It was outsiders who brought profane signs against the police to the candlelight vigil the night Akiel Denkins was shot and killed by a Raleigh police officer.
It was outsiders who dashed to podiums and news cameras to speak for a community they don’t know – a community steeped in African-American history a stone’s throw from the state Capitol.
Southeast Raleigh has faced plenty of scrutiny since Senior Officer D.C. Twiddy shot and killed 24-year-old Denkins while trying to arrest him Feb. 29 for failing to appear in court on a felony drug charge.
But it was the grassroots community foot soldiers who emerged as community leaders, walking the walk and speaking the language that gives voice to the voiceless.
They have nurtured the calm in a community some expect to be outraged and unruly. They are the ones who, when outsiders tried to hush anger and fear and demands for truth, opened doors of churches, homes and community centers to help Southeast Raleigh champion change by standing up for itself to improve itself.
“As far as the outside entity, it was the same as it is in every city: It wasn’t representative of us,” said Anton Gist, 35, who responded a couple years ago to police shootings around the country by creating DrivenByChange to add both thought and muscle to local efforts.
Now Gist also stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Diana Haywood Powell of Justice Served NC, an advocacy and prevention group that works in the courts, jails and community.
“We realize a lot of people just came here for the big show,” Gist said. “But the smoke is going to clear, they’re going to leave, and the people who have been doing the work will still be here. And we are, in fact, going to keep doing the work.”
That work is a mission to bring Southeast Raleigh together – from the streets, homes, churches, community centers and businesses – to draft and execute a plan to Take Back the Village, as Powell urges in a same-named forum her organization hosts every Monday.
Since Denkins’ death, individuals and groups that used to work solo now sit at the same table alongside community members we rarely hear from.
“If we want anything good and positive to happen, any change to take place, we’ve got to come together,” said Shawna Sanders, a mother of six who lives near Bragg Street. “There’s strength in numbers.”
Conversations center on eradicating gangs, building wealth, understanding rights and empowering citizens to hold police and elected officials accountable. There’s passion to uplift oft-demonized black men, strengthen families and develop programs that effectively address needs in education, jobs, housing, mental health, poverty and hunger.
“Southeast Raleigh is wide awake now,” Gist said. “The bottom line is exposing the truth – not just the truth in law enforcement, but also the truth in our community. Not just the truth in our community, but also the truth in our church. Not just the truth in our church, but also the truth in what’s stopping us from coming together. The time is now. The stage is set.”
Dameyne Royster, a friend of Denkins who spoke out at a community meeting at the Safety Club on Branch Street, agreed.
“The best way we can honor him is by being legit, by getting, and making, things better – by doing for ourselves and by looking at the deeper issues in our community,” Royster said.
And those issues aren’t social but instead economic, said Akiba Byrd, executive director of N.C. Fair Share. It’s one of 15 coalitions of the Police Accountability Committee Taskforce pushing to establish a citizen review board with judicial and subpoena powers and other oversight in cases of police shootings.
“We keep trying to throw social solutions at economic issues,” Byrd said. “Where you have high poverty, you have high crime. If we start addressing our economic disparities, we will address our social disparities.
“There’s nothing wrong with black people. We’re just poor, and the system is intentionally set up to keep a majority of black people poor.”