Theresa Carter doesn’t believe police claims that her son shot himself to death with his hands cuffed behind his back in a police cruiser.
She is hurting and wants to know what happened in the last moments of life for 21-year-old Chavis Carter, who died in the custody of Jonesboro, Ark., police after a traffic stop. A growing number of people also want the truth and others believe the young Black man was killed by police. The suicide story, they say, is ludicrous.
“I’m just heartbroken. I just want to know what really happened. ... My child was never suicidal. He would never kill himself. My son was full of joy, full of life, full of ambition,” Ms. Carter somberly yet emphatically told The Final Call in an exclusive interview.
There is a growing movement to get the truth about the death of Chavis Carter with Facebook pages calling for justice, an online petition and a prayer vigil scheduled for August 20 at the National Civil Rights Museum to press demands for justice and the story of what happened. At Final Call presstime, the Department of Justice was scheduled to hold a community forum at Greater Dimension Church, Jonesboro, Ark., on August 14.
Some five hours after the shooting, police said Chavis, who is left-handed, shot himself in the right temple after being searched twice, Ms. Carter said.
Her son’s father and two brothers are also having difficulty coping, she added. “A day don’t go by I don’t cry. I’m just trying to be strong and hold up. I just want justice served,” she added. The mother was resolute after a Sunday evening vigil Aug. 12 for her son in Tunica, Miss.
“It’s a case that begs to be looked at and we’re going to look and see if we can tell exactly what really happened that night,” said family attorney Russell Marlin of the Cochran Firm. The lawyer called the case one of the oddest police custody incidents he has ever looked at.
As answers are awaited, police don’t know when forensics results will be ready but have requested priority on the case, Chief Michael Yates said in an Aug. 10 e-mail to The Final Call. Without the results, the chief said no further information could be released.
Authorities say Chavis Carter and two men were stopped by Jonesboro police July 29 for driving erratically. Police allegedly found marijuana, small plastic bags and drug paraphernalia in the vehicle and on Mr. Carter, in the back seat. He was searched twice, arrested for an outstanding warrant and placed in a police car. The other two people involved, both of whom were White, were let go, officers said.
While officers were not looking, they say Mr. Carter shot himself with hands behind his back.
Two days after his burial, the Tunica NAACP hosted a prayer vigil Aug. 6 where friends of Chavis Carter waved posters that read, “Am I Next?” and “Justice for Chavis.” More rallies and vigils are planned, according to Kareem Ali, an activist and member of the Nation of Islam’s Study Group in South Haven, Mississippi.
The Carter family is asking the community to keep them in prayer, share what they know, and stay vigilant for the truth, according to Mr. Ali.
“I met the aunt of Chavis Carter and I consoled her as she was in tears. She said, ‘Ya’ll don’t stop fighting! Don’t stop fighting!’ It was the moment I knew that we had to help this family,” Mr. Ali said.
He is helping to organize the upcoming prayer vigil at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Mr. Ali suggested the museum, the former Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered, as a good location for the mid-South.
Meanwhile a website to increase awareness about the case is in the works, a petition demanding justice has been launched on Change.org and a Justice for Chavis Carter Facebook page has been created.
Fear of a police cover-up
Shortly before the shooting, Mr. Carter called his cell phone, said Demetris Itson, his best friend. He regrets not picking up.
“I don’t know if he called to say, ‘Hey man, I’m in trouble,’ or ‘They’re fixing to do something to me.’ I don’t know what he wanted and that’s something that bothers me day in and day out,” Mr. Itson said.
He dismissed police claims his friend’s cell phone text messages showed Chavis Carter may have had a gun for use in a drug deal before the fatal incident. “I think it’s all crap because they’re just trying to cover themselves up. Chavis was nothing like that. He may have smoked a little marijuana here and there but it wasn’t an everyday thing. He wasn’t a drug abuser or dealer with guns. That’s preposterous! That’s not true,” he told The Final Call.
Young men go through a lot of trials in life but Chavis wasn’t going through anything so bad that he’d just kill himself, Mr. Itson said.
The two met in high school, where Chavis was a good friend and good hearted jokester, always laughing and smiling through life’s struggles, he continued.
Police Chief Yates stands by the suicide story, telling a major media outlet, “The average person who has never been in handcuffs, that never been around inmates or people in custody would react exactly the same way you just did: ‘How could that be possible?’ Well, fact of it is, it’s very possible. It’s quite easy.” The chief declined Final Call interview requests.
The police are padding, trying to introduce by innuendo the question or likelihood Mr. Carter had a gun, said an 18-year veteran police officer, who asked to remain anonymous. A crucial question is whether authorities ran gun powder residue tests on Mr. Carter and the officers, he said.
“If they did not, that’s criminal negligence on the part of a police agency but the likelihood he had a gun versus he had a gun is two different things,” the officer said.
The officer also questioned the text messages police say were sent, asking what were the date and time stamps and asked why police moved the gun.
