A Mother Watched Her Son Die in Police Custody, Now She Says the Town is Covering it up
Thursday, January 17, 2019
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Greensboro, Maryland.
A white woman called the police on two Black teens playing. It resulted in the young man’s death, and now there’s talk of a police cover-up.
This is a video of an arrest of a 16 year old African-American boy in Greensboro, Maryland. To many in the small town on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, the takedown of the juvenile, captured on cell phone, represents how policing has changed in the tight-knit community since city leaders decided to embrace proactive policing.
CHRISTINA ROBINSON: It wasn’t until this council came and members of this council said things of the nature “we need police that will be tougher on the community, tougher on the citizens.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Police would not comment on the video or why the 16 year old juvenile was taken to the ground. But to the friends of Anton Black, another young man who actually died during an arrest here, the video is yet another painful reminder of how law enforcement not only alienates the Black community but can have tragic consequences when community input is ignored.
ANTON BLACK, SR.: He landed a part in a movie. Of course, they killed him, took his life, so he won’t be in that. But we used to practice his lines and things with him. And he was going back and forth to New York on his own, 18, for different events, for commercials and stuff like that. He was really moving. And he came home to visit his mother here, and they took his life.
TAYA GRAHAM: Anton’s story begins in September, when the high school football star and track champion made a decision that for most would be inconsequential: He decided to take a walk to the park. He was joined by a 12 year old family friend, a cousin through marriage. But police say a white woman called 911 and accused Anton of abducting him, an accusation his family characterizes as absurd.
ANTON BLACK, SR.: He’s talking to a police officer. And his little friend, that is his cousin-in-law, because the boy’s cousin is married to my daughter, we’re all in the same family. They put out that he kidnapped somebody. The boy’s father summoned him and the boy told him, “He didn’t kidnap me.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Which they say is refuted by surveillance video that shows Anton and the boy approaching the patrol car where he encounters Officer Tom Webster. Officer Webster says something, and then and Anton ran. Police have not said why Anton ran, but his family thinks it may be in part because of Webster’s controversial past.
ANTON BLACK, SR.: If you see the video, it’s like it’s 1930 and they’re going to lynch him for waving at a white woman. You understand what I’m saying?
TAYA GRAHAM: Webster resigned after he was caught on video kicking this man in the face, breaking his jaw. Many in the town opposed the hiring, and the community members say since his hiring, police have been confronting young Black men.
MARY BOYCE: So it’s gotten to the place really that I tell my grandson, “Don’t be coming out at night.” It makes me feel like that I’m back in the days down South when you’re afraid to let your children, especially your Black sons, walk from your house to the store.
TAYA GRAHAM: After his encounter with Webster, Anton ran home and locked himself in a family car. Three white officers, two in plainclothes, chased him. When they arrived at his home, the family says instead of deescalating, officer Webster smashed the car window, then tased him and dragged him to the ground as he called for his mother, Jennell Black, who witnessed the struggle.
JENNELL BLACK: When I heard him scream, “Mommy, help, help me, mommy.” When I walked out through the kitchen, I saw lights, and so I turned around and I opened up the door and all these officers was on top of him. And I asked, “What are you doing?” They said, “We tried to detain him, he tried to kidnap a 12 year old boy.”
TAYA GRAHAM: She says an officer put Anton in a chokehold. Anton’s mother watched as her son’s face turned purple.
JENNELL BLACK: He had Anton in a headlock. They kept trying to handcuff him. I saw Anton kick his legs, and I did say, “Keep still.” But that was his last kick.
TAYA GRAHAM: She saw his head drop forward, then saw officers suddenly scramble to get her son out of handcuffs.
JENNELL BLACK: And I said, “He’s turning blue.” By that time they had him up against this doorway, and the one officer pulled his hair back. And when they pulled his hair back, Anton’s head just dropped. So when I saw his head drop, I saw his face.
TAYA GRAHAM: She asked officers if she could accompany Anton to the hospital, but instead, they locked her into the back of a patrol car.
JENNELL BLACK: Finally, the ambulance came, and they came and they had the machine, and they were trying to get him to breathe. And I still asked again, I must have asked them like almost ten times, “Was he under arrest?” And each time, they told me no.
TAYA GRAHAM: An indignity only heightened when police told her Anton was dead, pain made worse because the medical examiner’s office has yet to release a cause of death.
JENNELL BLACK: I was crying because I knew he was gone.
