By Jason Lambert
Roanoke, Virginia — The struggle for justice for Kionte Spencer exposed the entire system. It showed us in Roanoke how things really run in this system, as well as the power of and need for independent peoples’ organizations.
On February 26, 2016, Kionte Spencer, an 18-year-old senior at Hidden Valley High School living in a group home, was killed by Roanoke County Police. At the time, Spencer was walking down a busy street in the area he lived (which is 88 percent white), listening to music with headphones on and allegedly holding a broken toy gun. Someone called the police saying Spencer was waving a gun at cars. Roanoke County cops drove up behind him, reportedly deployed two tasers that didn’t work, and then shot Spencer three times, killing him.
From the events of the killing to now, the Roanoke County Police Department (RCPD) and especially Chief Howard Hall, have been grossly negligent, inconsistent with their stories, have lacked transparency, and predictably made it as difficult as possible for Spencer’s family to get information, let alone any type of justice.
The names of the cops who killed him and the dashcam video footage have still, to this day, never been released to the public. The RCPD and Hall are responsible for the death of a teenager and high school student, and have faced absolutely no official consequences.
This local struggle has shown us, if anyone still had doubts or misunderstandings, that the nature and function of the police here in Roanoke is the same as police in Ferguson, Detroit, New York City, St. Louis or anywhere else in the so-called U.S. — to enforce the status quo of profit and property over people (capitalism), at the disproportionate expense of some groups over others (white supremacy), via legalized violence. The RCPD did not protect the community that night; they do not keep us safe, nor do they deserve our trust or funding.
The beginning of solidarity
There were a number of groups who stood up against this injustice. The Roanoke Branch of the NAACP was among the first to find out about Spencer’s killing and reached out to his only known relative at the time, his brother Carl. With his direction they came up with the first two community demands and organized a press conference to make them public. The following day the RCPD announced they would not release the officers’ names.
As word spread, other folks in the community were rightfully outraged and came together and coordinated with Carl to form a grassroots group called Justice For Kionte (JFK), consisting of community organizers (some of us in 15 Now Roanoke, human rights organizations like Plowshare Peace & Justice Center and a newer coalition called Citizens’ Convention), as well as religious leaders and everyday people not part of any group in Roanoke.
The NAACP and JFK then hosted a vigil and another press conference to announce the third community demand. The demands: 1) release the names of the police officers involved; 2) release the dashcam videos; and 3) an independent investigation.
JFK held a gathering and speakout a week later at a park near where Spencer was killed, where all of us shared insightful thoughts, from neighborhood kids who knew Kionte to older religious folks to middle-aged organizers. Many (re)affirmed the weight of this tragedy, how it made folks (especially the kids) feel, our collective doubt in the cops’ version of the story, the insecurity and unjust nature of the police institution itself, and some ideas for how and who to pressure for the demands.
RCPD investigates itself (of course)
While the RCPD investigated themselves for the next three months, JFK focused on educating more people in Roanoke about Spencer’s killing and encouraging people to call Chief Hall in support of the three basic demands.
In April 2016, the NAACP held a third press conference to announce their plan to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. In May, a number of folks went to a Roanoke County Board of Supervisors meeting to give testimonies and demand accountability. Their intervention received cold and bureaucratic indifference *as was expected.* “Trust the process” they were told….
On May 25, 2016, the RCPD held a closed press conference at the Roanoke County “Public Safety Center” to announce the conclusion of their self-investigation, inviting only four selected members of the media. Cops had prepared a “designated protest area” apparently expecting a response like that of Baltimore or Ferguson communities; unfortunately they weren’t given that as only a small number of us went there.
Upon arriving, cops came out of the building to say we couldn’t enter. Then one of us went to place a JFK banner next to the Public Safety Center sign and two cops immediately walked up with their hands on their guns and told him to put his hands in the air, as if what was needed was more escalation from the RCPD.
Soon after we heard the predictable outcome: They found themselves innocent of any wrongdoing.
Community response to no charges for RCPD
On June 13, 2016, JFK held multiple actions. In the morning, a few members brought a petition with 400 signatures to the U.S. Attorney for Roanoke, John Fishwick, requesting his and the DOJ’s help in meeting the community demands. In the afternoon we held a “Peoples’ Press Conference” to announce a community response to the cops’ conclusion of their investigation of themselves. The response had been endorsed by a variety of people including doctors, nurses, reverends and organizers, and not just folks in Roanoke but across the country.
