Linda Watson saw a crowd form near her Southeast Raleigh home the day a police officer shot and killed Akiel Denkins, and she wondered whether the palpable anger would escalate to violence.
“Of course that’s always in the back of your mind when something like this happens,” said Watson, 63, who grew up and raised a family of her own on the corner of East and Bragg streets, in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods.
That night, on Feb. 29, hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil to honor Denkins, a 24-year-old black father of two. They marched through the street chanting, “Black lives matter!”
It was clear they wanted to be heard. But there was no rioting. No bricks thrown into windows. No looting.
Local pastors and community leaders went to Bragg Street shortly after the shooting to comfort Denkins’ family and friends. They called for truth and transparency. They called for calm.
“We’re not a Ferguson, we’re not a Baltimore,” said Bishop Darnell Dixon, pastor of Bible Way Temple, where Denkins’ funeral was held. “We’re Southeast Raleigh.”
Riots broke out in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, when a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Unrest returned when a grand jury chose not to indict the officer.
What began as peaceful protests turned violent in Baltimore last year in the days after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died while in police custody. Rioters set fires, looted businesses and damaged police cars.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Raleigh and Ferguson and Baltimore. In all three cities, a young black man died at the hands of law enforcement. The incidents all sparked public outrage that stemmed from deeper issues of poverty, crime and sour relationships with police.
But the people of Southeast Raleigh didn’t burn stuff down, didn’t rob the corner stores, didn’t become physical with police. And why would we expect that of them?
“They actually had no interest in rioting,” Dixon said. “They had no interest in setting fire to anything. ... There was pain and suffering – but no violence.”
The national media took notice of Denkins’ death right away. A white police officer, a dead black man: It’s an intriguing story. But the national attention faded quickly, unlike in Ferguson and Baltimore, probably because their response was peaceful.
We can’t ignore another reason, either. Three days after the shooting, Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown issued a statement saying Denkins pulled a gun on Senior Officer D.C. Twiddy before he was shot. For some, that certainly changed things.
Still, some have said Denkins was unarmed and that they saw him shot in the back as he was fleeing.
Dixon, who went to Bragg Street while Denkins was still lying dead on the ground, said he heard from national civil rights leaders – he wouldn’t name which ones – who wanted to come to Raleigh. He told them to stay home. Southeast Raleigh is like a family, and this was a family problem.
“I didn’t want anybody to take advantage of the situation for personal gain,” Dixon said. “It wasn’t about personal gains, it was about getting through this tragedy in a responsible manner.”
The Rev. Royce Hathcock, executive director of Neighbor To Neighbor Outreach in Southeast Raleigh, lived in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. He’s seen a city implode.
“I know what it feels like when a community tips over the edge, and it wasn’t like that at all,” Hathcock said of Bragg Street.
But that doesn’t mean everything is wonderful in the southeastern part of our city.
Raleigh has emerged as a city of opportunity, a place where money can be made and social ladders can be climbed. But it’s not that easy for the young people who spend their days and nights on Bragg Street, who turn to selling drugs to make a quick buck and to the Bloods gang to feel like they belong to something special.
“I always tell people Raleigh is a city in denial,” Hathcock said. “In Raleigh, we act like this little community over here is a secret we sweep under the rug.”
‘Emotional expression of pain’
It’s not a secret anymore. At least it shouldn’t be.
Yes, there are poor people in Raleigh. There are people who sell drugs, who sell their bodies, who run from police to avoid going to jail.
It’s a world away from the quiet suburban subdivisions, but it’s real.
I went to Bragg Street on a recent afternoon – the kind of warm, sunny spring day that makes me love living in North Carolina – to find Denkins’ friends. I wanted to give him a voice, I said. I wanted them all to be heard.
They didn’t want to talk to me, and I can’t say I blame them. They looked so sad.
Whether Denkins was right or wrong, whether he pulled a gun or reached toward the officer’s weapon, these are people who miss their friend.
They are mourning, they are hurting, but they are calm. There’s certainly something to be said for that.
Dixon calls it all “an emotional expression of pain.”
Denkins’ mother, Rolanda Byrd, didn’t preach calm right away when she addressed the media the afternoon her son was shot.
“Why should we have to stay calm at all times? Why should we show our calm when they’re not showing theirs?” she asked, referring to police.
But later, Dixon said, Byrd asked him to address the crowd and to encourage them to remain peaceful.
“The community gave her her request,” Dixon said.
It’s not over. A preliminary autopsy report showed Denkins was shot four times, including one shot to the chest.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has asked the state medical examiner to expedite the final autopsy.
No one can say how the Southeast Raleigh community will react moving forward. But Dixon, for one, is optimistic. The media was quick to show images of the protests, he said, but where were the images of the empty streets, the images that conveyed peace?
He is proud of the community his church calls home.
“I want to jump up and kick my heels, because the truth of this community has put out a sound as loud as a trumpet that we are not as a community what they said we were, and what they believe,” Dixon said. “And we showed them we are Raleigh, too.”
Linda Watson, who has lived on Bragg Street for years, is also proud. Denkins was a family friend, and she treated him like a son, feeding him and caring for him when he was sick.
She used to ask him to go to church with her, she said. He would respond, “Next Sunday, Momma.”
Watson said she saw him the day he died. They chatted about nothing of particular interest, and he waved goodbye.
“They’re not treating him as people are portraying him,” Watson said of her neighbors. “They’re treating him as an everyday person, mourning his loss.”