said. “We need to get Governor (Roy) Cooper out. We need to get all the Black officials in every county out of office for allowing injustice acts against people, period.”
She believes Black people must unite in order to continue to survive.
“You must have a war to get peace,” she said. “So if we don’t think in our mind that we are in a warzone as Black people, I don’t know what to tell us, because we will continue to be in it until we get in our minds the discipline of understanding how to fight on this battlefield.”