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AllEyesOnDC

Building a Black Nation, One Post at a Time

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April 2016

Questions Linger in Alonzo Smith Case

On May 1st, also known as May Day, six months would have passed since Special Police officers allegedly murdered Alonzo F. Smith, a D.C.-area teacher’s aide, on the grounds of Marbury Plaza Apartments, perched on the hills of Good Hope Road in Southeast.

Though the altercation, the culmination of which was caught on a police body camera, placed a spotlight on local law enforcement protocol and sparked a grassroots movement for community control of police, a secret grand jury proceeding and what seems like political maneuvering by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and public officials threaten the possibility that the responsible parties will be held accountable.

Whatever the outcome, life has gone on for Marbury Plaza residents. Somewhat unaffected by Smith’s death, many have chosen to move rather than challenge the status quo. Edgar Greene, a local artist who has lived in Marbury Plaza for nearly two years, described such an outlook as a byproduct of living in an increasingly hostile environment. For this interview, he used a pseudonym.

“In the days and weeks leading up the incident, we saw quasi-SWAT gear come out; bulletproof vests and all of that,” Greene told AllEyesOnDC, noting other changes on the grounds of the apartment, including the shuttering of the community pool and demolition of a playground. “You could just tell the security unit was looking for something. They always had an edge about them. They wanted an excuse to pick on someone,” he added.

Greene recalled hearing his roommate speak about hearing Smith’s screams for help as he ran down numerous flights of steps, out through the back door of their apartment and across the parking lot into the building where officers finally detained him. In the weeks after his death, rumors have also circulated about officers pulling Smith out of a car.

Beyond that, not much has come to surface about what transpired before Smith’s detainment and ultimate death. In a statement issued days after, MPD said they received three emergency calls from Marbury Plaza in the early morning hours of Nov. 1st, including one for an assault in progress. Upon arriving on the scene, they said they found an unconscious, handcuffed Smith lying face down in the stairwell of the apartment with Special Police officers standing over his lifeless body. In those critical minutes, medics failed to resuscitate him through the application of CPR.

Smith was later pronounced dead at United Medical Center.

The D.C. Office of the Medical Examiner ruled Smith’s death a homicide, citing “acute cocaine toxicity while restrained” and “compression of the torso” among key causes. On the night of his arrest, Special Police officers told MPD officials that he may have been under the influence of K2, a brand of synthetic marijuana. That claim remains unsubstantiated.

Before his death, Smith, 27, had plans of completing his second anthology of poetry and continuing his undergraduate studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He also had stints as a portrait model. At his funeral, students that Smith taught in Alexandria, Virginia described him as an outstanding role model and happy-go-lucky person who tried to guide them along the right path.

The Special Police officers involved, employed by Blackout Investigations and Security Services, a Waldorf, Maryland-based security company, have since had their privilege and ability to carry a firearm revoked. However, Greene, along with others, said they have reason to believe that Blackout may have not honored honor its commitment to suspend those who were on duty that night, even alleging that one of the employees in the video still patrols the premises to this day.

“When it first went down, folks weren’t really complacent but there was nothing they could do. The general consensus is that this is something that happens then we move on. Security switched up and we hope they took the proper measures but you never know,” Greene said.

Beverly Smith, mother of Alonzo Smith, has remained immensely skeptical about the official information coming out in the days and months her son’s death, telling AllEyesOnDC that MPD and Blackout Investigations have worked to sweep her son’s murder under the rug. She said that officers from Internal Affairs waited until the evening of Nov. 2nd ,nearly 48 hours after Smith death, to notify her, visiting her at her home, located three blocks up the street from Marbury Plaza.

Smith said the situation worsened the next day when MPD Chief Cathy Lanier publicly called Smith’s death a “justifiable homicide” before reneging amid the media frenzy around her statement. During a December press conference, Lanier confirmed that an officer’s knee was in Smith’s back during the arrest.

Months before Smith’s death, officers employed by Blackout Investigations got involved in a civil case that’s ongoing, according to the D.C. Courts database. Blackout Investigations declined AllEyesOnDC’s request for comment on the circumstances surrounding Smith’s death.

