Another reason to question whether black lives matter in Mississippi

July 28, 2015
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Almost a thousand people attended the open-casket funeral of Jonathan Sanders at the Family Life Center Church. ALAN CHIN

STONEWALL, Mississippi – A vociferous debate has shaken the country this past year over the succession of killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri.; in Staten Island, New York; in Cleveland, Ohio; in Baltimore, Maryland; and in too many other cities. Comfortable assumptions have been challenged by stark realities of race and inequality. On July 8, it happened again, when Jonathan Sanders, 39, who was black, had a deadly encounter with a white police officer in this small town.

The abandoned Burlington Industries cotton mill looms over the main street of this town of 1,100. Opened in 1868 and shuttered in 2002, its 850 factory jobs have never returned. Clarke County is covered with the lush vegetation and rusting iron bridges (next to newer but more pedestrian concrete structures) that characterize the rural South. The closest city to Stonewall — named after Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — is Meridian, and that’s significantly smaller than it once was, having lost 10,000 residents over the last few decades.

Although the interstate highway is a dozen miles away, it feels much further, as Stonewall isn’t big or rich enough to have a Wal-Mart or a McDonald’s or any of the other ubiquitous mainstays of contemporary America. The only businesses are a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, two gas stations, and some smaller shops.

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Because it gets so intensely hot in the Mississippi summer, everybody knew that Sanders, a horse trainer, exercised his animals at night. According to lawyers C. J. Lawrence and Chokwe A. Lumumba, who were retained by his family from the state capital of Jackson, Sanders was out shortly before 10 p.m. on July 8, when he came across a friend, a white man in a car, who teased him about his slow-moving horse-and-buggy.

The two bantered for a few moments and then Officer Kevin Herrington, a part-time cop accompanied by his wife Kasey, appeared in a police cruiser and pulled the friend over at the Cefco gas station. Sanders, who was black, called out to the officer, who is white, “Why don’t you leave that man alone?” and continued riding along.

Last weekend at the scene, attorneys Lawrence and Lumumba reenacted what they believe happened, based on what they said witnesses told them: A few minutes after the first encounter, Herrington caught up with Sanders on a quiet and dark side street a mile away. He flicked his flashing lights on and the startled horse bucked, throwing Sanders down onto the yard of a modest trailer-house. As Sanders rose and tried to regain control of his horse, Herrington leapt out of the police car and grabbed Sanders from behind, using the strap of Sanders’ miner’s style headlamp that had fallen from his forehead to his neck. The police officer pulled his suspect to the ground, restraining him with a chokehold.

Three witnesses watched from the house less than 20 feet away. One of them, identified by Clarke County Sheriff Todd Kemp as Rachel Williams, a prison guard and distant relative of Sanders, was at a window trying to get mobile phone reception to make a call when the incident began, and so had an immediately clear view.

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Accounts then dramatically diverge. Herrington’s lawyer, Bill Ready, Jr., says, “Mr. Sanders tried to run. Officer Herrington grabbed him and a wrestling match ensued, and Sanders succeeded in getting the gun out of the officer’s holster. The unfortunate situation developed where Mr. Sanders died.”

Lawrence and Lumumba, citing the witnesses, say that Sanders did not struggle, and that Williams, the prison guard, came out to try and help. Herrington, worried about his gun, asked his wife to secure it. But she did not know how to do so and Williams had to explain how to get the weapon out of its holster safely, which Kasey Herrington then did.

Precious seconds and minutes passed with Herrington’s arms around Sanders’ neck. The witnesses heard Sanders say, “I can’t breathe” twice and Williams wanted to administer CPR when Sanders passed out. But Herrington did not permit any intervention, continuing the chokehold for 20 minutes. Sanders was dead by the time backup finally arrived, according to the Sanders family attorneys.

Ready, Herrington’s lawyer, asserts that Herrington stopped Sanders “due to a suspected drug transaction.” How the policeman came to that conclusion at night based on an initially casual encounter has not been revealed. And Lawrence and Lumumba also say that the officer was overheard at the gas station saying that he was “going to get that nigger.” That would be basis for a Federal civil rights case, and the FBI has joined the investigation.

Sanders had an outstanding civil suit against the police department, charging harassment. He also had a criminal record involving drugs, but was clear of any warrants when he was killed. He was unarmed.

