The pews at the little church were filled to capacity by midmorning Friday. Some cars were parked two abreast on Holmes Street, a narrow strip lined with small red brick homes. Hundreds maneuvered on the Southeast Raleigh street to attend a funeral that culminated a tense week in the city.
In early afternoon, a young black man killed by a policeman’s bullet would be eulogized by friends and strangers. It was a scene that has played out dozens of times in cities across the nation. The shooting of Akiel Denkins on Monday had shocked Raleigh.
It was the first time police had killed anyone in Raleigh in seven years, long before a killing in Missouri in 2014 sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement that forced a conversation about race and policing.
Raleigh’s response had been more measured than in some cities – calm, dignified press conferences and somber vigils amid a few angry words. But when 24-year-old Denkins was put into the ground, Raleigh had a commonality with other cities that have had similiar experiences: a narrative about what happened was still competing in the minds of some with official reports and statements.
The narratives were a subtext as Bible Way Temple clergy led an emotional service intended to offer closure for family members and residents who loved Denkins. The service also served as a call for Denkins’ death to be a catalyst for improving the community.
The funeral was a day after Raleigh’s Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown said Denkins was shot after he pulled a gun during a struggle with police Officer D.C. Twiddy.
Bible Way pastor Bishop Darnell Dixon addressed the report after he began the service by asking mourners to give Denkins’ mother, Rolanda Byrd, a standing ovation.
“We believe in the report of the Lord,” Dixon said to an audience that included Denkins’ friends wearing T-shirts with his picture on the front. Clergy from across the city, activists wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, members of the Nation of Islam and mentors with Justice Served NC were also among the mourners.
Clergy challenged young people in the community to reflect on Denkins’ death and how they can change their lives and the life of their community.
“This is a defining moment in our lives. His death will not be in vain,” said Chris Jones, pastor of the Ship of Zion church on Blount Street. “Help to make the changes in our community so that years from now we can say we made those changes because of Lockman,” he said referring to Denkins by one of his nicknames in the community.
Rev. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, arrived about midway through the service and spoke briefly at the family’s request. Barber said he had just returned from Philadelphia, where residents were talking about the fatal shooting of a young black man by a white officer in Raleigh.
“I had to come back,” said Barber, who described Denkins as “all our brother,” because “he was a member of the human family.”
Barber said there had been attempts to paint a negative image of Denkins by the media and attempts to dehumanize him because of his previous run-ins with police. He said Denkins had his “ups and down,” and his “broken places, and like all of us, he deserved to live, not die.”
Barber reminded mourners that Deck-Brown’s report is preliminary.
“It is not the full investigative report. Let’s be clear on that,” he said. “That’s the police version of what happened.”
Like Jones, Barber encouraged community members to let Denkins’ death be a turning point in their own lives. He also discouraged violence.
“Live better. Live stronger,” he said. “If there was ever a time Southeast Raleigh should come together it ought to be now. People who don’t like each other should have a truce.”
He later added that even though residents had been “hurt in your community, you don’t have to tear up your community.”
While leaders tried to rally the community, those who knew Denkins best tried to share bits of his life with the congregation.
Casanova “Cas” Newman, director of community outreach at Neighbor2Neighbor on nearby Blount Street, asked mourners if they knew Denkins was working on his general education diploma, had joined a jobs program, dreamed of becoming a carpenter and went to church.
Newman described a time the two of them went to a McDonald’s restaurant. He said after they prayed before eating, Denkins began talking but got so overcome with emotion that the two had to step outside.
“He lost it,” said Newman about Denkins, who began to talk with him about his life and goals. “When he finished talking, we embraced, and I could feel his heart beating. I said to myself, ‘This is a young man who knows who he is.’ ”
The funeral obituary listed “Five Special Brothers” who would offer brief remembrances about Denkins, but only four came to the front and only one spoke.
“Yo, Lockman, can you hear me?” said the young man. “He stayed with me,” said the young man, who did not disclose his name before speaking. “He didn’t go nowhere without me. He was a good dude. That’s my brother, my brother man. My brother. On Bragg, when I didn’t have nowhere to go, I stayed with him.”
A group of young women came up front shortly afterward.
“I loved that man,” one said. “We all loved that man. I made a promise that I was going to keep his name out there, but in a positive way.”
Twiddy was attempting to arrest Denkins for failing to appear in court for a felony drug charge. Police and witnesses agree that Twiddy spotted Denkins outside PJ’s Grill & Groceries on East Bragg Street, just south of downtown, shortly after noon Monday and that Denkins ran with Twiddy in pursuit.
Twiddy, 29, has been placed on administrative duty pending investigations by the State Bureau of Investigation and the Raleigh Police Department’s internal affairs office. The SBI will provide its findings to the Wake County District Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether any criminal charges are warranted.
A preliminary autopsy made public Thursday showed that Denkins suffered four gunshot wounds, including one in the chest. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman released the preliminary autopsy results and said Denkins was hit on the right side of his chest, injuring his heart and both lungs. The other wounds were on his left forearm, right upper arm and right shoulder, Freeman said.
It’s not clear if any of the shots hit Denkins from behind.
“That is information that the state medical examiner has not authorized for release,” Freeman said.