At this point, the case has left MPD Internal Affairs Bureau and gone to the U.S. Attorney General’s office, which will conduct a grand jury trial, the date of which hasn’t been determined, under the direction of Jan Saxton, the prosecuting attorney. A spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department declined AllEyesOnDC’s request for information regarding the case and the grand jury proceedings.

Other pertinent information, including the identity of the officers involved, has yet to surface, much to Smith’s chagrin.

“I hold MPD accountable. They went by what the officers said that night,” Smith, a retired federal employee, told AllEyesOnDC. “The Special Police knew my son wasn’t breathing and they put restraints on his feet. They had their knees on his back and obstructed his breathing but didn’t turn him over to administer CPR. They left his body in the first and second landing. They didn’t have a defibrillator and they mentioned that in the video,” she added.

Weeks after Alonzo’s death, Smith, along with members of Pan-African Community Action (PACA), a grassroots organization focused on community control of law enforcement in Black communities, held a vigil and rally on the grounds of Marbury Plaza. Those gatherings attracted dozens of people, including Ward 8 Council member LaRuby May. Over time, Smith became a member of PACA, following in the footsteps of Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden, and other Black women across the country who became activists after their son’s died in encounters with police officers and hypervigilant forces.

Efforts to hold those responsible those who caused Alonzo’s death have materialized into what’s known as the Justice4Zo campaign. Since its launch last November, PACA has circulated a petition demanding full disclosure about what took place on Halloween night and an independent investigation. They’ve also hosted community events during which PACA members educate participants about the intricacies and benefits of community control over police.

“It goes beyond Marbury Plaza. It’s about the community and what role police play,” Netfa Freeman, a member of PACA, told AllEyesOnDC, acknowledging the possibility of pushback against this seemingly bold idea, especially amid concerns about the violence that plagues Anacostia and other areas east of the Anacostia River.

“People are torn. If their immediate experience has been in the face of the kind of crime that comes with living in an underprivileged community, then they can be conflicted about this issue,” Freeman added, pointing out that the system neglects Black communities and those conditions breed violence and crime. “It’s about people understanding the interconnectedness of it all. Our communities are plagued with crime for the same reasons that police officers abuse us. The crime gives them an excuse to repress.”

In January, Smith testified before the United Nations Working Group on Experts on People of African Descent about her son’s death during a meeting at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia. The event counted among a bevy of the group’s stops during its 11-day tour. Days later, they released a report expressing its “extreme concern about the human rights situation of African Americans.” That document, which focused on police murders of Black civilians, included Alonzo Smith’s name.

Smith said this turn of events has boosted her spirits, giving her some hope that she’ll get justice for her son and ensure that laws are put in place to prevent future atrocities.

“One of our demands is for MPD to make transparent the laws and policies for Special Police officers,” Smith said. Currently, Special Police officers they have arresting powers similar to that of MPD. They also receive 40 hours of training.

“The most interesting thing about Special Police officers is that they have the right to arrest and retain on property. MPD said they had nothing to do with this incident, but they’re partially responsible because they authorize the Special Police in D.C.,” Smith added.

Ensuring that all parties are held responsible, however, may be easier said than done.

Last month, Smith visited Council member May’s office with a letter asking for her continued support of Justice4Zo campaign efforts. She said Alfred Davis, May’s chief of staff met her outside and declined the letter, telling her there was nothing May’s office could do for her. Later that week, May visited Smith at her home during which she made a commitment to research policy related to the Special Police officers, Smith said. May’s office didn’t return AllEyesOnDC’s request for comment about this matter or the issue of community-police relations in Ward 8.

During the interview for this piece, Smith also cited what she described as inconsistencies in her son’s murder case, notably the absence of his phone among his belongings. On the video from the police camera, portions of which Smith says she often sees in her dreams, she recalls seeing one of the arresting officers going through the mobile device before tossing it down the stairwell.

It doesn’t stop there.

For Smith, a look at Alonzo’s corpse negated anything official reports said. Signs of injury included swelling in his neck, a broken and badly bruised shoulder, and hemorrhaging near his larynx, all consistent with bruising and blunt force trauma to his back and neck. The elder Smith, 52, also recalled Shaun Reid, director of Shaun R. Reid Funeral Services, the company that prepared her son’s body, telling her that her son’s face appeared to have been bruised, something medical records don’t mention.

