By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO
It’s been exactly a year since Anton Black crossed the Choptank River bridge with his cousin during a carefree day spent wandering around Greensboro, Md. in September 2018.
But the concrete crossing that stretches across the river that dissects the small Eastern Shore Town is also a stark reminder to his supporters. A tarnished monument to the confluence of racism, aggressive policing and the devaluation of black lives that led to his untimely death at the hands of police one year ago.
It was on that bridge that friends say a White woman called 911 and accused black of kidnapping the child. An allegation they say is both untrue, and led to a tragic sequence of events that started with police chasing the star high school athlete to his mother’s home and ended with a brutal arrest.
Which is why for the friends and family of the 19-year old track star who had gathered to mourn his death at the hands of police a year later on Sept. 15, the pain was still fresh.
“What I don’t understand is why is he gone, what did he do?” Anton’s father, Anton Black Sr. asked. “He was walking down the street with his friend, a young man that he mentored. What did he do that was so bad?”
Several dozen supporters stood in a semi-circle at the park adjacent to the bridge to hold a memorial Sunday. A remembrance for a young man who walked the catwalk during New York fashion week and had ambitions to be a police officer.
But along with the pleas for justice, a question lingered over the proceedings which informs the broader dismay over the deaths of black men in police across the nation: why did the police chase Anton in the first place? And why did they use force against a young man whose supporters say never committed a crime?
“We want justice, we are going to get it one way or another,” said his sister, LaToya Holley said.
Greensboro police maintained at the time that Black was seen dragging the boy across the bridge which prompted the stop and eventual chase. But surveillance video reviewed by the AFRO shows the pair walking casually down the street just prior to being stopped, walking nonchalantly to police car.
After Greensboro policer Officer Thomas Webster confronted Black, a chase ensued. Black took refuge in a car parked outside his mother’s home. Webster smashed the passenger’s side window and tasered Black, then several other police officers who happened to be on the scene took Black to ground, with one officer putting his full weight across Black’s body.
The State Medical Examiner ruled Black’s death an accident due in part to a previously undiagnosed heart abnormality. But an independent pathologist consulted by the AFRO said his death was caused by positional asphyxiation, which occurs when a person exerts downward pressure on a prone body, similar to what is depicted on the body camera footage of Anton’s arrest.
For many who gathered the lingering anger over his death has only been heightened by the lack of action by authorities.
“The blatant racism and corruption we have seen in the attempts to shut us down will not hold us back from seeking the truth,” said Richard Potter, who heads the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black said.
Caroline State’s Attorney Joe Riley has declined to prosecute any of the officers. A letter to the United States Department of Justice seeking a civil rights investigation has gone unanswered, an attorney for Black’s family told the AFRO. Even efforts by Black’s supporters to hold officer Webster accountable took months.
Attorneys for the family did announce they had filed notice to sue both the town and the state in federal court. The pending lawsuit contends police violated Anton’s civil rights by taking his life and that police did not have probable cause to stop him. The suit will seek $20 million in damages and will be filed within the next two weeks, his lawyer said.
But even amid the stories of despair, there has been some progress, supporters say.
After a long and drawn-out struggle with city officials, Officer Webster has left the Greensboro Police Department. His departure was prompted in part after the state commission responsible for granting police powers decertified him. The move came after the state determined Webster had failed to disclose several dozen brutality complaints filed when he worked as a cop in Denton, Del.
In fact, it was Webster’s history of brutality allegations that has caused lingering anguish among Black’s supporters. When the town made the decision to hire the former Delaware cop, residents pushed back, citing a video that showed Webster kicking and breaking the jaw of an African-American man during an arrest. Webster was charged with second-degree assault but was acquitted in 2015.
Still, residents say the town’s move to more aggressive policing that precipitated Anton’s death has been rolled backed.
“I’m glad to see know in the wake of everything that has happened, we have gotten back where we used to be, and it wasn’t totally in vain,” Christina Robison, a resident of Greensboro who attended the memorial told the AFRO.
But for Anton’s family and friends, incremental change does not heal the wounds of a death that seems not just needless, but foreseeable. An incalculable loss that has prompted them to fight on in his memory.
“We are going to go as far as we can as long as we can, we don’t care if it takes years,” Holley said.