Connect with us

Courts

Former Montgomery cop convicted in shooting of unarmed black man

Josh Moon

Published

on

A former Montgomery Police officer was convicted on Friday of manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed black man in 2016. 

Aaron Cody Smith is facing a sentence of between 10 and 20 years for shooting and killing Greg Gunn just steps from the home Gunn shared with his mother. Prosecutors had charged Smith with murder but the jury opted to convict Smith of the lesser charge. 

“This defendant gave statement after statement with large facts he would change,” Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said during a news conference following the verdict. “One thing that came out is that he shot this guy in the back first. That was the first shot that he made.”

Bailey praised the majority-white jury in Dale County, where the case was moved, for issuing the verdict. 

Gunn was walking home in his neighborhood from a late-night poker game when he was stopped by Smith. Gunn ran from Smith during a pat-down, and Smith gave chase, although the former officer admitted that he had no probable cause for stopping or chasing Gunn. 

Smith tackled, tased and hit Gunn across the head with a police baton before ultimately the pair ended up on the front porch of Gunn’s next-door neighbor. There, Smith fired seven rounds, striking Gunn five times, after he claimed Gunn picked up a painter’s pole and swung it at him. 

Bailey noted after the verdict that through it all, Gunn held his baseball cap in his hand, making it impossible for Gunn to have swung the pole. 

Smith also changed his story about the pole — saying at first that Gunn swung it and then later altering that story to say Gunn simply held it in a threatening manner. 

Public Service Announcement


The case drew national attention, primarily because it was one of the few instances in which a white cop who shot and killed an unarmed black man was arrested for murder. And in this case, Bailey and the State Bureau of Investigation did not wait on a grand jury to indict Smith first, saying they believed the evidence showed a murder had taken place and they were determined to treat the case like all others. 

Bailey made it clear on Friday that he would continue to do, telling reporters that he planned to fight any attempts to grant Smith bail and that he would push for the maximum, 20-year sentence to be imposed.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

Advertisement

Courts

Lawsuit claims governor ignored nomination process to appoint probate judge

Micah Danney

Published

on

James "Jim" Naftel II

A lawsuit filed Wednesday is challenging Gov. Kay Ivey’s appointment of Birmingham attorney James “Jim” Naftel II as Jefferson County probate judge place 1.

The suit, filed the day Ivey announced the appointment, alleges she circumvented the Jefferson County Judicial Commission’s nominating process. She should have selected an appointee from a list of three nominees provided by the commission as the state’s Constitution requires, the suit says.

“Because Judge Naftel was not lawfully or properly appointed as Probate Judge of Jefferson County, he is currently usurping, intruding, and unlawfully holding that office,” the suit alleges.

Ivey’s office said she disagrees with the suit’s interpretation of the law. 

“The state constitution gives the governor the authority to fill this vacancy,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary. “Judge Naftel is highly qualified to serve as probate judge, and the governor looks forward to his many years of excellent public service to the people of Jefferson County and the state as a whole.”

Barry Ragsdale, an attorney with the firm Sirote & Permutt, P.C., said that he has no issue with who Ivey chose, only how she did it.

“I frankly have nothing but respect for Judge Naftel,” Ragsdale said. “I think he’ll make a great probate judge. I think he’s going to end up being the probate judge, but it’s about protecting a process that we’ve had in Jefferson County for 70 years.”

Jefferson County was the first of six counties to create such a commission. It originally applied only to Jefferson County Circuit Court, but that was expanded in 1973 to include any judicial office, the suit says — including probate judges. 

Public Service Announcement


Ragsdale said it is important because the process is meant to provide local input into whom potential judges are. Commissioners are local citizens who likely know the people they nominate, whereas a governor probably doesn’t. 

“That takes most of the politics out of it,” Ragsdale said. He noted that before the first commission was created in 1950, George Wallace appointed his relatives to the bench when vacancies opened. A local screening process prevents that, Ragsdale said.

“We have that, we fought for it, and we fought governors for decades to follow the process,” he said.

Ragsdale believes this is a case of a governor simply wanting to exercise power, he said.

“She’s absolutely wrong about what the law says, and we intend to prove that,” Ragland said.

Continue Reading

Courts

How qualified immunity affected an Alabama man shot five times during a police sting

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

Trinell King was driving his girlfriend’s car to give an acquaintance, Donavan Brown, a ride when a Warrior Police Department officer pulled him over because the car didn’t have a license plate.

King, who is Black, didn’t have proof of insurance or a driver’s license that September day in 2015, but gave the officer a photo ID.

Brown — on the other hand — gave a false name, and while the officer was back at his police vehicle, King told Brown to be honest with the officer, according to court records in a case over the incident. Brown told King that he had outstanding warrants and a gun. He was going to run.

Brown got out of the car and ran, and the officer ordered King out at gunpoint, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of the police car. King fully cooperated and told the officer that Brown had a gun. Even the responding officers, in court depositions, agreed that King fully cooperated.

Soon, King was surrounded by numerous white officers, one of whom testified in a deposition that King was “extremely cooperative from the beginning” and “willing to give [them] any information without having to really ask.”

King’s only crime was driving without insurance or a license, not something Warrior police usually arrest someone for, officers said in depositions, but he remained handcuffed while officers tried to coerce him into helping capture the armed man who’d ran from the scene.