Days after Smith spoke with Reid, she held a conference call with the three medical examiners involved in her son’s case and requested a second autopsy. She told AllEyesOnDC that the D.C. Office of the Attorney General and MPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau immediately swooped in, contacting the funeral home and asking Reid for the photos he took of the deceased Smith’s face.“ The funeral director called me shortly after sounding surprised,” Smith said. “He said he wanted to do the right thing.”

As of publishing time, Reid hasn’t returned AllEyesOnDC’s request for comment on the allegations of blunt force.

Through it all, Smith said she remains confident that her son’s death won’t go in vain. In recent weeks, she has appeared at community events across the city with a circular pin bearing his image and a black shirt with “Justice4Zo” emblazoned across it. Despite what she described as the widespread grassroots support, she admits that questions about that fateful night often cross her mind.

“Every single moment of my life, I think about what happened prior to the police restraining Alonzo in the hallway,” she said. “He couldn’t call me [because they had his phone]. I would have run down the hill in my pajamas. I’m only three blocks away. There are so many unanswered questions. Who was he visiting? I don’t know anyone who lives up there.”

Film Shares Family’s Sickle Cell Journey

Sickle Cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that prevents hemoglobin from delivering oxygen to blood, counts among the most inconspicuous ailments of its kind.

So much so that medical professionals often mischaracterize symptoms that show up in those carrying the trait as something less daunting. D.C.-based policy analyst Ashley saw this through the struggles of her older brother Marqus, 32, who was first diagnosed with Sickle Cell at 6 months. The upcoming film “Sick Cells,” produced by Ashley and Marqus, documents those experiences, and that of other families, over the course of eight years.

Last month, Ashley appeared on AllEyesOnDC’s “A Night of News & Music” at Sankofa Video Books & Café where she touched on Marqus’ bout with Sickle Cell and the Valentine family’s efforts to connect him with the most effective treatment possible.

Since Marqus’ diagnosis, the Valentines have gone toe to toe with the medical establishment to ensure that he receives the best care possible. Ashley’s mother, a nurse of more than 30 years, took the reins, working closely with doctors and directing medical teams in the day-to-day work involving her son’s care. In their journey, the Valentines debunk misconceptions about the disease that are used to marginalize Black people. They have also taught other families going through similar situations about the importance of self-advocacy.

In this segment, Ashley and Sam, AllEyesOnDC host and founder, talk about Sickle Cells causes and effects, implicit bias in the medical industry, and the prospects of finding a cure. Check out the interview and watch the trailer for “Sick Cells,” slated to be completed really soon.

Conference Brings “Truth2Power” for Black Women

Long before Europeans colonized the Motherland and forever changed the course of history, African people lived communally and women sat at the helm of various societies as gatherers, healers, and advisors. Centuries later, gaining and applying that ancestral knowledge remains a constant challenge for sisters living amid perpetual dysfunction, squalor, and violence.

However, a paradigm shift may be just around the corner for those who converged on the Prince Hall Masonic Temple in Northwest last weekend for the inaugural Truth2Power Women’s Conference. Over the course of two days, a bevy of Black women, along with male community members, engaged in healing activities, created lifelong bonds, and learned about various methods of self-care that could better enable them to lead fulfilling lives.

“This was an opportunity for us to connect spiritually so we can get to the essence of who we are and bring that out of each other. We are divine beings having a human experience,” Patricia Patton, co-organizer of the Truth2Power Women’s Conference, told AllEyesOnDC.

Patton described the gathering, which took place on April 1st and 2nd, as an extension of the Truth2Power show, a weekly program on We Act Radio, based in Anacostia, she and Kristina Jacobs, a D.C. area community organizer, have hosted for nearly a year. She said squabbles within the planning committee almost jeopardized their plans. While similar situations would discourage groups from carrying out their work, it further compelled the duo, along with their small team, to unify as many Black women as possible.

“[We Black women] give life to every man and woman so it’s up to us to connect and respect one another,” Patton added. “Black women have gotten a bad rap. It’s important to embrace each other. There’s so much animosity and focusing on our differences. It’s important for us to get along and support each other. We came from shattered pieces and this needed to take place for the women.”

