Did one horrid, painful moment of ultimate despair drive 21-year-old Chavis Carter to take a gun and end his own life while handcuffed in the backseat of a Jonesboro, Ark. police cruiser?
That is the painful question that has gripped the African-American community for several weeks now as the awful truth sinks in of another young African-American man's life cut short during an encounter with police.
The ultimate answer may be in the hands of the U.S. Justice Department. At a press conference Wednesday morning (Aug. 22) at Monumental Baptist Church in South Memphis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition called upon the Justice Department to investigate Carter's death. Carter, who was arrested July 29 in Jonesboro, fatally shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car, according to Jonesboro police.
"I'm shock proof," Jackson told The New Tri-State Defender after the press conference, alluding to the many dire circumstances he has had to address.
"But this is a mystery that is very disturbing and must be solved. I've been handcuffed before and I don't see how it could happen. And just as with Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and now Chavis Carter, we must have a fully transparent process to find the truth because we will accept nothing less than full justice."
A Justice Department official met with the Carter family and interested citizens last Tuesday (Aug. 14) to hear community concerns.
Adding to the widespread disgust many in the African American community feel over the mystery surrounding Carter's death has been the "ugly" manner (as termed at the press conference Wednesday) in which information continues to trickle from Jonesboro police. The uneasiness escalated after the department seemed to rush a video to the Internet depicting how police say Carter could have maneuvered to kill himself while shackled in the back of a police car.
This week, Jonesboro police released a toxicology report reflecting that Carter had trace amounts of several drugs in his system. Officers reportedly found marijuana on Carter as well. A white powder substance and a scale for weighing drugs reportedly were also found in the vehicle.
Carter was not the driver of the car. The men he was traveling with were released and have not been identified. Carter was held on a warrant that had been previously issued for his arrest.
Police said they have located a man alleging that he texted Carter with a request to bring him a gun shortly before Carter was arrested, and that Carter was somehow involved in a deal involving four ounces of marijuana.
They also assert that blood splatter was found on Carter's hands and in the patrol car. Community activists wonder why that information is coming in bits and pieces and not in a full report.
At the press conference Wednesday, the Carter family attorney, Benjamin Irwin of the Cochran Firm, said it was strange that the two other men Chavis Carter had been traveling with had been released.
"The video carries a lot of key information that we are concerned about," Irwin said. "No matter what they report, he died while in police custody and they had a duty to protect him."
Careful not to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, Irwin said, "When you see and hear Chavis on that tape, at least what has been released of it, you hear him talking, and he sounds bright and energetic. It in no way supports the theory that he was suicidal for even one moment."
Shortly after the press conference, Teresa Carter, Chavis Carter's mother, took Jackson's hand as he led her to a private room for solitude and prayer. Kareem Ali, the organizer of the press conference and several community prayer vigils, stood watch in the hallway, along with Jackson's chief aide, Bishop Victor, and Joseph B. Kyles, an officer of the local Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
After the break, the next scheduled stop was Jonesboro to visit the site of Chavis Carter's death and another community prayer.
Carter family supporters pledged to continue to employ public protests as they seek answers for questions they said are yet to be addressed, including an allegation in a document listing 19 of the family's concerns. That particular concern referenced an allegation – by the driver of the car on the night Carter was arrested – that a white powder substance found in the vehicle belonged to the driver's mother.
Ali introduced the list on Monday (Aug. 20) at a public vigil at the National Civil Rights Museum. Before the vigil began, he spoke of other concerns that have not been addressed.
"There was no independent autopsy done, there have been no results of ballistics tests for powder on the hands of Chavis or the officers, and the mother didn't even get to see her son until four days after the incident," Ali said. "She told me that she stayed in a prayerful state because she could not believe that it was her son."
Chavis Carter's uncle, Lacharlos Winters, 31, said he and his nephew were very close. If Carter was seriously involved in the drug world, as his confidant and "go to" guy Winters believed he would have known. During the vigil's memorial portion, he told the crowd that
"When you talked to him he was not like what you would be seeing," said Winters during the memorial portion of the vigil. "He had made mistakes, typical teenage mistakes, but he was beginning to grow up and starting to look toward the future.
"I believe he would have been a veterinarian. He liked bugs. He had the image, wanting to be cool like everybody else, but we knew he was geek squad."
Carter's best friend, 21-year-old Laryan Bowen, said he and Carter became members of different gangs in their teens, but had grown away from it.
"He was a Gangster, I was a Vice Lord, two different sides of the streets, but none of that really mattered to us, colors," said Bowen. "The last four days of his life, I bet you out of 365 days in a year we were together 250 of them, just having fun. I'm not saying we were perfect, but as far as the streets, we were trying to stay away from them.
"I don't know a young black man that didn't spend some time in the streets, but we were growing up. It wasn't the life we chose, it was the hand we were given. I've never seen a good hand dealt to a black man except on TV, and this ain't 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.'"
The Rev. Kia Grandberry of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church triggered a passionate ovation with her closing prayer at the vigil.
"We ask that You commission people to do more than just pray, to put feet to movement. Let this prayer lead to a process. Let the process lead to progress. Let us be restless to create progress in our communities. Let us be restless when young men feel like they don't have anything positive to do with their time. Let us be restless when we see more young black men in prison than we see in colleges.
"Let us be restless to not be comfortable to just be living. Let us break outside of the box and quit accepting poor things from our society and poor things from ourselves."
The family's suffering, she said, had served to draw "us together to remind us that something has to be done..."