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Questions Linger over the Death of Jonathan Sanders at the Hands of a Mississippi Policeman

The death of Sanders sounds like a grim scenario from the 1950s and 1960s: a horse and buggy, the heat of a Mississippi night, a dead unarmed black man along the side of a road.

A black man rides alone and unarmed on a horse and buggy through the darkness of Stonewall, a small Mississippi town named after a Confederate general. It’s around 10 P.M. on July 8 and for long stretches of the ride there is little light, save for the coal miner’s headlamp affixed to the man’s forehead with a strap. The man’s family says he prefers to work out his beloved mare, Diva, in the relative coolness of nightfall. He wants his horse fresh. The Neshoba County Fair is coming up.

As Diva clip-claps along, a young, white, part-time police officer flashes on the blue lights of his squad car to pull the buggy over. Within minutes a struggle ensues. The officer reportedly grabs the 39-year-old horse trainer and father of two around the neck from behind and yanks him to the ground.

The trainer, according to a witness, is locked in a chokehold but manages to rasp some last words to the officer, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

A few minutes later he is dead.

In the coming days and weeks, the man’s family and friends hold protests and marches, demanding justice. City officials plead for patience and calm. The police officer is put on leave. The FBI is notified. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) comes to the town of fewer than 1,200 residents, about a third of them black, to take over the investigation from the 10-person police department.

The KKK arrives to rattle awake the ghosts of Mississippi.

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Although there were witnesses to the final breaths of Jonathan Sanders, according to media reports and the lawyers hired by his family, apparently there were no cellphone videos or other recordings that could be played over and over on YouTube; and so, Sanders’ death has not received the national attention or outcry for other black lives lost in confrontations with police. 

Jonathan Sanders, Stonewall MS
Jonathan Sanders

“That’s a slippery slope, if we only raise these cases of police misconduct and abuse when we have video,” Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer for the Sanders’ family, said in an interview with Hatewatch.

But apparently the Ku Klux Klan has been paying attention. Two Sundays ago, as residents of Stonewall headed to church, they discovered laminated flyers on their lawns and driveways, proclaiming, “Wake Up Stonewall, Mississippi!!!! Save Your Land Join The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Stonewall’s police chief, Michael Street, told Hatewatch Wednesday that officials have not been able to authenticate whether the flyers “came from the real Klan” or from someone “just trying to cause trouble.”

Many of the flyers, Street said, were distributed in the black community, not the best place, he added, to recruit new members. But C.J. Lawrence, another lawyer representing the Sanders’ family, said the sentiments of the flyers are real. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the Klan is involved in this town,” he said. “You see more and more Confederate battle flags being flown.”

Indeed, the death of Sanders sounds like a grim scenario from the 1950s and 1960s: a horse and buggy, the heat of a Mississippi night, a dead unarmed black man along the side of a road.

No official reason has yet been given for the buggy stop that night. The Stonewall police chief referred all questions about details of the case to MBI officials, who did not return a telephone call, seeking comment. Lumumba said there were at least three witnesses to the confrontation.

“The witnesses say it felt like forever to them,” he said. One witness said the officer, Kevin Herrington, 25, held Sanders in a chokehold for up to 20 minutes. During times of high stress, time is often elongated and Lumumba says the actual time Sanders was allegedly held in a chokehold was probably significantly shorter, say five to eight minutes.

“In comparison, Eric Garner was choked for less than three,” he said, referring to the unarmed black man who died when he was placed in a banned chokehold last year by a police officer in Staten Island, NY. “It does not take a long.”

Two months later, there have been no charges filed in the case and the investigation is ongoing as are the calls for “Justice for Jonathan Sanders.” Although an official autopsy report has not been released, Lumumba said a preliminary report ruled Sanders’ death a homicide, caused by manual asphyxiation. Toxicology test results are also still pending.

“If anyone else,” Lumumba said, “was accused of doing what Officer Herrington did to Jonathan Sanders that night with three witnesses that would be enough to secure a conviction or at the very least an arrest and a trial.”

#JusticeforJonathan
#JusticeforJonathan image

In some initial media accounts, Herrington was allegedly overhead saying, referring to Sanders, he was going to “get that nigger.” But the officer’s lawyer, Bill Ready Jr., a man with nearly four decades’ experience handling civil rights cases, told the Jackson Free Press, that race was not a factor in the case.

“I’ve been involved in cases,” Ready told the paper, “when I can definitely tell you, ‘Oh hell yeah, something was racially motivated,’ or (that) it was motivated because a person was homosexual. Oh yeah, I’ve been involved in those cases. This incident, I am convinced, was not racially motivated.”

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Shortly before his fatal run-in with Officer Herrington, Sanders had an encounter with another white man. As he rode his buggy down the street, a car came up from behind and the white man stuck his head out of the window and started yelling something about how the nag was slowing traffic and Sanders should get the-you-know-what out of the way.

Sanders turned around, maybe expecting the N-word and a few F-bombs – or something worse – to come flying his way next. Instead, he was greeted with a smile. The white man was an old friend, doing what old buddies do, giving his pal a hard time.

The two men pulled over and talked for a few minutes. Then the other man drove into a nearby gas station. He was followed by a police car. Officer Herrington got out of the vehicle and reportedly questioned the man about what he and Sanders were talking about. They were just joking around, the man said. Meanwhile, as Sanders started moving Diva down a side road, Sanders shouted at the police officer, according to Lumumba, “Why don’t you leave that man alone?”

Lumumba said Sanders’ white friend admits he had been drinking that night and his license plate tags were expired but for some reason the officer was more interested in the black man driving a horse and buggy. “The officer left to track Mr. Sanders down,” Lumumba said. A witness told the Sanders’ family lawyers that the police car had been trailing the buggy with its headlights off for blocks. “The term used,” Lawrence said, “was creeping. The police car was creeping behind Sanders.”

Around 10:30 p.m. and at least a mile away from the gas station, the officer flashed on the vehicles blue lights, apparently to get Sanders to pull over the buggy. The blue lights suddenly illuminating the darkness, startled the horse. Diva reared up, throwing Sanders from the buggy, according to Lumumba. The headlamp Sanders was wearing on his forehead, slipped down around his neck. Sanders got up and started to go catch his spooked horse when Officer Herrington, Lumumba said, grabbed the strap of the coal miner’s light and yanked Sanders to the ground.

Then, according to Lumumba, the officer placed Sanders in “a guillotine chokehold.”

At least two people came out of a nearby house to see what was happening. They asked the officer to loosen his hold on Sanders’ neck. The officer said Sanders was reaching for his gun.

“They could see he was not,” Lawrence said. “Mr. Sanders certainly didn’t fight or pose a threat during the time the chokehold was administered – or before.”

Sanders had spent time in prison for selling cocaine but there were no outstanding warrants for his arrest that night. Ready, Herrington’s lawyer, told the Free Press that the young officer followed Sanders and the buggy because he had reasonable suspicion that Sanders was involved in a drug transaction. Ready said Herrington found drugs and that is when Sanders tried to flee.

Lawrence smells a cover-up.

“There’s a blue print being developed for these kinds of police cases,” Lawrence said. “First they assassinate the black person’s body. Then they try to assassinate the black person’s character.”

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