Akiel Denkins: A life of frustrated potential

Only hours after a police officer shot Akiel Denkins, pictures began to circulate showing the 24-year-old man flashing gang signs in his Bragg Street neighborhood, wearing the red bandana that is the trademark of the Bloods. Denkins’ criminal record spilled out next, showing a history with drugs and run-ins with police.

But friends around Bragg Street knew Denkins had another side and a deeper life – one that fought, unsuccessfully, to reach the surface. They point to another photograph of the young man, holding the son he named Kashmere, as his defining portrait.

Perhaps no one knew that side better than Casanova Womack, his mentor at Neighbor to Neighbor Outreach on South Blount Street. In 2011, at age 19, Denkins walked into that center and declared himself sick of street life. He wanted to pursue his GED and find a steady job.

Womack led him into a back room to pray. They started with an oft-quoted passage from Luke: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

Then Womack asked Denkins if he was ready for the challenge, and the young man said, “Yes.”

“I told him, ‘You’re going to get pulled in many directions,’ ” Womack said. “ ‘Your homies don’t understand the path God is putting you on. Here’s what I’m asking you to do: You’re here from 9 to 1. Dedicate that time to you. Don’t even answer your phone.’ 

Buried Friday in Mt. Hope Cemetery, Denkins lived a life of frustrated potential. An honor student in the third grade, he left school before the 10th. A GED candidate with scores well above-average, he failed to finish the program. A job candidate who practiced his interview skills, he found only seasonal work and struggled to outrun his criminal record.

But for those who knew Denkins best, it is crucial that people know that he wanted to meet these tests but never could.

They knew him as more than a mug shot: a father, a son, a brother and a friend who shared some of Raleigh’s roughest streets. They make no excuses for his mistakes or sugarcoating for the road he chose.

“I just knew by looking at him that he could be so much more,” said Womack, who is godfather to Denkins’ son. “That’s why I couldn’t let him go. But exactly what I said would happen, did happen. He did get pulled. He got pulled many times. He was battling that, big time.”

Beautiful community

On Monday, Raleigh police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown said Officer D.C. Twiddy had attempted to arrest Denkins on Bragg Street for failing to appear in court on a felony drug charge. She added officers found a gun in “close proximity” to Denkins’ body, and a few days later, Raleigh’s police union defended Twiddy’s actions, saying he fired in self defense.

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On Thursday, Deck-Brown released a report which said Denkins pulled a gun during a struggle with Twiddy. A preliminary autopsy showed Denkins was shot in the chest, arms and shoulders. Witnesses on Bragg Street contradict this, saying Denkins was shot in the back as he fled. At his funeral Friday, the Rev. William Barber II asked the roughly 500 mourners to wait for the full truth beyond the “police version.”

Few in Raleigh travel to the neighborhood where Denkins died, though it stands in sight of the downtown skyline, five blocks from Shaw University and a mile from the state Capitol. Poorer than many of its neighbors, it is common to find houses around Bragg and East streets assessed at less than $50,000. More prone to crime than many of its neighbors, police reported six incidents on the six-block stretch between Person to State streets in the week before Denkins died: assault, drug paraphernalia and drunk and disorderly among them.

“Greater Raleigh looks at it as this little corner that has issues,” said the Rev. Royce Hathcock, executive director at Neighbor to Neighbor. “There’s beautifulness in the community, but there’s also desperate people doing desperate things. This neighborhood is a place where people re-enter into society and there’s not opportunities to get back on their feet. There’s a little bit, and then it leaves. Atomic bombs of resources that come in and disappear. Church drive-bys. White guilt relief.”

Still, the neighborhood has a closeness that many lack. Mourners at Friday’s funeral, even those who had long-since moved away from the blocks around Bragg, called each other family for life. Chris Jones, pastor at Ship of Zion church, described Denkins as a sharp dresser who never lost his little boy smile, and he told the story of the day young men approached his church on South Blount Street in a threatening way until Denkins chased them off.

“Who knew Akiel?” he asked the congregation at Bible Way Temple on day, and hundreds thundered back. “We loved Akiel.”

Within hours of Denkins’ death, friends and family built a shrine on the front of a shed, covering it with red, black and silver balloons and inscribing “RIP Lockman” on posterboards. Womack explained that Denkins once wore long dreadlocks, likely the source of his nickname. His portrait appeared as the profile on dozens of Facebook pages by the end of Monday.

More than a dozen people took the stage Friday to praise “Lockman,” who lay below them in a white casket.

“The young people in that room, all they have is each other,” Hathcock said. “They’re surviving, not thriving. And for me, as a minister, if I know Christ, we could do better.”