“F— him [i.e. meaning King], you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw — we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f—ing us over, we’ll f— over you,” King said an officer told him, while testifying in a deposition.

Officers repeatedly threatened King that they would “f—” him “over” if he didn’t help.

Public Service Announcement


King said he was “nervous” and “scared” — that he “felt threatened.” He believed his “life was in danger,” according to court records, and after nearly two hours of coercion, he agreed to take part in a dangerous sting operation to capture Brown. Police officers in depositions disputed that they coerced King into helping them with the sting operation, and said it was his idea to do so, according to those records.

“With the negotiation, the threats, everything they was telling me, if I don’t cooperate they’re going to throw some charges on me, and they going to f— me over. So in the streets that means it could mean anything. It can mean being shot. It can mean being anything. My life —,” King said in a deposition.

Going along with the plan, an officer called Brown and put a cell phone to King’s ear while he was handcuffed. King told Brown what he was told to say: that police had let him go. He could come and pick Brown up. Police told King to drive his girlfriend’s car, pick up Brown and that they’d pull him over again.

Once again, an officer told King “if you f— over us, we’re going to f— over you,” according to the court documents.

Once King picked up Brown, the officers decided to pull him over before they had discussed, Brown pulled his gun and told King he “had” to shoot the officers, according to court records.

“King could not stop the car before Brown started shooting, and the officers returned fire,” King’s attorneys wrote in a court filing.

King, who wasn’t given a bullet-proof vest, was struck by bullets five times, and there were 20 bullet holes in the car. Brown was shot 13 times, but remarkably both survived. One officer was shot but was protected by a vest. King underwent multiple surgeries, but lost the use of one arm.

King’s case is an Alabama example of how the legal doctrine of qualified immunity prevents some who’ve been harmed by the actions of law enforcement from seeking relief from courts. Qualified immunity, a controversial doctrine established by Supreme Court precedent, protects government officials who have been sued in their individual capacity, unless their actions violate established legal precedent.

King sued, but a U.S. District Court judge in 2017 dismissed the case before it even went to trial on grounds of qualified immunity, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a June 5 ruling also found that the officers were protected by qualified immunity.

[What is qualified immunity?]

Despite the courts’ rulings, witnesses testified that the officers’ actions were improper.

Daniel Busken, a retired police chief and law enforcement consultant, testified in a deposition as a witness for King that the officers should have known they were putting King’s life at risk.

Busken said that the police “knew, or should have known, that their plan to force Mr. King to assist in their capture of Brown represented a significant danger to Mr. King’s safety … and an unpredictable situation for Mr. King,” because Brown “was a desperate man in a desperate situation that had showed how desperate he was.”

Another officer testified in a deposition that he was unaware of any plan to protect King’s life, or if the department had ever conducted such a sting before.

“Nevertheless, Defendants planned to have five vehicles and seven armed officers — all of whom planned to draw their guns on Brown — involved in the sting,” King’s attorneys wrote in an appeal.

The judges ruled that King could not bring his case before a jury to decide whether the officers should be held accountable for nearly costing him his life — not because his case lacked merit but because of the controversial legal doctrine of qualified immunity

Attorneys for King have appealed the 11th circuit panel’s ruling to the full 11th circuit court, and are asking all the circuit judges to reconsider, and to allow the case to go before a jury.

The attorneys argue that the officers violated his Constitutional protections. The June 5 ruling came at the peak of tensions between peaceful protestors and police, some of whom responded with tear gas and so-called rubber bullets.

The judges,  in their opinion, wrote that “even taking King’s testimony as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, there is no evidence that the officers threatened him with false charges” — because the officer’s didn’t say what he might be charged with if he didn’t go along with their plan.

“As for the alleged threats of physical violence, the evidence is similarly thin,” the judge’s wrote. “If the officers had told King ‘help us, or we’re going to f–k you up’ (or something like that) then King would have a more compelling argument. But that isn’t what he said they said.”

“Instead, King testified that the officers told him “[if] you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw—we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f–king us over, we’ll f–k over you. I don’t know where you get your car back,” the judges wrote.

King’s attorneys in the appeal to the full 11th circuit argue that the case should be heard by a jury of King’s peers, and that the all-white judges on the panel are “good people with good intentions” but that they are out-of-touch with “the common experiences of the people, especially Black Americans, and the reasonable inferences that they would draw from the totality of the evidence presented.”

“Suffice it to state that Black and other Americans of color, and a significant amount of White and other Americans, would come to a different conclusion than the panel, based on their different life experiences, which is the reason why the Founders insisted that the Seventh Amendment require trial by jury, and not by a panel of judges who do not have the same life experiences,” King’s attorneys wrote.

King told APR that he was left without a choice, forced to risk his life in a bid to help the officers, with whom he cooperated from the start.

“I can’t believe that the courts have given the officers who made me help them catch their suspect immunity after they forced me to go along with their plan to trap him. They knew he was armed and dangerous. They put on their bullet proof vests while I waited, and they made me go pick him up with no protection at all,” King said in a statement. “I had done everything I could to cooperate and even told them his name, that he had a gun and had warrants on him, but then they forced me to help them catch him.”

