STONEWALL, Miss. (AP) — Hundreds of people gathered Sunday night at a baseball park in a small Mississippi town to remember a black man who died after a physical encounter with a white police officer and to call for action.
The crowd repeatedly shouted “No justice, no peace!” Lawrence Kirskey, president of the Clark County NAACP, suggested they boycott local businesses because of lack of action in the death of 39-year-old Jonathan Sanders.
Sanders died after crossing paths with part-time Stonewall police officer Kevin Herrington, 25, late July 8. Sanders had been riding in a two-wheeled buggy pulled by a horse.
What happened that night is intensely disputed, and is being investigated by the FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.
Lawyers for Sanders’ family and for witnesses say Herrington attacked without provocation after the two saw each other at a convenience store about a mile across town. C.J. Lawrence, who represents three witnesses, said Sanders was doing nothing illegal and didn’t resist while Herrington choked him to death.
But Herrington’s attorney, Bill Ready Jr., said Sanders had what appeared to be illegal drugs and grabbed the officer’s gun during a struggle.
Neither Sanders’ mother nor his sister spoke at the rally. But Kayla Clark and Charita Kennedy, the mothers of Sanders’ 9-month-old son and 1-year-old daughter, thanked the crowd and asked town residents to keep supporting the family.
About 200 people from this town of 1,100 near the Alabama line attended the rally, avoiding the dozens of fire ant hills that dotted the park. Another 100 or so joined from parking lots across the street or after parking on neighborhood streets, and marched about a mile to the police station.
Herrington is on unpaid leave and left town on a family trip, Ready said. Sanders’ survivors buried him Saturday.
Authorities are asking for calm while they finish investigating. But there were already two protests last weekend.
Attorneys for Sanders’ family paint his death as part of a larger nationwide struggle over police brutality against black men, and they see it as part of the unfinished civil rights movement in Stonewall, a town named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Sanders family lawyer, said authorities told relatives that an autopsy found he died from “manual asphyxiation” — strangulation. He said the manner of death was homicide, not accidental.
A spokesman for MBI said the agency doesn’t discuss ongoing investigations.
The autopsy finding doesn’t necessarily mean Herrington committed a crime and accounts so far leave unanswered questions: What triggered the encounter? Was Herrington using necessary force, or was Sanders the victim of an overly aggressive officer?
And at a time when police departments are under intense scrutiny for treatment of black suspects, did race play a factor?
Stonewall doesn’t have cameras in police cars or on officers, putting the focus on witnesses. Clarke County Sheriff Todd Kemp said one witness is Rachel Williams, a jail guard in neighboring Lauderdale County.
Lawrence, the witnesses’ attorney and Lumumba’s law partner, won’t confirm her name, or describe the others, except to say they are related and also distantly related to Sanders by marriage. Lawrence said the witnesses sought lawyers because they fear for their safety.
Also present at the time of the death was Herrington’s wife, Kasey Herrington, who was riding that night in his police car.
The lawyers for the witnesses relayed their accounts to The Associated Press but said they did not want to talk directly with reporters: The witnesses say Herrington drove up behind Sanders and flashed his blue lights, making the horse rear. Sanders fell off the buggy and chased the horse, while Herrington ran up and grabbed Sanders by the strap of a headlamp he was wearing that had fallen around his neck. They say Sanders fell to the ground in a fetal position, trying to relieve pressure on his neck but otherwise not resisting, while Herrington lay atop him and put him in a chokehold.
The attorneys said one witness went outside and pleaded with Herrington to release Sanders. He refused until his wife retrieved his gun. Then Herrington directed his wife to radio for backup. When Herrington finally released Sanders, witnesses say he was unconscious, with blood coming out of his mouth.
Ready, on the other hand, said a struggle began after Herrington found Sanders with drugs and Sanders tried to run.