A White Mother’s Tribute To Black Mother’s Sons

By Barbara S. McMahan

Special To The Carolinian

Like many of Raleigh’s black mothers whose sons are victims of our nation’s 50-year War on Drugs, in 2016 Rolanda Byrd, Executive Director of Raleigh PACT lost her son, Akiel to police violence. 

During the past four difficult years of unthinkable loss for her family, Rolanda has been driven by her pain and the pain of other black mothers to work for accountability in Raleigh policing. Recently her youngest son, TraVon stepped out to lead a candlelight vigil on Bragg Street in memory of his beloved older brother, Akiel. 

Without pause, passionate white protesters joined black, and followed TraVon and members of the Bloods and Crips from the State Capitol into Southeast Raleigh. 

That was where Akiel Denkins died a little over a leap year ago on February 29 in the backyard of a neighbor’s house on the corner of East St. and Bragg. 

Akiel lost his life that day when Raleigh Officer Twiddy chased him to lock him up for a missed court date on drug charges. 

When Twiddy reached his limit at the neighbor’s fence Akiel had easily jumped over, he made a quick decision. Rather than stop his pursuit and come back the next day with backup, he shot several bullets from a distance which penetrated Akiel’s body under his arm and through his back and killed him. 

As proud as I was to know TraVon and members of the Bloods and Crips led the vigil a few Sunday nights ago, the poignancy of this moment grew when I recalled that in the summer of 2016 many of these same guys gathered for a cookout on Bragg Street. 

It was co-hosted by Rolanda Byrd and her family and Raleigh PACT in celebration of Akiel’s life.  I was there that day as a member of Raleigh PACT and also the Political Action Chair of Raleigh-Apex NAACP. While the other women from the community were helping get things ready, I picked up the pens and voter registration forms Rolanda Byrd asked me to bring, and went with her to ask each young man she introduced me to if they’d like to register to vote. 

After her eldest son was killed, Rolanda Byrd appealed to every young man and person in the community who loved her son to commit to responding with non-violence to the family’s and the larger community’s tragic loss of Akiel.

Many of the same guys from the Bloods and Crips who showed up that summer day for the cookout, also spoke in March at Akiel’s homegoing. 

They made promises to honor Mama Byrd’s request for non-violence. Even though she hoped more would fill out a voter registration form and vote as an act of non-violence, she and I were both glad for the one man who filled out his form and was excited to vote in the upcoming 2016 elections. 

Four years later this June, I was excited when Rolanda texted that TraVon and a lot of these same young men led an interracial, intergenerational candlelight vigil from the State Capitol to Bragg Street. 

According to news reports afterwards, the white people who joined the vigil with these young men on Bragg Street made sure the news got out that they were safe and welcomed by the neighbors. Bragg Street, of course is in one of the main black neighborhoods the Raleigh Police Department targets as a downtown location that requires a strong police presence. 

Unlike the protesters, those with Raleigh Policing and City Government who believe in the need for domination and control, are the ones whose fear and failure to care are costing the lives of black mothers’ sons like Akiel Denkins and others who live in over-policed neighborhoods. 

In a nation where the creation of more white wealth depends on the domination of white political, social and economic powers, black mothers’ sons lack access to the same opportunities in life as white mothers’ sons have. 

Thankfully, black sons are also sons of strong black mothers and women who go before the Mayor and Members at monthly Raleigh City Council Meetings. They tell the stories of the Black sons they’ve lost—like Mamie Till told Emmett Till’s story to the world, when she left her black son’s casket open for everyone to see what a single self-appointed white supremacist judge and the one man jury with him, did to her beloved black child in August 1955. 

Up until now, in what many of us believe is the Third Reconstruction of our country, black men and youth in Raleigh have been left to do the best they could to survive encounters with police. 

Thankfully, times are changing. Continued Police brutality and murder versus the provision of the same resources for health and well-being the sons of white mothers receive, has proven unacceptable to the majority who witnessed the murder of George Floyd. Most of us see that like Emmett Till’s lynching mob in 1955, police “mobs” today still have a license to lynch using an arm or a knee. 