“I didn’t have any choice because they made it clear that if I didn’t go along with their plan they were going to hurt me,” King continued. “There was no doubt about that. I was one Black man surrounded by all these white cops who were threatening me. How can judges sit there and say what a jury would think about that?”

Spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, protestors and criminal justice reform advocates are calling for an end to qualified immunity, which they say allows police to escape responsibility for harming the public.

On June 19, in a tribute to Juneteenth, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a series of law enforcement reform bills, included among them an avenue for Coloradans to sue police in state court if their rights have been violated. The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act states that “qualified immunity is not a defense to liability.”

Colorado is the first state to pass such legislation barring qualified immunity as protection for officials, but the state law can’t stop such officials from claiming qualified immunity if a case is brought before a federal court instead of a state court.

That could change, if the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such protections, but earlier this month, the Supreme Court passed up a chance to rule on the matter.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1967  Pierson v. Ray case that established qualified immunity as a doctrine as a protection against frivolous lawsuits, and over the years, courts have expanded the protection, and the doctrine still has its supporters.

Democrats have pushed for broad police reforms in the wake of Floyd’s homicide, including an end to qualified immunity, but many Republicans argue that doing so would result in frivolous lawsuits and discourage people from becoming law enforcement officers.

The U.S. House of Representatives on June 25 passed a series of policing reforms in a largely party-line vote, but the Trump administration is threatening a veto, and the measure has little support among Republican lawmakers, just three of whom broke ranks and voted for the House bill.

Democrats opposed a GOP proposal in the U.S. Senate, and said the bill didn’t go far enough, effectively stalling that bill and leaving the matter in limbo as protests against police brutality continue across much of the country.

Birmingham attorney Rip Andrews, one of King’s attorneys, told APR in a statement that he hopes the full 11th circuit considers the case in the current context.

“Qualified immunity has so far kept Trinell from having his day in court in front a jury. Win or lose — a day supposedly guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment,” Andrews said. “His only chance now is the hope that the full Eleventh Circuit reads his story in the context of our time and agrees to hear his appeal.”

Continue Reading

Courts

Parole officers shot at in Bessemer

Brandon Moseley

Published

on

Thursday, two law enforcement officers from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles were fired upon as they approached a Bessemer home to conduct a supervisory visit with an offender.

Officer in Charge Sidney Yarbrough and Officer Steven Motley, both assigned to the Bureau’s Bessemer Field Office, were not injured in the attack. Other parole and probation officers in the area converged on the scene along with officers from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.

Probationer Terry Easter was arrested on a probation violation in the aftermath of the incident. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is investigating the alleged attack and other charges are likely going to be brought against Easter.

“Officers of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles put their lives on the line every day working to help keep communities all across the state safe,” Bureau Director Charlie Graddick said. “Our officers are courageous and dedicated to public safety, and our state is a better place because of their work. We are so grateful that Officers Yarbrough and Motley were not hurt, and we are grateful for the assistance of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, and our other parole and probation officers on the scene.”

According to the press release, Officers Yarbrough and Motley approached a building next to the Bessemer home Thursday morning on a regular home visit when they were fired upon from inside the building. The officers took cover and called for backup to help bring the situation under control.

Parole and probation officers make home visits to their clients as part of the process of supervising offenders’ transition back into the community after criminal convictions. The state of Alabama tasks their parole and probation officers with very heavy case loads.

The Alabama Department of Corrections is tasked with housing convicted felons and with rehabilitating them for a return to society. The Pardons and Paroles Board is tasked with determining which of the eligible convicted felons are sufficiently rehabilitated that they can be released back into Alabama society without posing a clear and present danger to the people of this state. In addition to supervising the parolees, there are thousands of felons who received probation instead of prison time that the Bureau’s officers also must monitor and supervise.

Graddick is the former presiding judge in Mobile County and is a former Alabama Attorney General. Graddick won the Democratic Party primary runoff for Governor in 1986; but the nomination was taken away on appeal. Then Lt. Governor Bill Baxley (D) went on to lose to Cullman Counthy Probate Judge Guy Hunt (R) in the general election.

Public Service Announcement


Two law enforcement officers have already been killed in the line of duty in Alabama in 2020, both by gunfire.

Continue Reading

Courts

“I’ve never felt the fear I felt then:” Demonstrators describe police action at Huntsville protest

Chip Brownlee

Published

on

Photo: Sarah Myers

Protesters gathered in Huntsville on Wednesday, first at an NAACP rally against police brutality, and later an unorganized protest downtown near the Madison County courthouse.

The largely peaceful demonstrations ended when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators who refused to disperse after a protest permit expired at 6:30 p.m.

The Huntsville Police chief and Madison County sheriff have said they used appropriate force to disperse an “unauthorized protest against the government.”

Police claim the protest had to be dispersed because “anarchists” from out of state hijacked the gathering and threw rocks and water bottles at police.

“It’s darkness coming on, when we lose the fight,” Chief Mark McMurray said. “We have daylight, we win. It’s 90 minutes. It’s an unauthorized protest against the government. That’s what it is. That’s what anarchists do. This was not NAACP. This was a separate splinter group that took advantage of a peaceful protest and hijacked it to cause anarchy against our government. Their way is to cause damage, set fires, loot, pillage.”

