Rolanda Byrd comes to mind a lot since Feb. 29.
She’s Akiel Denkins’ mama. That’s the day 24-year-old Denkins was shot and killed by a Raleigh cop. The day Byrd was thrust into a club nobody wants to join as the world watched and speculated and judged and blamed and shrugged it off as if black-death-by-white-cop is the new America, especially in black communities like Southeast Raleigh.
But Byrd remains firm. She inspires strength and courage as she flanks front and center a team of attorneys demanding justice for her son amid official findings that claim self-defense, clear Senior Officer D.C. Twiddy of wrongdoing and hold no one accountable – except, perhaps, Byrd and her son.
In the months since we heard what Byrd acknowledges is her voice in an emotional 911 call – and since her public, emotional outcry captured in news clips cost her her job – Byrd’s voice has been relatively quiet.
And that seems to be her comfort zone, her personality.
So when she sent word she was ready to chat, I went. When she invited me to return, I did. And when Byrd invited me to a luncheon in her honor, I was there, too.
“I’ve been listening for a long time to people who don’t really know what they’re talking about,” she told me. “Now, I’m ready to speak. I have to speak. I’m going to speak because I have to fight this.
“That was my baby, my son. He wasn’t done with this life yet. He was not a thug, murderer, or a mean and cruel-hearted person. But it was in plain sight that my son was murdered.”
Twiddy shot Denkins, who who was wanted by police on an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court for a felony drug charge, after a brief foot chase near the corner of Bragg and East streets.
Twiddy later told investigators that he saw Denkins pull out a handgun.
Byrd’s lawyers have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the case as a civil rights violation based on inconsistencies in evidence, witness statements and official reports, Byrd’s attorney, Priscilla McKoy, said.
“Looking at history, it has taken the Department of Justice to step in with an unbiased investigation,” said McKoy, who grew up in Southeast Raleigh and married into Denkins’ family. “It’s another shot at justice, without political ties.”
‘Do something different’
Meanwhile, Byrd focuses on her personal truth – who she is as a woman and mother, who Denkins was as a son, grandson, brother and father, and the memories of their lives together.
“It has been a really, really rough time for us, but being together as a family, that’s important for us,” she said.
Denkins spent the last weekend of his life with family. Byrd’s mother had cooked a belated celebratory breakfast for Denkins’ Feb. 8 birthday. He was back Sunday, “my last time seeing him – alive,” Byrd said.
Byrd doesn’t deny, excuse or condone her son’s reported lifestyle, or his rap sheet.
“But that didn’t make him a bad person,” she said.
She regrets a decision she made years ago while living in Florida. Denkins, then 16, “didn’t want to follow my rules” and didn’t like school, Byrd said. When neither alternative school nor Job Corps worked, Byrd sent Denkins back to Raleigh to live with his father.
Instead, she said, “He went to the streets.”
A month before Denkins’ death, Byrd said, she and her daughter pleaded with him to “do something different. Get away from that area,” referring to Bragg Street.
“I ended up crying,” she said. “I feared for his life and I worried about him being out there, but I never thought it would be a police officer that would hurt my son.
“It hurts even more it was them.”
Community support soothes with outreach and calls for unity and justice, from police accountability to community responsibility.
Soon after Mother’s Day, Mary Magdalene Ministries and North Carolina Fair Share brought new life to Byrd’s front yard, sprucing it up with plants and trees. Later that day, Byrd was honored at a community luncheon.
“Your son has resurrected this community,” said Mary Magdalene founder Geraldine Alshamy. “When your arms get tired, we will be here to hold them up for you.”
Byrd knows it’s true.
“Before this incident, I didn’t have this much love around me,” she said. “I feel the love and it all came from my son. He introduced me to all of you.”
Byrd said her son gives her strength. His voice drives her push to stand strong, tell his story and seek justice.
“My stomach turns inside out every day,” Byrd said. “But I won’t give up. There’s no stopping me, no turning back. I can only go forward.”