It’s also significant to note that two presidential candidates at the time (both of whom are socialists), Monica Moorehead (Workers World Party) and Mary Scully (Independent Socialist), endorsed the bare-minimum demands for transparency, accountability and justice, while none of our current local, state or federal “leaders” ever did. In fact Trump and both Clintons, Republicans and Democrats, have all increased the militarization of police, allowed and encouraged state violence, and expanded the powers and impunity of “law and order.”
Where’s the justice?
In July and August 2016, after getting no response from the U.S. Attorney, we went to their office multiple times to demand federal assistance from the DOJ in getting the community demands met. The first time we went, on July 11, we were greeted by multiple Homeland Security officers in SWAT gear who, when asked, said they weren’t normally at Fishwick’s office, and that the U.S. Attorney wasn’t there.
Two days later Fishwick “recused” himself from Spencer’s case, giving over control to Rick Mountcastle. The next few times, folks rallied in front of the building with more support but zero interaction with the U.S. Attorney. Around the same time the NAACP and ACLU wrote a letter to Governor Terry McAuliffe asking for state intervention.
We keep us safe, not cops
On Spencer’s birthday, October 26, 2016, when he would have turned 19 years young, we hosted “Kionte’s Day,” a gathering to share memories and celebrate his life, highlight the past eight months of struggle and give updates of where things were at.
It was the first chance for many of us in JFK to meet Spencer’s biological mother. She came in from out of town for the event and shared her thoughts, pain and grief about losing her youngest son. She noted that a few months before he was killed she had gotten in touch with his group home about him moving in with her as he was turning 18 soon, which they discouraged and apparently didn’t even discuss with Kionte.
In November 2016, after five months of pressure, the DOJ finally announced they had done a “review” (not an independent investigation) of Spencer’s case and released their findings. They stated there was “insufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that officers acted willfully with a bad purpose to violate federal law. Accordingly, the federal review of this incident has been closed without prosecution.”
In December 2016, as a response to the fact that no one in the local, state or federal arenas had been of any help in pursuing some type of justice for Kionte Spencer and his family or the three basic demands, members of JFK, 15 Now Roanoke, Raise Up (Richmond), New River Workers Power (Blacksburg), C.A.R.E. & Citizens Preserving Rockbridge County (Lexington), Showing Up for Racial Justice (Charlottesville) and other community members in Roanoke organized a “Peoples’ Rally Against Police Violence” in Melrose Park.
Folks shared personal stories about police harassment or abuse they’ve faced and seen, and reminded each other we are all we have to depend on. Though that may seem depressing and overwhelming, it is also powerful, as they are few and we are many.
The lessons we learned are unfortunately not new for any oppressed or marginalized persons in the so-called U.S.
Pursuing justice through the “appropriate” channels (petitioning and pleading to RCPD, Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, Virginia Governor McAuliffe, and U.S. Attorney/DOJ) for a young Black student killed by cops brought zero accountability, transparency or justice.
It did, however, expose the system and their sham process to us.
White supremacy is in embedded in the police institutions (including the RCPD) regardless of specific cops and their personal tendencies. This was glaringly illustrated in April 2017, when a white guy twice Spencer’s size and age (Kyle Waldron) was pulled over for a DUI on the same street Kionte was killed (Electric Road), pointed a loaded REAL gun at cops, even fired a shot, and the RCPD managed not to kill him.
We cannot depend on the state to keep us safe or be held accountable for their violence against us, as the system protects itself and those who occupy those positions.
Roanoke County Police withheld the names of the officers who were responsible and involved, withheld the multiple dashcam videos from the public and Spencer’s living family (only playing a compilation of edited footage for his brother when faced with legal pressure from the ACLU) and faced no official consequences. The killers are back on the streets, quite possibly trying to build false trust with kids in schools, and no doubt emboldened to do the same thing to anyone else at the cops’ own discretion.
Kionte Spencer’s life mattered. His death is a tragedy in Roanoke. The injustice of his murder is one of the reasons #WhyTheyKneel, and one of the reasons we organize.
Jason Lambert is an organizer with the Roanoke Peoples’ Power Network. This article, slightly edited here, originally appeared on the group’s website at tinyurl.com/yalazuhh.