The horror of daily threats to their sons’ black lives and bodies causes black mothers to lose sleep and to suffer the stress of constantly worrying and waiting to see if their sons will make it back home each night. 

White mothers who wait up for their sons to walk through the front door often do so with the excitement of knowing they are coming home for a visit from college. 

The War on Drugs and other systems of racial oppression ensure that most of those who make it to college are predominantly white youth who are safe doing drugs in their dorm rooms. Black youth whose outlooks for the future are often colored by racial inequities in systems of education, housing, economics and always in policing, go through life as targets for the white man’s War on Drugs. [See President Nixon, 1969].

Two years after Akiel Denkins was shot and killed in 2016 by an RPD officer, Curtis Mangum died in a drug related encounter with Raleigh police. In 2018 he and three black friends in a car on the south side of town were stopped-and-searched in the 400 block of Rose Lane by RPD Officer K.L Potter.

Several RPD Officers looked on while Potter handcuffed the driver of the car, Dextro White, Jr., his girlfriend and a third passenger, placed them on the curb, and went back to the car to get Curtis Mangum, yelling a stream of commands at him from a distance to “Spit it out!” “Spit it out!” “Spit it out!”  

The three passengers and fellow officers on the scene witnessed K.L. Potter forcibly remove Curtis Mangum through the back window and push him to the ground. They all looked on too, while Officer K.L. Potter pulled Curtis’ head back by his hair and continued to yell loud commands to “Spit it out!” 

Dextro White was detained 45 minutes or more at South-East Substation before being taken to jail and released the next day without charges. When the first two passenger from the car arrived at South-East District, Dextro was gone. They were detained 30 minutes before being released directly from the station without charges. 

According to ABC-11 News, when Curtis Mangum was taken into custody at South-East Station District, he “exhibit(ed) signs of “medical distress.” The officers prioritized conducting a strip-search before assisting Mr. Mangum to the ambulance waiting for him outside the front entrance. 

He was transported to WakeMed Hospital to receive appropriate treatment for a suspected overdose. According to the police report sited on ABC-11, “Curtis Mangum had a torn plastic bag in his stomach at the time of his death.” Curtis died less than a half-mile from his mother’s home. 

Betty Johnson learned about her son’s death the next afternoon from a first-cousin who learned about it on Facebook.  

It is no accident that the War on Drugs came into vogue following the 1950s–60s Civil Rights Movement. Over the course of two decades the moral call and response to cries for justice grew loud enough and strong enough to legally put an end to racist laws/practices in key systems created to serve the people: 

In August of 1955, the hearts of White America were broken when Emmett Till’s mother made the decision to leave her beloved son’s casket open for the world to see the evil and brutality of White Supremacy in our country.  

On December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery City Bus saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” she expressed the grit and determination of all of Black America, still reeling four months later from the brutal murder of Emmett Till. 

May 1957, Brown vs Board of Education effectively ended racial segregation in public schools. 

September 1957, Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, allowing federal prosecution of those who seek to suppress the right to vote

July 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 preventing discrimination in policies and practices in the work force

August 1964, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965

April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 

April 11, 1968, LBJ signed the Fair Housing Act

By the time President Nixon was elected to office in 1969, Black America’s legal rights to equal access to public education, voting, jobs and fair housing had become powerful collective threats to our nation’s rich and powerful System of White Domination. As an antidote to our nation’s progress in civil and human rights, President Nixon and his administration entered office ready to declare a War on Drugs designed to reinforce White superiority and domination. This was done with a powerful mandate to federal and local law enforcement to use incarceration as a key weapon for fighting the War on Drugs. 

According to “(k)ey data from opendatapolicing.com… maintained by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice”, what this war looks like in Raleigh at the statistical level is that while Black people make up about 21% of the population, 71% of all drivers searched by Raleigh Police and 67% of those arrested for low-level marijuana charges have been Black. Additionally, only 21% of RPD’s routine traffic stops-and-searches are White people, who own and operate a significantly greater number of vehicles on the roads in Raleigh. [See June 14, 2018 Raleigh PACT Presentation to Raleigh Human Relations Commission]. 

