By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO
Sitting in the living room of her modest trailer off a dirt road in the small Eastern Shore town of Greensboro, Md., Jennell Black recalls the sense of panic and confusion she felt when she first heard her son Anton cry out for help four months ago.
“When I heard him scream `Help, help me mommy,’ I thought he was in his bedroom,” she told the AFRO.
“I turned around and opened up the door and all these officers were on top of him.”
There next to a family car she saw a plain clothes police officer holding the 19-year old former high school track star in what she describes as a choke hold.
“They had Anton in a headlock,” she recalled. “I said he’s turning blue.
They pushed him up against the wall, and when they pulled his head back Anton’s head just dropped.”
Minutes later, Anton was carted off in ambulance. But Jennell already knew her son was dead.
“I was crying, because I knew he was gone,” she said, her voice cracking.
And now four months later snow covers the decrepit wooden ramp where Anton took his last breath. And the pain not only lingers but has turned to frustration. That’s because Anton’s family and their supporters say the investigation has not only faltered, but stalled.
The Caroline County State’s Attorney and the state police, who are investigating Anton’s death. They say they are awaiting the results of the autopsy before proceeding. Meanwhile, the office of the State Medical Examiner has yet to issue a report. Spokesman Bruce Goldfarb declined to comment on when their conclusions will be made public.
But, that lack of official progress has not stopped information finding its way into media reports. Bits and pieces of rumors that Jenell Black said are intended to sully her son’s reputation and place the blame for his death squarely on him.
“It was hard enough to take his life, and then to tell the lies out in public with these unidentified police sources and an ME report giving information on Aton’s body,” said Trevor Hewick, a private investigator working with the family at an impromptu community meeting.
Among the information that has leaked supporters say is false, is that Anton had tried to abduct the 12-year old family friend who accompanied him that day for a walk to a nearby park and that he attacked the officers who tried to arrest him. Most disturbing, family members said, is an unsourced statement from the ME’s office that Anton’s body showed no evidence of trauma.
It is information his sister Latonya, who viewed her brother’s body shortly after he died says is false. Instead, she believes Anton’s body showed signs that he had been asphyxiated.
“That night I went to the hospital to visit Anton’s body.” she told the AFRO.
“They had him covered up to his neck and they told us we couldn’t touch him. I did notice the white part of this eyeball was red, bloodshot. I know if you strangle someone long enough, the vessels are going to blow,” she added.
The lack of concrete information mixed with innuendo has raised tensions within the town’s Black population.
At a recent gathering at the Baptist Church dozens of the city’s African-American residents say a city-led pivot to more aggressive policing is in in part to blame for a police encounter that should have been routine.
“Members of this council said, things of the nature, we need police that will be tougher on the community, tougher on the citizens,” said Christina Robinson, a resident of Greensboro.
Last year, the town made a controversial decision to hire former Denton Delaware police officer Tom Webster, the cop who initially stopped Anton. The move was divisive because Webster had recently resigned after he was caught on video kicking an African-American man and breaking his jaw during an arrest in 2013.
He was indicted on charges of second-degree assault but was acquitted at trial. Webster’s hiring prompted concerns that the move signaled a shift to more aggressive policing tactics.
“He’s been stopping black boys all along, ever since he’s been here,” said Mary Boyce, the great-grandmother of Anton Black’s daughter.
But, at a recent council meeting where members voted to place Officer Webster on administrative leave, Mayor Tom Noon stood behind the decision to hire him and said there had been no strategic shift in policing.
“I don’t agree with that, I don’t at all,” he said.
It’s a divide between supporters of Anton’s family and the majority White council that continues to roil the city. But a disagreement also rooted in a national conflict over how communities of color are policed, residents say.
Key to that question is the reason Anton was stopped in the first place.
A white woman has said publicly on social media she called police after she claims she saw Anton dragging the 12-year old child on a bridge not far from his home. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.
But family members and supporters who have viewed surveillance video of the encounter with officer Webster says what they’ve seen shows no evidence of an abduction.
“I saw two individuals walking up the road, and then all of sudden you saw this police car coming up. And then you see Anton run,” said Richard Potter, former president of the Easton NAACP who is leading a coalition to support the family.
“They were two people just walking.”
Anton’s father, Anton Black Sr. says the allegations his son would harm the boy are absurd.
“That is his cousin in law, the boy’s cousin is married to my daughter,” he told The AFRO.
“We are all in the same family,” he added.
Police said they would be willing to allow the family to view the body camera footage from Officer Webster to allay concerns. But Hewick says the family wants the body camera footage made available to the public, not just to them.
Lost in the conflict says Anton’s sister Latonya, is both the promise and bright future of a young man who should still be alive.
“I really can’t believe he’s actually gone,” she said.
A stand-out high school athlete, Anton was a state champion sprinter and a star wide receiver on the local high school football team. He was also an aspiring actor and model who family members say appeared on the famous New York catwalk during fashion week.
Recently Anton was contemplating following in his father’s footsteps by joining the military, his family says.
But all those plans, including welcoming the birth of daughter, are over. Now they are focused on a goal shared by many African-American families across the country who have lost a son or brother after an encounter with police: justice for a young man whose life is over before it began.
“We want justice now, not later,” said Janelle Black. “We want everyone held accountable for what they did to Anton.”