TAYA GRAHAM: His mother and sister, who spoke about the case, believe Anton was asphyxiated. His sister LaTonia viewed her brother’s body and saw signs he was strangled.
LATONIA BLACK: That night, I went to the hospital to visit Anton’s body, and they had him covered up from–well, I didn’t even see his neck–from here down. And they told us that we couldn’t touch him. But I did notice that his eyes, the white part of his eyeball, was red, bloodshot. And I know this for a fact, that if you strangle someone long enough, the vessel’s going to blow. So that was the main key that I can never forget.
TAYA GRAHAM: But the medical examiner’s office will not comment and says the investigation is still ongoing, despite the fact the details have been leaked to the press that Anton’s body had no signs of injury. But the silence of city officials has not stopped the community from fighting back. Last week, residents and relatives gathered to demand officer Webster be put on administrative leave with pay. And while they waited for the council’s decision, residents also shared stories of how the town had changed and the wounds of neglect that remain unhealed.
LATOYA HOLLEY: It’s just not right. It’s not right what they did to him. He did not deserve that. And then they lied about the reason why they stopped him in the first place, which is ridiculous. His family knew it was a lie from the beginning because we know him. I didn’t have to hang out with him every day to know my brother. I know my brother. I knew my brother would never harm any child for any reason.
TAYA GRAHAM: Emotions spilled over, fueled by the inequities and political marginalization not uncommon on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore.
SPEAKER ONE: Growing up, I was always so insecure about being Black. It was always, “Oh, the white people get worshipped, oh even the white females, and I want to be like them. But being Black is such a privilege and it’s such an amazing thing to be, and I’ve really grown into that. So it’s sad to see our young men and our young women be treated the way they are, being killed and not being returned back to their homes and everything.
TAYA GRAHAM: Residents describe the city shifting from community building to aggressive policing and a crime crackdown, a shift that estranged the Black community and perhaps precipitated the fear that prompted Anton to flee.
SPEAKER TWO: We had officers that cared that were invested. And if those officers were here on that day and they saw those two young men, knowing the history, knowing that they were friends, it would have never been misconceived to be what it was described as.
TAYA GRAHAM: Later, after the council voted to suspend the officer, The Real News asked the mayor if he regretted hiring officer Webster.
STEPHEN JANIS: There was concern about the hiring of this officer, people said that he shouldn’t have been hired. How do you respond?
JOSEPH NOON: Webster is here, right? He was here. I’m not even going to bring that up, from what happened previously. He’s here, we talked to the people, we got their demands, we answered their demands.
TAYA GRAHAM: And if the town had changed its policing strategy.
STEPHEN JANIS: Just one last question. There’s a sense that the policing has become more aggressive toward the African American community. How do you respond to that, that it precipitated this event?
JOSEPH NOON: I don’t agree with that. I don’t at all.
TAYA GRAHAM: We also asked the police chief to explain why Anton was chased, and most importantly, when the findings of the investigation would be released.
STEPHEN JANIS: What happened the day that Anton died?
MICHAEL MACKEY: We can’t say any of that. We’re supposed to find out more information tomorrow, it’s supposed to be released, everything’s supposed to be released. So when we do, everyone will get it.
STEPHEN JANIS: Are you going to release the bodycam footage?
MICHAEL MACKEY: I’m sure if the state’s attorney and the rest of say we can, we can. We wanted to do that from day one.
STEPHEN JANIS: You’ll release it to the public though?
MICHAEL MACKEY: Yep.
STEPHEN JANIS: And that’s tomorrow?
MICHAEL MACKEY: I’m not sure. We’re meeting with people tomorrow.
STEPHEN JANIS: Do you know the origin of the story that he was dragging someone?
SPEAKER THREE: I would advise not answering those questions.
TAYA GRAHAM: We also asked state police and Caroline County prosecutors, who are leading the probe, the status of the investigation. Both told us they were awaiting the autopsy from the Maryland state medical examiner’s office, a process that has dragged on for four months, which a spokesman for the office says has no specific end in sight.
LATONIA BLACK: There’s definitely somebody behind this that’s telling them to hold off, just wait a little longer. I feel like there is a lot of cover-up.
TAYA GRAHAM: So for now, his mother and his sister grieve, but also demand justice and wonder how long it will take to hold police accountable for Anton’s death, a young man whose life was full of promise.
LATONIA BLACK: It kills me that they could do something like this and not feel remorseful about it. They didn’t come to my family and say, “Oh, we’re sorry for your loss” or none of that. We didn’t get any of that.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Greensboro, Maryland.