Those of us who are White and often blind to the privileged public services we receive from Raleigh Police, would be heartbroken if Ashley McLeod and Cynthia Harden had made the decision Mamie Till did to leave their sons’ caskets open for all of Raleigh to see. In 2013 their sons, Trendell Thomas and Maurice Harden were killed instantly, turning into a driveway late at night on their moped. Raleigh Officer Dennis Riley was going 77 mph on a high-speed chase of a driver speeding in a predominantly black area of town. 

Officer Riley was never disciplined, nor did the city step in to pay funeral costs for the two Black mothers who struggled to afford to properly bury their sons. Three years later when Maurice Harden’s older brother, Jaquan Terry continued to feel guilty and get into angry fights with the mother of his children, his unspoken cries for emotional and psychological help echoed in a dead zone of Raleigh where the Police and City Council are either not listening or don’t care . 

The help Jaquan Terry needed could have been provided through services paid for by the city to help families whose loved ones died to police violence, etc. Instead three years after Maurice Harden was killed on his moped, his older brother Jaquan left the house angry after a heated domestic fight with his children’s mother, and was shot and killed by Raleigh Police.

Ten months after Maurice died, Officer Riley was involved in another incident with two other Black men. He and another officer drove them to a strip mall after failing to find drugs in their car during a traffic stop-and-search. The men were detained for an hour and strip-searched in the dark of night in a deserted area before being left to find their way back to their car. 

These men and others like them whose lives ought to matter to the people in power in Raleigh, are some of the ones Raleigh Police Officers have inhumanely treated or killed over the last seven years. Given the high rate of Black men unjustifiably strip-searched, put behind bars, denied mental health services and murdered by Raleigh police, Rolanda Byrd’s 2016 request of the Bloods and the Crips to respond with non-violence to her son’s murder, was more remarkable than many realize. 

The day of the cookout on Bragg St. in 2016, is the day I met Keith Dutree Collins. Keith was the one Black man I talked about earlier in the first part of the article, who was with the guys that day and said, “Yes!” when I asked if he wanted to register and vote in the upcoming 2016 Presidential and Municipal Elections. That was the same year a coalition of 16 Black businesses and community organizations with Raleigh PACT began a major campaign to advocate for an external community oversight board with legal powers to subpoena, investigate and hold Raleigh Officers accountable.  

Keith’s face brightened even more than usual as he filled out his registration form at the cookout. I remember being struck back then by his warm engaging smile and a light in his eyes I would recognize four years later, in a picture from February of this year. I recognized Keith’s face immediately in a news feed on my iPhone, and was sad to read that on January 30, 2020, Keith Dutree Collins was shot 11 times and killed by RPD Senior Officer W. B. Tapscott. 

After viewing the body Cam footage of the shooting at RPD headquarters, Leigh Tauss, INDY Week investigative reporter wrote, “I don’t know why Keith Dutree Collins ran from police after being approached on Pleasant Valley Road last Friday. I don’t know why, in the middle of the chase, he turned to face the officer holding what cops say was a BB gun. I don’t know why the officer, having already fired four shots at Collins, fired seven more rounds at him as he lay bleeding on the ground… There are many questions left unanswered by graphic footage of Collin’s death, made available to a few members of the public Wednesday morning.” (2/5/2020, INDY Week)  

Since I hadn’t expected to see the face of a Black man I had the pleasure of meeting four years earlier at the cookout, when I saw Keith Collin’s face on my screen it took a moment to realize where I’d met him. As soon as I did I instinctively went to vt.ncsbe.gov., and typed in his name. Recorded in bold black letters I read: 

Voter Search Results (1) 

Collins, Keith Dutree

County: Wake

Status:  Removed 

R.I.P. Keith Dutree Collins, Curtis Mangum, Akiel Denkins, and others killed by Raleigh Police 

  Left all of Raleigh lift up the legacies you’ve left us and sing…

    We who believe in freedom cannot rest 

      …until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons

      …is as important as the killing of White men; White mothers’ sons

                                      Words from Ella’s Song

                                      Written & Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock

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