At least 24 people were arrested, all locals from Madison County — 20 of them charged with disorderly conduct. Several people were injured by “less lethal” rubber bullets and tear gas deployed by police. At least two police officers sustained minor injuries and returned to work the next day, the police chief said Thursday.

Below are some accounts and videos from demonstrators at the protest, based on their own recollection of what happened. Their accounts have been edited for length and clarity. This post may be updated with additional perspectives.

Public Service Announcement


Video: Eddie Swift


Sarah Myers from Huntsville:

We came to the protest in the park initially at around 5:30 p.m. It was so packed we could barely get anywhere near the crowd or speakers, but we came with medical supplies in case people got maced again like they did Monday.

We dispersed our supplies to various people around the park, and then shortly after headed home. At 7:30 p.m., we came back because we saw people posting about how the protest moved to the courthouse square and there was a strong police presence. I wanted to document and make sure people were okay. I had no idea what would happen.

As we approached the square at about 7:30 p.m., all the stairs to the courthouse were barred up and heavily armed, shielded officers wearing gas masks lined the entire perimeter of the courthouse.

I’ve never felt the fear I felt then. I genuinely felt as if I could be shot at any moment for any reason. They were intimidating, smug, snickering amongst themselves as we protested.

I suppose, we were blocking the streets, so we gave them a “reason.” I say that very loosely and sarcastically because the way they responded was in no way appropriate toward civilians — even if we were standing in the street.

I’ve heard about the 6:30 p.m. expiration of the permit — which I guess the NAACP agreed upon — but is public property not always fairground for a protest? Even if we, as a separate group, wanted to continue after 6:30?

Photo: Eddie Swift

Maybe I’m wrong, but what I do know is we were 99 percent peaceful. The majority SHOULD HAVE spoken. The police could have easily taken a knee with us, as many police in many cities have done, and we would have been gone by 8.

But what they did instead was wait for the clock to strike “8” (7:45) and started sounding off loud intense alarm sounds, so I fell back about a block. I’m honestly not even sure on a perfect timeline after that — all hell broke loose, time stretched and warped and still hasn’t really returned to the same.

I cannot get my mind off of that night, the feeling of terror in my own city.

They were trapping us, yet shoving us, there were people screaming blood-curdling screams because of pepper spray or tear gas being sprayed directly into their faces.

Immediately turning around to see a young boy, who looked no older than 17, with a huge hole blown out of his calf and blood covering his entire leg. He was in such shock that you couldn’t even tell anything was wrong until you looked down. We were trying to help this guy, and they still just kept shooting behind us, dropping gas on us, shoving us while we knelt down on the sidewalks, trying to aid people.

We literally just had to take off running for shelter in the parking garage on Jefferson in the middle of helping that guy because there was just constant shots approaching behind us.

Everyone I saw who was shot, was shot with their backs turned to the police. People who were trying to disperse, being maced as they ran by. A medic helping someone on the sidewalk, and police throwing smoke canisters at them.

It was barbaric, unnecessary terrorism. Someone needs to be held accountable for the absolutely uncalled for brutality that happened that night.

Even if someone threw a water bottle or yelled at them, we were unarmed. We were 99 percent peaceful and not participating in antagonizing the police, but when they decided they were over it, they didn’t care who was what or what was what. They started shooting, harassing, arresting, and gassing innocent people who pleaded with them and protested for change.

We left at the point that the riot police began advancing down Jefferson. It just seemed like there was nothing else we could do. They made it clear to leave if you can — or get brutalized one way or another.

I don’t really know what else to say other than I got a glimpse of what a black person goes through everyday … who do you call when its the police that are attacking us?

Warning: Video contains violence and profane language.

Video: Eddie Swift


Shaun Bloodsworth from Huntsville

Huntsville is known as one of the few exceptions to the rules of the South — sometimes. We have a fairly progressive state of mind shared by many young professionals, and we looked forward to a chance to stand together for a just cause. I was unable to attend the first meeting on Monday, June 1, but was ready to make up for it on Wednesday and show my support.

We had arrived at the NAACP-organized protest just as the gathering began its march from Big Spring Park to the Courthouse Square. Having missed the first of the speeches, we jumped in line and marched on with our fellow protesters. Many of these people I knew very well, and even more did I at least recognize as locals.

We chanted the names of those lost recently, not just George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but the names of any other lost loved ones as well. “SAY HIS NAME!! SAY HER NAME!!” we screamed along with the ultimatum of, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!! NO RACIST POLICE!!”

This continued for some time, and more speeches were made intermittently over the next hour or so. At one point, an individual set fire to a flag in the street amidst the crowd. The surrounding protesters immediately stomped out the flames and tried to calm the tension that was rising as riot police began slowly surrounding the area, and police with rifles continued to look down on the crowd from the courthouse rooftop. Drones were circling high over our heads.

A line of protesters knelt down at the bottom of the courthouse steps, facing the officers on the other side of the barricade. We all chanted in unison, requesting of the officers present, “TAKE A KNEE!! TAKE A KNEE!!” There was still an air of peace trying to keep control of the rising tension in the crowd, likely stemming from staring into the blank faces of heavily armed and armored officers of the law, there to “protect and serve.” Then everybody took a knee. Everybody except the police.

