GREENSBORO — In some cities, the death of a black man in police custody has sparked an instant explosion. In Greensboro, there’s been a slow burn of unease among neighbors.
Tensions have simmered in this tiny Eastern Shore town since 19-year-old Anton Black died Sept. 15. Some residents are deeply troubled by the way officers treated him, and angry that yet another unarmed African-American teen in this country died after an encounter with law enforcement. Others say the incident, while tragic, stemmed from police trying to quell a potentially dangerous situation.
Still others aren’t sure what to think. “I don’t know if it was racism, and I don’t know if it was an officer doing his job,” said 32-year-old Trevor Nichols, a business owner. “I wasn’t there.”
Less than a mile from the debate on Main Street, a mother lives with the memory of watching her son’s body go limp after police tackled him to the ground and bound him in shackles.
Anton’s family and supporters in the community have spent most of the past four months pushing for answers. Police hadn’t released body camera footage from the day Anton died. The medical examiner hadn’t determined a cause of death.
Last week, as political pressure increased and more eyes turned to Greensboro, information trickled out. The public got to see 38 minutes of body camera footage, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner issued its report: Anton Black’s death, it stated, was an accident.
The new information has only added to the family’s questions about why Anton died, and whether anyone will be held accountable.
“These are not answers. These are lies,” his sister LaToya Holley, 37, said of the autopsy’s findings. “As upset as the report has made my family, what’s even more upsetting is the fact that Anton isn’t here with us anymore and there’s no reason for that.”
Other residents have questions, too. How did something so ugly happen here?
“We’ve seen it in New York, in Florida and here we are in Greensboro,” said Richard Potter, a leader in the recently formed Coalition for Justice for Anton Black. “No community is immune from this happening.”
Is he breathing?
It started with a 911 call, a woman reporting a kidnapping in action. She said she saw an older man trying to abduct a kid around 12 years old.
The older man was Jennell Black’s son Anton. The younger boy, she would say later in disbelief, was a family member.
The body camera footage shows a foot chase through town before the confrontation outside the Black family’s home in a trailer park. After a Greensboro police officer stops Anton and the boy, the teenager takes off running. The officer follows him to the trailer park. Two other men — off-duty police officers from other forces — and at least one civilian on a motorcycle join the pursuit.
The Greensboro officer calls into his radio that the suspect is schizophrenic — a characterization Anton’s family says is untrue.
Holley imagines her brother being so scared in this moment, with multiple men running after him. She thinks about basic human instinct: Fight or flight.
In the video, Anton gets inside a parked car outside his family’s mobile home. The officer shatters the window, deploying a Taser. Anton jumps out the other side, and is overpowered by one of the off-duty police. The officers, and the civilian wearing a motorcycle helmet, team up to get Anton on the ground, handcuffing him as he lays on a ramp leading up to his front door. One man appears to be lying on top of him.
Jennell Black, hearing the commotion, comes outside. “Anton!” she yells. The officers tell her they’re treating this as a mental health emergency, not a crime.
Anton becomes limp and unresponsive. “Is he breathing?” his mother asks. One of the men speculates the teen’s been smoking laced marijuana. The toxicology report would find no evidence of drugs in Anton’s system.
A police officer, and then a medic who arrives, perform CPR for several minutes before an officer removes the shackles from Anton’s ankles.
The Greensboro officer calls his police chief to tell him what happened. “It turned into a real show,” he says.
Anton Black was transported to Easton Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. According to the autopsy, he suffered a “sudden cardiac death.” The report says it is likely that the stress of his struggle with law enforcement contributed. The medical examiner also cited an underlying heart condition and bipolar disorder as factors in his death.
The autopsy also notes more than 40 blunt force trauma wounds, including to the teen’s head, face and neck.
Greensboro Police Chief Mike Petyo said in an interview that his officer, and the two off-duty officers from other agencies, handled themselves professionally and showed “genuine concern” for Anton’s well-being. Petyo said he would’ve handled the incident the same way.
A police consultant brought in to review the body camera footage “did not see anything excessive by any of the officers on there.”
Anton’s family’s disagrees. “There was no good reason for these officers to inflict this degree of force on Anton Black, or even to arrest him,” they said in a statement released by attorneys.
A town, consumed
A day after the police video came out, Gary Wyatt walked into Greensboro Florist on Main Street bellowing: “Did you know the guy on the bike was no law enforcement? He had no business being there.”