Honor roll student

Denkins was born in February 1992. His mother, Rolanda Byrd, was 15. His father, Sean Dailey, had numerous drug arrests starting when Denkins was a toddler.

By all accounts, Denkins was a happy child, making people laugh and carrying around a well-worn football. He made the honor roll in 2002 as a third-grader at Cooper Elementary when his family lived in Clayton, getting his name in The News & Observer. But his ease with academics did not last, and he left Enloe High School without finishing the 10th grade.

Denkins’ first arrest came in 2011, a trespassing charge not long after his 19th birthday. Womack was there for the arrest, which he calls “bogus” even five years later. Denkins, he said, got singled out from a crowd of people. A misdemeanor marijuana charge followed in November of that year, and more would follow.

Still, away from the streets, Denkins showed his depth.

When he came to Neighbor to Neighbor for his GED, he took a placement test to determine his reading level. The average score for students around Bragg Street falls somewhere around the sixth-grade level, Womack said. Denkins scored an 11.8, or nearly 12th-grade level.

In GED class, he showed a hunger to learn, questioning his teachers relentlessly until he understood a lesson. Womack recalled that Denkins’ questions once took up an entire class. But once he finished, his classmates told Womack they were glad he spoke up. They hadn’t understood, either.

“Akiel was brilliant,” Hathcock said. “This is a guy who’s been through some things. He’s brilliant, but he’s shaped in an environment where he’s not thriving. He’s surviving.”

In early 2014, when the GED curriculum changed to reflect Common Core standards, the work grew exponentially harder. Denkins quit coming as often, as did many others. But he continued with the job training program and briefly found construction work in the field he wanted to work: carpentry. That job, Womack said, turned out to be seasonal.

It can be hard for GED students around Bragg to find much encouragement. Womack recalled the time six of them walked to class from near Rock Quarry Road, only to get stopped and handcuffed while walking down Bragg Street. One of them, he said, managed to call and explain why they were late for class. Womack said he knew an officer who would give young offenders an option: Come downtown for booking or go to Neighbor to Neighbor. But among the others who patrol the area, one announced in front of his students: “I’m here to clean up this jungle.”

Former Raleigh police Officer Robert Wagner worked the Bragg neighborhood long enough to make a film about his experiences there: “Bragg N East.” In it, he describes becoming frustrated with locking up the same offenders only to see them back on the street within hours, and deciding to approach people with the unconditional love he knew from his Christian faith. He learned the names and family lives of the young men in gangs, including Denkins, whom he arrested for marijuana possession.

Wagner told Denkins that he wasn’t like other young offenders. He didn’t have a felony record, and he had the potential to change. “He was never loud or boisterous like a lot of guys on the street,” Wagner said. “When I talked to him, I could tell he was processing things differently.”

It is hard to know how much influence Wagner had. He got transferred to the Five Points neighborhood in 2013 following complaints that his film created a violent image of Bragg Street and that his technique was inappropriate.

“He was in this neighborhood as a police officer, not a missionary,” said Lonnette Williams, chair of the Central Citizens Advisory Council, according to a story in the Raleigh Public Record, a nonprofit news site. “When I call for the police, I want him to come with his gun drawn, ready to do business.”

Denkins came to Womack a second time, still sporadically trying for his GED. His girlfriend was pregnant, and he was going to be a father. “OK,” Womack told him. “You know what that means. You’re starting a family. Man up. Time to do grown man things.”

Escalating charges

After his son was born, and then a second son by a different girlfriend, Denkins’ self-doubt increased, Womack said. He didn’t feel like he deserved to escape the streets. He didn’t feel like a good provider. But at the same time, he needed money for diapers and milk. And with his criminal record, the streets offered money quickly in a way that long term plans could not.

“Akiel, just like a lot of the other guys who hang out on Bragg Street, they’re in survival mode,” Womack said. “Am I saying they’re doing things they shouldn’t do? Absolutely. Am I saying it’s an excuse? No. Even with all his knowledge, wisdom and understanding, deep down, he had this feeling that nobody is ever going to give him a chance.”

In the past five years, Denkins was arrested more than a dozen times, often for possessing drugs. Many of the charges would be dismissed in court, but his problems were escalating. In June and July, he added two new charges of resisting a police officer and carrying a concealed gun. In October, he was charged with felony possession of cocaine with intent to distribute – his first offense for drug trafficking rather than possession. In all, On Monday, Womack was one of the first people to get a call after Denkins got shot.

“I talk to all my guys about their lifestyles, and where their lifestyles lead to,” he said. “I just didn’t think it would be a cop.”

Womack saw Denkins again on Friday, this time in a coffin, wearing a black suit and red bow tie. He looked like he was sleeping – handsome and well-dressed, the man he might have been.