At some point — possibly around 7 p.m. — there was an announcement made from the courthouse steps that we had five minutes to disperse. A fair warning, as it was after an almost-hour-long standoff before everything really broke loose. During this time, those of us across the street at the steps of the First National Bank began a small dialogue with one of the officers dressed in his standard police uniform, not in riot gear, and without a mask.

We asked, “If we cleared the streets, could we continue our demonstration on the sidewalks so long as we obeyed traffic laws and remained peaceful, as we had thus far?” His response was that the issue at hand was “disobeying a lawful order to disperse,” and that the streets were already closed by the city itself as part of the permit provided for the protest. He even went on to tell us that if we would leave, then we could legally return if we so chose to do so.
This did not turn out to be true in any way, shape, or form, as we were about to find out over the course of the evening.

Officers continued to show up in riot gear and line up around the Square as the crowd chanted on, even kneeling for a brief moment, sending cheers through the crowd until those in the front revealed to the rest in the back what was actually happening: they had knelt down in the street not in solidarity, but to put on gas masks and ready their weapons as we were told they had done on Monday as well.

At this point, the crowd began to realize what was about to take place, and we readied ourselves for the possibility of police aggression. People started pulling out squirt bottles of water and milk, other rinse aids, as well as putting on goggles and gloves, readying themselves to better handle the incoming gaseous fumes and heat to pick up the canisters and throw them back at the only people who were getting violent.

“Expect the best. Prepare for the worst.”

That’s what we were doing. We were preparing for an attack while still crying out for them to take a knee and stop this violence before it began — with a show of solidarity. I’m convinced the whole of the evening could have ended right then and there if they had just taken that knee with us. But they didn’t.

They now say that we had been given the opportunity to leave… Well they had the opportunity to give us no more reason to stay.

Dozens of Alabama State Trooper vehicles began pouring into the area and circling the Square, sirens blaring as they parted the crowds onto the sidewalks. As someone threw a bottle of water, the rest of the crowd quickly turned to them and called out, “NO!! Don’t give them a reason!! Stop throwing things!! You’re going to invite violence upon us and we don’t want or need that!!”

This reaction was repeated each and every one of the few times anyone threw a water bottle. There were no rocks thrown that I saw. Nobody had hydrochloric acid bombs. Nobody tossed a brick from a convenient little pile that mysteriously appeared on local reports the following day as evidence of “outside agitators.”

The overall mood was shifting rapidly towards one of an impending eruption. A line of officers began marching from the far eastern corner of the courthouse and threw the first gas canister into the street, sparking fear and igniting the first waves of unrest and panic.

This gave one older brave man the chance to run forward and kick it back at them, sending the signal that we would defend each other if we had to.

One after another, they began launching projectiles, and one after another, people began getting struck with rubber bullets and clouds of gas shot from street level as well as some from elevated positions held on top of the courthouse steps. Some of those that laid down or took to our knees in peaceful demonstration began swallowing mouthfuls of chemical agents, either sprayed directly or launched as projectiles without mercy.

“HANDS UP!! DON’T SHOOT!! HANDS UP!! DON’T SHOOT!!” we chanted, wanting a swift end to what was about to turn even uglier. They didn’t listen. They didn’t care about these people kneeling in the streets, hands behind their heads, pleading for peace and begging for solidarity.

They were pushed to the ground after being hosed in the face with mace and other chemicals, then told, “Get up! Get lost! You have to leave!” Videos of this time period in the day show people covering their faces, unable to see, reaching out into the nothingness to find where to go before another protester would fly to their aid and help them away to someone with some form of rinse agent and first-aid.

Blinded and in pain, these several hundreds of protesters were forced in one of two directions: down the multiple flights of steps leading into Big Spring Park, or along Jefferson Street heading North. Some friends of mine were with the group that was pushed down Jefferson Street by the marching riot police who continued to fire their “less lethal” anti-riot weapons into the crowd of helpless representatives of peace and advocates for justice. There was still no violence on the side of the protesters. We were only trying to protect each other.

We were at the tail-end of the group that was being pushed down the steps into the park. Before we reached the top of these steps, I felt what I can only describe as someone hitting me on the inside of my calf with a hammer — hard.

I stumbled toward the railing, trying to examine the damage of what had just happened while trying to corral those around me to safety as well. We had to look out for each other because it was up to us to “protect and serve” ourselves.

I tried to shield what could be shielded from the frontlines at the top of the steps with an umbrella we had brought for just this possibility. I’m sure it would have proven to be a futile effort against the rubber bullets, but maybe it could deflect an errant tear gas grenade or flashbang enough to stymie the impact on an unsuspecting victim, since these men clearly didn’t care what happened after they pulled the trigger. If not this, then maybe it would shield us from sight enough to make it more difficult for the officers to target people and track our movements.

It was like we were being hunted by our own police across our own city… the police that work for us. This is such an uncomfortable and terrifying thought, and what’s worse is that millions of Americans live with this thought weighing on their minds every single day. Millions of Americans live in fear of being brutalized by our police force. Every. Single. Day. Think about that.
At this point, people were screaming, rounds were firing off, explosions of smoke and gas erupting all around us while hundreds upon hundreds of people were forced down these steps like animals, or countless marbles swirling around a small funnel, trying to squeeze down the same hole.

