By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO

A small Eastern Shore town’s decision to ban public comment from council meetings has prompted pushback from a coalition of residents outraged over the death of a young African- American man in police custody

The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black filed an open-meetings act complaint last week, citing a rule change that barred public comment from council meetings made in secret by Greensboro, Md., officials. The group believes the new policy is aimed at stifling their efforts to hold elected officials there accountable for failing to adequately investigate Black’s death.

Anton Black, a track athlete and aspiring model was killed while in police custody in September 2018. (Courtesy Photo)

“I think it was aimed at us,” Coalition leader Richard Potter told the AFRO. ““It was a way to filter us, so they weren’t caught off guard.”

The complaint filed by the coalition and the Maryland ACLU alleges members of the Greensboro Council made the policy change without public notice as required by law. The policy was approved in February and implemented in March, but how it was approved by the council remains mysterious.

The Maryland ACLU says the secret vote is part of a larger pattern of obfuscation by Greensboro city officials.

“At every step in the process, the family of Anton Black and their supporters have been dismissed and denied information by Greensboro officials,” said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland in a written statement.

“A measure aimed at silencing Greensboro residents is certainly something that town officials should have the courage to discuss and debate with residents before unilaterally imposing it upon them.”

Potter says the coalition has effectively used public comments during council meetings to push for investigations into the circumstances surrounding Black’s death.

“It’s a very small town, they haven’t ordinarily have that much interaction with the public,” Potter said. “I think they wanted to stop and limit that.”

The controversy marks the latest skirmish between the leadership of Greensboro, and friends and family of Anton Black who died in police custody last year.

Black was chased by police in September 2018 after a White woman called 911 claiming he had kidnapped a 12-year old boy. The alleged victim was his cousin. A video of Black’s initial encounter with police obtained by The AFRO shows Black and the boy walking side-by-side prior to being stopped.

After Black fled two White police officers and a civilian subsequently confronted Black at his mother’s home. There they forced him to the ground. Soon thereafter Black became unresponsive and was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

The state medical examiner ruled his death an accident. But Cyril Wecht, a noted independent pathologist consulted by the AFRO said he died from positional asphyxiation. Body camera footage shows one of the officers laying his body across Anton’s as the 19-year old track star lays on the ramp near his home.

Since Black’s death a coalition of relatives and supporters successfully pressed city officials to place the arresting officer, Thomas Webster on administrative leave pending an investigation into his actions during the arrest.

Webster’s hiring was unpopular with Greensboro’s African-American community. He was fired by Dover Delaware police after he kicked an African-American man in face, breaking his jaw. Webster was charged with second degree assault, but was acquitted after a trial in 2015.

Earlier this year the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services opened an investigation into Webster’s hiring. State officials are probing the omission of past use of force complaints against Webster, which were not disclosed when he was certified by the state.

The state open meetings board could void the new policy or order the council to vote on it in public.