Wyatt, who owns the trailer park where Jennell Black lives, says he’s concerned about the way Anton was arrested.
Some residents say the initial secrecy surrounding the death and the subsequent revelations have consumed the town. The incident is on the front page of every local newspaper delivered to residents’ doors. It’s divided neighbors and led to heated debates on social media.
The coalition fighting on behalf of Anton even called for residents to boycott a local business after its owners posted a Facebook status in support of police.
Asked by a reporter about the case, many people waved off the question and said they’re not getting into all that.
“It’s chaotic,” said Dawn Nepert, who owns the flower shop. “This teeny tiny town is just over the top now.”
About 1,800 people live in Greensboro, founded in 1732. Along Main Street, there’s a locally owned pharmacy, a coin-operated laundromat and an appliance store celebrating its 50th anniversary. A gun shop just opened up on the corner.
It’s a majority white town; about 15 percent of residents are black, according to census figures.
All three members of the Greensboro Police Department are white. A fourth member will soon join the department. He’s white, too.
Some residents see race as an undeniable factor in what happened to Anton. His father calls it a lynching.
Others in town insist they’re color-blind and that police are, too.
“Race has no factor in it whatsoever,” Chief Petyo said.
Complicating matters is the history of the Greensboro officer at the center of the incident, Thomas Webster IV. He could not be reached for comment.
Even before he joined the force, Webster was controversial. Some residents protested his hiring a year ago after learning he had been indicted on second-degree assault charges while working for a Delaware police force. Dash-cam footage showed him kicking a black man in the jaw during an arrest in 2013. Webster was later found not guilty, according to the Wilmington News Journal, and he resigned with a $230,000 severance package.
Webster’s now on administrative leave from the Greensboro department, though he remained on the job for almost four months after Anton’s death.
At Town Council meetings, the Black family had begged officials to at least temporarily take Webster off the streets. The mayor and council initially declined, but reversed course earlier this month.
Some residents wonder why it took so long for town leadership to reach this decision. On page 61 of the Greensboro Police Department policy manual, in the section on police-involved deaths, it states: “Each involved GPD officer shall be given reasonable paid administrative leave.”
The policy also states: “Mere flight from a pursuing officer, without other known circumstances or factors, is not good cause for the use of the TASER to apprehend an individual.”
Trey Tyson, 20, grew up alongside Anton. They played football together at North Caroline High.
Tyson, who is black, says he’s always felt like he has to watch out for police officers, now even more so. He can’t believe that Webster wasn’t put on leave sooner.
Others feel police behaved appropriately and reserve judgement on Webster. Some question why Anton didn’t stop when he was told to do so by an officer.
But on one thing, a number of residents agree — they never anticipated their little town would be dealing with this kind of big-city problem. Or that Gov. Larry Hogan would be pushing for answers, too. Or that numerous TV stations would set up shop outside Town Hall.
“Our poor town is now walking on eggshells,” said Ashley Burl, 35. “You don’t know what to say or do. You don’t want to offend the family who is grieving. You don’t know all the facts to say one way or another what happened. As it unfolds, it keeps changing from one thing to another.”
While the town grapples with what happened, a baby girl is growing up never having met her dad.
The girl’s mother, Katyra Boyce, says Anton was so excited to be a father. He went to all the pre-natal appointments. He loved the ultrasounds, relishing in the ability to watch his daughter’s features form. He talked constantly about whether the baby would look like him.
She does, Boyce says. Baby Winter could’ve been her father’s twin.
“It’s hurtful that he can’t see that,” said Boyce, 24. Winter was born about two months after Anton died.
Anton’s family says they’re fighting so hard for justice because the teenager was so special. He was a track star and football standout in high school. He had enrolled in Wesley College in Dover, Del., to study criminal justice. He had once hoped to become a police officer himself.
They have so many questions, still.
The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black is pressing for more answers, and for change. The Police Department has agreed to their demand that it form a chief’s advisory council, and says it will look into diversity training. The coalition also wants policies changed so that a police officer must automatically go on administrative leave if involved in a death. They say they want justice for Anton — and for Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
An aspiring model, Anton had walked a runway during New York Fashion Week.
Antone Black Sr. thought his son was going to be the person to put Greensboro on the map.
Now, in his death, that prediction may prove true.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jean Marbella and Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.