We continued looking out for each other in that moment, holding onto whoever was next to us to help them down the stairs, calling out for medical supplies, water, or milk, either as an offer of aid or a request for it. I now saw the blood down my leg and knew I was going to be in the latter of that group, but that would have to wait. We were still on the stairs… And they were still shooting.

“KEEP MOVING!! GET TO THE SIDE, OR GET TO THE BOTTOM!! KEEP THE STEPS CLEAR!!” we cried out, realizing there were still so many of us on top of the steps trying to get down and away from our assailants. So we pushed on, arm in arm, shielding each other as best we could from the innumerable projectiles being shot forth.

As we made our way to the fountain pool beneath First National Bank and across the small bridge crossing into the rest of the park, I found a medic and knew I needed to give this injury some attention. Everyone was so caring for one another and willing to help with whatever was needed, whoever needed it, and wherever the need was present. I cannot express how proud I am of my fellow Huntsville compatriots, and the amount of love we showed for each other when our need was great while staring into the faces of such adversity and injustice that many had never seen or experienced before for themselves. I know it’s asking too much to wish that none of us ever have to experience it again.

Down on the ground, I cleaned and wrapped my wound, then we began searching for others in need of assistance, directing them to the medics winding through the mass of people there. People were still screaming from up the stairs, and shots were still being fired. We took this opportunity to assess the damages that had been dealt so far and slowly pressed onward across the grass towards Church Street.

This was at the bidding of those warning us of the advancing riot police closing in, for some reason still trying to disperse a crowd that had just been dispersed via brute force and tear gas. There were patrol cars flying around downtown, spotting for the delivery of more armed officers and preparing to block intersections that would prove to be the few remaining ways in and out of this area of the city now. People were getting scared and confusion was hard to keep at bay.

Friends that were watching live streams from across the city were tuning in to police scanners as well to try and help direct us where to go to avoid the incoming force moving against us. It was starting to feel more and more like we were on a battlefield, and though I hope we never have to feel that way again, I will continue to fight on that battlefield so long as these injustices go unpunished, and more than that, are defended by those in power.

As we all gathered on the other side of Church Street and took yet another stand together, we started locating our friends and helping those we could. We donated a clean bandana to one friend who was being treated for his chemical-induced blindness and pain, and offered water to those who needed it. Thankfully, I had only been exposed briefly to the tear gas up on the Square and was not in its direct cloud, but even that was enough to light my sinuses on fire. I can only imagine what those who had it worse than I did were feeling. I’m not sure if I would trade my open wound for that experience or not.

Cars of protesters leaving the area were now filing through downtown, honking at the crowd in show of support and raising their signs outside their windows depicting “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace!” and chanting along with those hundreds of us that were still congregating there. The roadways were now starting to be blocked by the police on either side of the park. I don’t know where they were directing the cars previously running through downtown, but they failed to direct those of us on foot anywhere except away from them and into plumes of gas and smoke. This became more and more difficult over the next several minutes.

Vans and trucks began unloading squads of riot police at the top of Church Street, and we watched them get into formation. They were on both sides of the street closing in on us in a pincer formation. Before we could even think about what they were going to do (though we might have fostered an idea or two at this point), they were shooting gas and smoke at the crowd, forcing us between the Huntsville Museum of Art and the lake across the grass.

Once again there were explosions and screams, this time set to the background of the low-flying helicopter overhead. As we were pushed behind the museum toward the rock-mounted Eternal Flame, they fired their canisters and rubber bullets straight ahead at the fleeing protesters who were yelling in panic and anger while trying to find a way to get back without being able to see.

Meanwhile, other officers fired over our heads, the canisters landing behind us and in the path of the only available exit from our position. We were boxed in, and the only way out was through the line of gas.

So many images and sounds are forever burned into my head from this moment. The screams of people running in fear, and those writhing in pain. The sounds of the cannons firing off round after round of anti-riot munitions exploding in our path. The constant blaring of sirens swirling around us with clouds of smoke and gas.

The cries of the demonstrators screaming the same “I DON’T SEE NO RIOT HERE!! WHY ARE YOU IN RIOT GEAR!?” even as we fled. Even the sight of those running towards the gas canisters on the ground, throwing them and kicking them back at the police as best they could with or without protective gear.

These thoughts fill me with rage and will live with me forever. Reportedly, children were exposed to tear gas on the streets above the park that weren’t there for the protest at all. They were just walking around town with their families. Wrong place, wrong time. Collateral damage.
Who could have predicted that this demonstration would lead to a slow crawling city-wide game of cat and mouse? Especially one where the cats are armed with chemical agents, rubber bullets, and riot gear. Even with the knowledge of Monday’s protest, you wouldn’t expect this.

This is Huntsville. This doesn’t happen in Huntsville, right? Huntsville is different… But here we were, bleeding, blinded, and near-broken, being scattered across our own city. Officers were blocking both ends of Williams Avenue, where we were now being backed up against, and our friends were describing what they heard over the scanners as “All units to downtown!” and more truckloads of riot police being delivered, pressing our backs harder to Lowe Avenue leading away from the park and Williams Avenue.

Luckily for us, it was here at the last stand of the night where we found protection from their onslaught across the street while staying in the median walkway and grassy corner of the intersection. I knew they wouldn’t fire on us with so much traffic here. Unluckily for us, they eventually blocked Lowe Avenue about a quarter-mile away and prevented that protective flow of traffic from safeguarding us any longer.