The state medical examiner’s report showed that Sanders died of homicide by manual asphyxiation, according to Lumumba and Lawrence; the chokehold killed him. Herrington is on unpaid administrative leave, and Stonewall’s police chief, Michael Street, says that he didn’t have any complaints filed against him in the two years that he’s been on the force. But in the neighboring town of Enterprise, where Herrington also works as a police officer, a motorist wrote letters to both the mayor and the police chief describing harassment after being pulled over multiple times by Herrington, according to the Associated Press.

District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell told a town hall meeting in Stonewall that there has never been an indictment in the 15 cases involving a death by law enforcement that he’s been involved with in his 28-year career across the four counties he serves, including Stonewall’s Clarke County.

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Sanders’ funeral was held July 18, at the Family Life Center Church in the neighboring town of Quitman. Called “homegoing” in African-American tradition, nearly a thousand people gathered to pray, listen to reminiscences from relatives and friends, and sing. The hall was so crowded that despite air-conditioning, lady ushers wearing long white dresses had to cool distraught family members with cardboard fans.

In front of Sanders’ open casket, some spoke with anger and indignation. There was little doubt for those in attendance, that Sanders race played a role in his death. The state representative for Meridian, Charles L. Young, Jr., said, “Jonathan has given us a charge to right Mississippi. We must stand up to correct this wrong.”

Kirby Pugh, a young woman wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with “#JusticeForJonathan,” declared, “We will no longer take this! We will no longer sit aside!”

And Lumumba assured the crowd that “We are going to get justice for Jonathan. We are going to endure, and we are going to fight. We have nothing to lose.”

There were perhaps five white people in the assembly of nearly a thousand. Stonewall is almost 70 percent white. The entire black community of Stonewall, reinforced from near and afar had gathered to mourn Sanders.

“People are scared, they don’t want to say anything. But there’s a big issue with racism here, and there are no jobs, ” Melissa Ann Johnson, a distant cousin of Sanders’, said.

After the service, the funeral procession numbered more than 100 cars, stretched out in a long line over the highway, baking in the sun. Police cars cleared traffic and closed off intersections. A pedestrian and another man sitting atop a lawnmower placed their hats on their chests in salute as the cars slowly passed.

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The next day, Sunday afternoon, Lawrence and Lumumba led a rally and march from the baseball field near where Sanders died to the Stonewall police station and back. Between 200 and 300 hundred people braved fire ants in the dirt and the 95-degree heat to congregate for the third such demonstration in two weeks.

Lawrence Kirksey, the president of the Clarke County NAACP chapter, called for a black boycott of local businesses. Bullhorn in hand, Lawrence communed with the protesters: “Being black in the U.S.A. is uncomfortable every day. Why is it that we have to have campaigns just to have an indictment? There is hate in that.”

Once again, there were fewer than 10 white people in the crowd. One of them, Martin Todd Allen, a progressive minister who had come from Jackson with a small group of LGBT activists to show solidarity, said, regarding the lack of white participation, “this is not representative… so there’s a callousness.”

Clarke County is in the heart of a landscape infamous for dark episodes of racist terrorism and violence. In 1918, two black men and two pregnant black women were hanged from a bridge in a mass lynching, and 25 years later, two black teenage boys were hanged from the same bridge. The 1964 murder of the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, happened just half an hour’s drive away.

Mississippi — especially respectable Mississippi — would like to relegate this baleful legacy to the history books. But judging from the disparity between the numbers of black and white people who came out for Jonathan Sanders, segregation in this small corner of Mississippi is deep and persistent. Herrington, a white police officer, killed Sanders, an unarmed black man, with a chokehold. That he did so isn’t only a tragedy, it’s the inevitable result of that callousness engendered by a segregated society.

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Nicole Holloway, Sanders’ sister (L), is embraced by her mother Frances Sanders. ALAN CHIN

Frances Sanders, Sanders’ mother, thanked all who had come to her son’s homegoing and the protests. She said, “He is my son and I loved him and he didn’t deserve to die. There ain’t but one policeman who came to offer his condolences and he was black. So don’t tell me it wasn’t racism. We got a long way to go.”

2 comments

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You can find these stories in Chicago, Oakland, Buffalo, Detroit, East Palo Alto, Los Angeles, etc. I trust you will follow up with a story from another region in this country.

Posted by hindenburg | Report as abusive

20 minute choke-hold means you don’t know how to put handcuffs on somebody. Which means…. you shouldn’t be a cop.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive