Anniversary of Marcus Smith’s death marked with songs, prayers, calls for justice
Marcus Deon Smith, a homeless African-American man suffering a mental health crisis, died during the 2018 NC Folk Festival after being hogtied by the Greensboro police officers he asked to take him to the hospital. On Sunday, as the 2019 festival was ending, around 75 people gathered at the same spot, 100 N. Church St., where Smith was fatally restrained. There, they commemorated the first anniversary of his death with songs, prayers and calls for transparency and justice from the Greensboro City Council and police.
Speakers included Marcus Smith’s mother Mary Smith, his sister Kim Suber, ministers Nelson Johnson and Wesley Morris, and retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts Jr. Some who listened, sang and applauded have been protesting Marcus Smith’s death since late 2018, while others learned about it this weekend from announcements by folk festival performers such as the band Skinny Tuba. Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson’s presence marked the first time this year a city council member has attended such a gathering.
“I’m here because I wanted to pay honor to Marcus Smith, who died on this street right here under very unfortunate circumstances,” Johnson told me before the ceremony.
The proceedings began with a song requested by Mary Smith and sung by Erica Wrencher, a facilitator of the Good Neighbor Movement and the wife of Good Neighbor Pastor Brandon Wrencher. As Erica Wrencher hit a lilting high note on “It’s been a long time, a long time coming,” a visibly moved Mary Smith rose and added her deeper voice to “but I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”
Rev. Wesley Morris, the pastor of Faith Community Church, followed with an extemporaneous opening prayer, which included, “we ask the universe, that hears all things and bends towards these cries, that we might be stronger even in this moment, knowing that change is here.”
The gathering was organized by the Greensboro Coalition for Justice for Marcus Smith and the Homeless Union of Greensboro and conducted by the Reverend Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center.
Johnson referred to the festival winding down nearby, contrasting the “good times and pleasure” with a reminder “that Marcus Smith died a tragic death at the hands of the Greensboro police.” At that moment, one of the GPD officers stationed a half-block away appeared to look in the direction of Johnson’s amplified voice, then went back to directing traffic.
Next to speak was Kim Suber, who said her father George Smith was watching the ceremony via Facetime from his hospital bed in South Carolina.
“My dad got violently sick in November of last year and my family believes he suffered a broken heart from watching the footage” of the GPD body camera videos of her brother becoming unresponsive while forcibly restrained face-down near where she stood.
She said that before she first heard how her brother died, she didn’t know what “hogtied” meant, and was horrified to find out.
“Imagine seeing a loved one die that way. That was the most hardest thing I ever endured in my entire life.”
She urged the crowd to vote in the next election and “get the right people in place so that nobody else has to stand here and suffer what we’ve suffered, to endure what we’ve endured. My mom, she had to go ahead and retire to take care of my dad. It’s just been one thing after another.”
She also made a promise.
“Know this, Greensboro, whoever needs to listen, the higher-ups, the mayor, the city council, anybody. Listen to me when I say this. We will not go anywhere until we have justice for Marcus Deon Smith. We will drive this road until I don’t have no more tires, I don’t have no more rim, I don’t have no more oil.”
She was followed by her mother, who said: “I just don’t understand how Greensboro can have such wonderful people, yet such a corrupt police department.”
Mary Smith praised the Homeless Union of Greensboro, the Beloved Community Center, Democracy Greensboro, Nelson Johnson, Marcus Hyde, Wesley Morris, and Hester Petty (whom she called “better than Columbo” for Petty’s efforts to prove that statements by GPD Chief Wayne Scott contained falsehoods). “Y’all have supported us since day one.”
After Eddie Brewer, a member of the Homeless Union of Greensboro and a friend of Marcus Smith handed Mary Smith a water bottle, she responded with, “All Marcus needed was this, a bottle of water.”
Another emotional speech was from Quae Guest, the last person to see Marcus Smith alive before he approached the police officers who fatally restrained him.
“The night of Marcus’s death, all I’ll say is this, water is all he needed. Nobody took the opportunity to sit him down and give him a bottle of water, something so simple, so small, so quick, that water and a little conversation would have led him to still be here today.”
Guest praised what she described as Smith’s good nature and positive attitude, and his efforts to befriend and help herself and others in the homeless community.
“We didn’t have too many people did that and took the time with our brothers and our sisters, because Marcus wasn’t just male-on-male, he helped us, women, too, and he did it in the manner of a big brother, the big brother we were always needing.”
Johnson then introduced retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts, a longtime critic of the Greensboro Police Department and what he considers to be the city’s refusal to investigate “the GPD’s pattern and practice of misconduct and violence against people of color.”
Pitts began by announcing “an article has gone around the nation about this case.”
He was referring to a Sept. 8 article on the national online independent news organization Truthout.org by Flint Taylor, co-founder of the People’s Law Office of Chicago and part of the legal team representing the Smith family in their federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Greensboro, eight GPD officers, Guilford County and two paramedics.
The Greensboro attorney on that team is Graham Holt, whom a Guilford County superior court judge is seeking to censure for violating his gag order about discussing the body camera videos of an earlier case of alleged GPD misconduct. Unlike the videos in the Marcus Smith case, those depicting a 2016 alteration between Holt’s former client Zared Jones, Jones’ friends and GPD officers have not been released. Holt and the city council have been given clearance to view them, but are forbidden to discuss what they see.
(A YES! Weekly article on the move to censure Holt will appear once Greensboro city attorney Chuck Watts has had time to respond to statements made by Pitts at a Thursday press conference.)
Speaking on Sunday, Pitts called the censure an effort to discredit Holt in retaliation for his disclosure of GPD wrongdoing and his allegations of a city cover-up, both in the Zared Jones case and the Marcus Smith one.
“There will be a lot more details to come out about this, but we need to stand in solidarity with this family, with their federal litigation, and with attorney Holt, and pay close attention to these facts, as they show that it was not Mr. Holt that leaked it, that it was the city attorney and city council that allowed it to go out.”
Nelson Johnson called the gag order that Holt is accused of violating the result of “legislation that is illegal itself, and is there only by gerrymandering,” adding that the gag order “muzzles people and acts like the public is the enemy.”
The ceremony concluded with Erica Wrencher and Mary Smith singing another one of Smith’s favorite songs, Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” with the crowd linking hands and joining in on the chorus of “we all need someone to lean on.”
Afterward, Mary Smith and Kim Suber told me that they were hugely moved and grateful for “the tremendous support from these good people in Greensboro.” They also asked that this article include something they told me earlier in the day when I encountered them at the afternoon performance of Skinny Tuba in LeBauer park, where they thanked that acclaimed New Orleans jazz band for speaking about their case from the stage.
“Goldie Wells owes the family an apology for saying about Marcus Smith, that maybe it was his time to die,” said Mary Smith, referring to a statement that the District 2 representative had made at a city council meeting. “She tried to call us and apologize, but we would not accept a private one. She said it in public, and we want her to apologize in public.”
Mary Smith also said that she wants an apology from At-Large Representative Marikay Abuzuaiter because, at an earlier city council meeting, Abuzuaiter speculated that the hogtie restraint used by the GPD might have been necessary because drugs had given Marcus Smith “superhuman strength.”
“Nobody on earth other than Samson ever had superhuman strength,” Mary Smith said. “That was a slap in our face after losing our son.”