As they closed in from both sides of Williams Avenue, the park we just rallied across, and the stretch of Lowe Avenue behind us to box us in once and for all, officers were freely spraying more chemical agents at people who were just trying to escape to their cars, as if they were spraying for bugs. It was astonishing to witness this senseless act of casual aggression towards people who were running away and trying to leave.

After the fated standoff here at the corner, the lines of police from two different fronts came together and pushed across the street, except this time it was different. This time they were moving fast. Long, heavy strides, almost sprinting at anyone they could seem to get their hands on. We were already moving. It was time to go and find a way through the parking lots to get to our cars down the street.

We continued to hear people screaming behind us, “What did he do!? Why are you hurting him!? Get off of him!” as they began taking people to the ground and arresting them; some of these victims even represented a citizens’ press, and were only there for documentation, armed with nothing but a camera. Each of these two dozen people were Madison County residents. So much for “outside agitators.”

Around the city, small groups had set up first-aid and water stations for those in need that were being targeted by other officers and taken apart. I found one before this happened, thankfully, and a brave off-duty EMT tended to my wound in a more thorough capacity, treating it and giving me the instructions to care for it appropriately. Less than two minutes later, they were approached and harassed by officers of the law, telling them they couldn’t be there and had to leave.

I never would have guessed this could ever happen in our city, or even at all. I’m still dumbstruck over it, and recounting these events here has shaken me to my core all over again.

What is happening across our nation, and now the world, is so hugely important for all of us and especially the youth. What happens over the coming weeks can decide for generations to come what kind of a world they will live in. Will they live in a world rife with exceptions to our Freedoms of Speech, Press, and Assembly? Injustices and prejudice abound? Or will they live in a world of unity – not division – built up from the sacrifices of those we have lost?

To think that people of color have to live every day with the fear and anger that I experienced for just one night… I can’t even begin to describe how much that breaks my heart. There are no words for it, and I will never fully understand it, but I will do what is in my power to help pave new roads of unity and equality across this nation with anyone else willing to take the stand so that we can one day stop these injustices from being what seems like such a commonplace occurrence.

We have to be the change that we want to see. We have to be the example. We have to set the bar so high that we can maybe one day see over the atrocities of those in power, those that have manipulated a system built to benefit themselves for generations with motives of profit and control over their own people – We the People of the United States.

This is a long journey we have begun, and though it will continue to be difficult, we can make it easier by taking effective action together. Using their own channels, we can pressure those in power to do more than just listen to our pleas, but we have to show out in force — a different kind of force than they use.

The passion and energy of millions of people across all nations of the world standing hand in hand against these injustices cannot be denied. If we focus this amazing energy ahead of us in these positive and powerful directions, showing solidarity for one another and facing our struggles all together, we will change the world, not just this country that we love. And it’s about time.


Teddy Young from Huntsville

I went to the protest with no intention of being shot or causing issues that would require any type of retaliation by police. I honestly believe that most people held that same mindset. We were there to speak our pain and support the lives who can longer do so themselves. The day started out fine — speeches, love, declarations of hope, bursts of anger at the situation. But all of it paled in comparison to the last couple hours we spent there.

The cops spent a good portion of time menacingly staring at the protestors from the courthouse steps. Some clearly getting the wire cuffs ready, others pacing with their rubber bullet guns and even more sinister were the half dozen or so cops on the surrounding rooftops.

Eventually, the mass of protestors who were left refused to leave in the face of swat and guns and gas. It made me extremely proud to see my city stand up for its beliefs — as is our constitutional right. The cops were on the bullhorns, which I gotta say, trash those things. They didn’t work very well if they can’t outshout a few people. We got word that the tear gas was about to be used, and I went to the front lines to see my local police department would turn into the police departments we had all been warned about. They did not disappoint.

I’ve never been in a warzone. But my father has. And the 15 minutes or so of continuous explosions and gas and screams made him very scared for me once he watched the live feed.  Not even a minute had passed since the shooting and gas started, and I was hit in the chest with something that doubled me over in pain.

“Run!” my brain said.

But I couldn’t move.

Nobody for whom I was there to protest could move any longer … so who am I to run? So I helped others away from the chaos and implored them not to run but stand their ground. This is America after all — civil disobedience carried out in the way we were doing it should not have garnered the force the police brought.

All of us — herded like cattle, shot like dogs, pepper-sprayed while we ran. Grandma was on the Selma bridge the day my ancestors were massacred there, and I couldn’t help but think, “Damn, things will never change but the body count.”

Eventually, the protest devolved into military tactics used on civilians in a manner that shocked my father who himself spent 23 years fighting for our country and now works in the Pentagon with his own department.

I filmed as much as I could considering I can’t trust anybody who wasn’t there to tell the story. I saw women get guns pointed at the backs of their heads, I saw people sprayed like animals, I myself had guns pointed at my face, and I will never forget these things.

Everything went left. And it legit was unacceptable to treat peaceful people in that manner. Cops want to go home safe but don’t seem to care if we do.


