Sadly, it was only a matter of time before it happened here in Mississippi--a black man was killed by a white cop amid mysterious circumstances and officials are trying to keep tensions from simmering.
It happened on late Wednesday night in tiny Stonewall when, according to various media outlets, a 39-year-old black man named Jonathan Sanders had some sort of altercation with a white officer named Kevin Herrington.
Stewart Parrish, an attorney Sanders had once hired to represent him on a case, told Meridian television WTOK that Sanders was riding in a buggy exercising his horses when Herrington stopped Sanders, initiating an altercation that ended in Sanders' death, reportedly by choking.
The exact details are, of course, muddy. Early reports suggested that Herrington used a flashlight to subdue Sanders. Stonewall Police Chief Michael Street denied those reports, but hasn't gone into much detail about the incident that happened between 10:30 and 11 o'clock at night, citing his department's ongoing investigation. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is handling the case.
"We just ask that the citizens allow that to take place, not to try to take anything out in the streets. Our door is open," Street told WTOK.
Street's comments are an obvious reference to protests sparked by the deaths of African American men by--often white--police officers in the past year. Sanders' death is hauntingly similar to that of Eric Garner in New York City last summer. Like Garner, Sanders reportedly told Herrington that he couldn't breathe in the moments before he died, Parrish told the media.
The Guardian reported that Chief Street said "Sanders had no active warrants against him and that Harrington did not know who he was when the confrontation took place."
However, that didn't stop Jackson's local daily newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, from using Sanders' mugshot (most other media outlets chose a picture of the victim warmly smiling with family members or with his horses; see below) and devoted the end of its story to talking about his rap sheet, writing:
"Sanders had crossed paths with authorities before. Circuit Clerk Beth Jordan said Sanders was out on bond from an April arrest for possession of cocaine, and that he had been convicted on charges of sale of cocaine in 2003."
The paper went on to point out: "MDOC Communications Director Grace Fisher said Sanders was given five years to serve with five years probation. He was released on May 23, 2007. Sanders' arrest record also shows arrests dating back to 2001 for disturbance of the family peace, sale of a counterfeit substance, domestic violence, and some traffic violations.
Several dozen commenters took the paper to task. Said one woman in the comments section: "Never fails; the weaponless dead victim is always prosecuted in the media to deflect how they ended up dead at the hands of police. Shame on the Clarion-Ledger."
As for the officer, the C-L made a point of noting that Herrington, according to Chief Street, "has never received any complaints of abuse of force or even any written complaints for anything else" and is on administrative leave.
An autopsy of Sanders' body is under way here in Jackson.
Update: The Sanders family has hired the Jackson-based law firm of Lumumba & Associates as legal counsel and to serve as official spokesmen to the media. The attorneys handling the case, Chokwe Antar Lumumba and C.J. Lawrence, said in a letter that an official statement would be forthcoming pending the family's approval.
Lumumba is the son of late Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba; Lawrence worked on the late mayor's communications staff and last year earned national media notoriety for starting the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which criticized mainstream media character assassinations of black victims of police violence -- such as the recent Clarion-Ledger story about Jonathan Sanders.