A systemic, historical pattern
Friends talk often about police harassment for petty issues in Jonesboro, Mr. Itson said. “They pull you over for nonsense and they want to take you to jail for every little thing, like, in the Black community. I can just be pulling out of my friend’s driveway and police will claim it’s a drug transaction,” he said.
Mr. Carter’s shooting exemplifies a national trend of rogue officers ignoring police protocols, said Bishop Tavis Grant, national field director for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, based in Chicago.
Black respect for and confidence in police across the South is at an all time low and tensions are at an all time high, including in Jonesboro, Bishop Grant said.
Tensions seen during the civil rights movement have resurfaced with Blacks fearful and officers in more militarized departments, he said.
Reports of Blacks being pulled over and frisked without probable cause or accused of speeding when driving below the limit have led Rainbow PUSH to seek Justice Department intervention, Bishop Grant said.
A federal probe could help defuse tension, which is likely to grow, he said. People drift to other measures when they don’t feel law enforcement represents their best interest, Bishop Grant said.
The destruction of property and rioting brought an arrest in the Rodney King Case, just as with Oscar Grant, said Cephus Johnson, whose nephew was fatally shot in the back by a transit officer on January 1, 2009. He was lying face down, restrained by two officers with his hands behind his back. His death resulted in the first time a peace officer in California stood trial and was convicted for killing someone in the line of duty.
“It just goes to show it just can’t be a family crying and hoping the Department of Justice or police department is actually going to arrest this officer. It’s just not going to happen,” Mr. Johnson said.
National problem of police violence?
“This pattern is being painted along with a portrait across the country that in particular African American males are violent. They are suspect. They are subject to a lower threshold as relates to credibility, integrity and truthfulness, and it’s just unconscionable for this young brother to be killed, handcuffed, and now for it to be alleged that he had a handgun,” Bishop Grant said.
The Chavis Carter shooting comes in a long line, which includes Trayvon Martin, shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., and Rakia Boyd, killed by an off-duty officer in Chicago, Illinois, said Dr. Ruby Sales, a civil rights movement veteran and founder of the SpiritHouse Project. The SpiritHouse Project is a Georgia-based, national non-profit organization that advocates racial, economic and social justice through arts, research, education and action.
Police are being used as a means of social control to keep Blacks in their places and maintain White domination, Dr. Sales said.
Tactics used during segregation have resurfaced, such as in the case of Billey Joe Johnson, Jr., who died under similar suspicious circumstances in Lucedale, Miss. three years ago, she said. The Black star athlete was destined for college at 17 but during a traffic stop, shot himself in the head with a shotgun, according to police.
No charges were filed against the deputy involved but his parents insist he had been weighing recruitment letters before committing to Auburn, and did not commit suicide.
Police feel free to circulate outlandish stories and rationales because Blacks have been complacent, said Dr. Sales.
“We’ve accepted these things and we get into debating characters of people rather than the justice issue and the act of police terrorism and murder,” she continued.
Since Blacks believe they are inferior, the environment is fertile for these kinds of murders, she told The Final Call.
Whites reconsolidated power 50 years after every freedom movement in America, said Dr. Sales. It happened after Black Reconstruction, the turn of America into segregation, at the end of the abolitionist movement and after the Black resistance movement in the South, she noted.
“White people never gave up their vision of White supremacy; they just put in place laws that would keep Black people in our places. We were so high on freedom and the delusions of freedom that we for a moment let down our guards and the next thing we knew we were in it,” said Dr. Sales.
“People believed the rhetoric, that we had reached freedom land and there was no more work to do. Women stopped doing race work. Scholars began teaching in White schools and left Black schools unattended.”
Now is an opportunity for the Black community to renew common connections and draw on cultural resources that allowed survival under segregation and Blacks kept their dignity, Dr. Sales added.
Police brutality and police murders date back to America’s murder of slaves, said Carl Dix, co-founder of the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, a New York-based group which works to expose police brutality. Lynch mobs took on the murderous role after slavery and recently the police have, he said.
Law enforcement killed 2,000 people in the 1990s alone, 80 percent of them unarmed Blacks and Latinos, the October 22 Coalition reported. The numbers stem from research by grassroots organizations, not governmental agencies, federal police nor city agencies, Mr. Dix said.
Far too often, the police get off if they’re even charged and all too often, they’re not charged, he noted. And victims weren’t doing anything that could be considered even remotely illegal, Mr. Dix said.
Law enforcement’s excuse would be they mistook keys, cell phones, cigarette lighters or candy bars for a gun but the Carter shooting is especially outrageous because officers claim he pointed a gun to his head while handcuffed behind his back, Mr. Dix continued.
“Everybody who heard that should put their hands behind their back, try to lift their arms and try to figure out from that position how they could put their hand up to their head,” he said.
And supposing Mr. Carter did manage to put his hand up to his head, where did the gun come from? he asked. “But that’s how bold and in our face law enforcement is with what they do to us,” Mr. Dix said.