Dr. Pippa Abston from Huntsville:

I arrived at Big Springs Park at about 4:30 before the start of the protest at 5 p.m. I am pleased to say that multiple medical people and first aid volunteers came. We had at least one EMT. People brought armloads of supplies and water. We had a medical area set up towards the back, and some of us walked through the crowd. I carried a medic sign on a pole.

After the speakers — which I don’t think I can do justice to describing, other than to say extremely inspiring — we were led up the stairs on the side of the park to march. There was chanting. It seemed to me that there were a whole lot more people than on Monday night. The line of marchers really couldn’t move much. We chanted.

Instead of a big march around the square, mainly people seemed to settle in the area in front of the courthouse. Everything I saw appeared peaceful in that area. Again, there were large numbers of police on the courthouse steps. This time they were holding large numbers of wrist ties, indicating to us that they planned to do a lot of arrests, I suppose. We could see people posted on top of the courthouse, and I was told they were snipers, but I couldn’t get a close enough look to verify that.

Suddenly — and again for no discernible reason — police dressed in riot gear lined up along the intersection where Fountain Circle turns into Southside Square. We heard a siren and then once again, unintelligible talking over some kind of sound system. I was roughly opposite the courthouse steps, and none of us could hear them.

Video: Pippa Abston

It turned into that game “operator” that kids play. People were passing along information that they had heard, but it wasn’t the same information. Some said we were supposed to leave in 4 minutes, others said everybody just had to get off the street and onto the sidewalks.

Toward Clinton, which was blocked also on Monday, there was no riot line of police, but there were some police cars, and it wasn’t clear to anyone standing there if that was an exit route. I asked several people if anyone had provided an exit route, as is required, and they said no.

Around that time, some people started coming up to us and reporting that first aid volunteers were being detained and ordered to remove their red cross signs made with tape, on the grounds that they were impersonating doctors. Because of this, the many medical volunteers we had were not identifiable to the crowd.

Several people came to me over the course of the night, because I still had the sign and a red cross on my shirt and backpack. I had put my medical license in with my ID, and I said “let them just try that.” But no one did.

We were also told that police on the courthouse roof were targeting medics — that they were pointing out our position. We were warned by several people to watch out because of that.

A few minutes later, people started passing down the word that they were about to start shooting rubber bullets. So the medical team I was with once again went down the stairs towards Big Spring Park, thinking likely that would be the way folks would flee again.

There was an initial rush of folks running down the stairs again, with some screaming, but this was brief and then people went back up again. We were unsure what to do but decided to stay in the park to be ready for their return. We heard chanting.

Photo: Sarah Myers

After some amount of time, which I did not note because I intentionally left my watch at home, a large crowd of people came screaming, running down those same stairs again into Big Spring Park, being chased by police and we heard shooting of rubber bullets.

We ran also. We heard several large explosions that sounded like bombs. We were told it was tear gas.

Even though it wasn’t really too close to where we were, my eyes did burn.

People passing us said that police had told them we had to leave Big Spring Park, a city park, because it was private property, and that we would be fine if we went across Church Street as long as we didn’t get near businesses.

So a lot of us — maybe 100 or so — walked over there. As we were heading there, we saw a large line of patrol cars with lights and sirens on, coming down Church Street, and we wondered if it was ok after all to go there, but they passed by. We were told they were circling the courthouse.

People milled around on the sidewalk area across near Church Street, which is definitely public property, talking, wondering what was next. Again, we stayed in case we needed to give medical help and also because we had never received any instructions from the police about where to go.

We got word that they were loading up large numbers of police into trucks and coming … to do what, we didn’t know, but we were worried, so we walked further away from Church Street toward the Von Braun Center area.

We saw a line of police advancing down Clinton and onto Monroe Street, and we were worried we were going to get trapped. A large crowd to the left of us were moving past the art museum, and suddenly there were explosions again and what looked like fireworks aimed at the crowd. I was told it was tear gas.

People were running and screaming and several of us were trying to help wash their eyes. These tear gas explosions happened several times. We thought they were trying to drive us to Monroe Street, but we had also seen troopers marching that way, and we didn’t know if we were going to get cornered.

We were still washing people’s eyes. Some people were having intense skin reactions to the gas, burning and redness.

One person had been hit so badly in the eyes that they couldn’t see to find their ride, so they walked with my group back to where we were parked and got a ride with my friends. It seemed like protesters were mostly dispersing from that end of the park. We heard there were continuing protests on Jefferson Street.

I made it home. That was like being in a war, getting shot at, having gas thrown at us. And once again, one of the scariest parts was that it wasn’t clear where to go and be safe from being shot at.

We have to keep showing up for these protests. They are obviously trying to terrorize us into staying home, but we must persist.

The Huntsville police chief is saying that us putting on eye protection and getting out first aid equipment was one of their reasons for gassing and shooting us, because it was a sign we wanted violence.

If I go hiking during hunting season with an orange hat on, am I hoping a hunter will shoot me in the head?

If I lock my car door, am I hoping to have my window broken?

If I wear a mask, am I hoping to get COVID-19?

They had snipers yesterday. If we come wearing bulletproof vests — and no, I don’t own one — are they going to shoot us and say well, look what they made us do?

Could it be that we are aware of their weapons and their history of unprovoked brutality and want to protect ourselves while we exercise our First Amendment rights?

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Authors

Advertisement

The V Podcast

Facebook

Trending