On Friday night, visitors walked up a steep flight of steps and into a dimly lit ballroom adorned with African art, flowers, and other decorations. Dozens of vendors set up shop along the outskirts of the large space where they sold clothes, jewelry, fragrances, sculptures, photos, and other wares. An on-site massage therapist kneaded his fists into visitors’ backs and supplied much needed physical therapy that weekend. Holistic health agents also doled out fruit and vegetable juices, healing crystals, and vegan meals.

D.C.-area poet Raquel Ra Brown served as mistress of ceremonies for Friday evening, introducing a cadre of widely renowned acts including Princess Best aka Hip-Hop Momma, Afi Soul, and Ayanna Gregory (pictured in the feature photo), all who call D.C. home, along with Watoto from the Nile, Sunni Patterson, Charm Taylor, and spoken word artist Dominque Christina. DJ One Luv spun the one’s and two’s throughout the evening as each artist seduced the audience with their intricate wordplay and hard truths about misogyny, trauma, disunity, and ignorance.

Shortly after her performance on Friday night, Patterson, a spoken word artist from New Orleans, explained her purpose in speaking truth through her words. That evening, she recited three poems and called on audience members to yell words of affirmation that she said would vibrate through the U Street Corridor for weeks and months to come.

“Everything has a spirit in it. Whatever I do has a tone of acknowledgment of the ancestors and gratitude to my guardian spirits,” Patterson told AllEyesOnDC. “It’s one thing to enlighten but it’s another to inspire. We can do it as one. We have this purpose and obligation to lift up and be for ourselves and others. I want to bring that to my work. Our words are medicine to the community and world.”

Throughout much of Saturday, women participated in group meditation exercises and learned how to best take care of their bodies. Representatives of BeNature Earth Wellness Center, based in Waldorf, Maryland, stressed the importance of a balanced diet while Dr. Mawiyah Kambon, a Raleigh, N.C.-based psychologist, later regaled the audience with a presentation that outlined her most recent findings. Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, president of the D.C. Association of Black Psychologists and pioneer of “psychohairapy,” wrapped up the festivities with her keynote address.

For Denise Douglass, a designer who represented Ites International Fashion, the Truth2Power Women’s Conference reaffirmed the Black woman’s power in bringing calmness to whatever environment she occupies. Douglas, a vendor that weekend, recalled seeing people at their best as they talked and laughed among one another.

On Friday, Ites International Fashion put the Kwanzaa principle of Umoja into practice on Friday when more than half a dozen women sported different dresses during a modeling show.

“The vibe is very smooth in here. The people are enjoying themselves,” Douglass said. “It’s natural for us [as Black people] to have peace, not all of this chaos. This conference helps women take control of their lives and be free in this place. It brings power and unity. That’s what it’s all about. We can become a stronger race because of it.”

D.C. area mother and community member Asteria Hyera said she looked forward to finding Black-owned businesses that could meet her basic needs and watching Narubi Selah, a spoken word artist and educator from Trenton, New Jersey, perform. On Saturday, she did just that, linking up with Venus Visuals, a local producer of custom jewelry, and Freedom Toilet Paper, a black-owned business based in Baltimore.

“I’m always looking to connect with like-minded Black women who are about Black liberation,” Hyera told AllEyesOnDC. “This sounded like an opportunity to meet with those who are building. The Black woman is a mother, teacher, and builder. We have to be at the forefront to reinforce good values.”

For Patton and Kristina Jacobs, the most intriguing aspect of last weekend’s conference was the connection between women of different ages. The co-hosts, who have a more than 20-year age difference, said the lessons they learn from each other in the course of their work at We Act Radio inspired their goal of placing elders and young people in the same room.

In the spirit of millennial fortitude, Jacobs, 23, expressed plans to continue the work of the Truth2Power Women’s Conference in her daily work. Goals include the purchase of property and collaboration with Black women across the globe.

“We need to be investing and reclaiming these historic buildings so we can use them for our institutions. The possibilities are endless,” Jacobs told AllEyesOnDC.

“We’ve also talked about taking the Truth2Power Women’s Conference on the road, because the conversations and connections we’re making need to happen everywhere, not just in D.C. I’m sure there are relationships that will come out of this that we will never even know about, but that will benefit our community in incredible ways. The first step is getting people who are committed to building community in the room together and creating a space for connection and collaboration. These sisters really walk the walk, so I’m excited to see what fruits manifest from this,” Jacobs added.

Photo by Rodney Ladson & Key Digital Media 

 

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