In the close-knit, Black enclave of Greensboro in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, boasting fewer than 2,000 residents — founded in 1732 along the banks of the Choptank River and once travelled by freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman — many citizens say their lives have become subjected to “imminent threat and danger.”
Nearly four months after an unarmed youth, 19-year-old Anton Black, died while in police custody, his family awaits a full report from the Maryland State Police Homicide Unit, demanding the public disclosure of existing police body camera footage, reportedly 37 minutes long.
Family members have called for the prosecution of Greensboro Police Department Officer Thomas Webster IV who, before joining the small-town Maryland department, made national headlines after being indicted and later acquitted of assault charges in Dover, Delaware.
An organization whose membership continues to swell, the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, recently generated a standing room only crowd demanding that Webster be placed on immediate leave. But after a closed-doors executive session, the mayor, members of the town council and the chief of police decided to retain Webster, casting a shroud of fear and trepidation among the town’s Black citizens.
“We’ve heard about Trayvon Martin, we’ve heard about Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and the list goes on and on,” Richard M. Potter Jr., a former educator in Washington and leader of the Coalition said while standing in downtown Greensboro, a block from the police station.
“Unfortunately, now we have a young man, Anton Black, to put on that list,” he said. “We have to ask how long are we going to continue to allow this injustice to happen? Now it’s happened at home for us here on the Shore.”
Family Wants Release of Body Cam Footage
Through tears, Jennell Black, Anton’s mother, recalled a violent struggle between her son and police from three different jurisdictions.
“I kept asking was he under arrest,” Black said. “They kept telling me they were just trying to detain him.”
According to Black, media reports and sources with eyewitness accounts or knowledge of the body cam footage attest to a sequence of events suggesting Anton had secured himself in a disabled vehicle precipitating Webster’s breaking a window and deploying his taser after which the teen became embroiled in a physical encounter with responding off-duty officers.
Allegedly, evidence from the scene failed to be properly secured. Law enforcement officials from multiple towns confirmed the response of Webster alongside a presence of plainclothes officers from the nearby towns of Ridgely and Centreville.
La Toya Holley, Anton’s older sister, believes a combination of her brother being tased, given Naloxone, often used to treat sufferers of heroin overdoses, and the application of a chokehold resulted in his death at the scene.
“I don’t need a toxicology report to tell me my brother wasn’t on heroin,” Holley said. “Our main concern is we want prosecution [led by the] state’s attorney because someone has to be held accountable. This cannot continue to happen to black and brown young men with no justice.”
Adding insult to injury, Anton’s mother says officials detained her at the scene, making it impossible for her to accompany her son to Easton Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on the evening of Sept. 15, 2018.
Sounding the Alarm
After Webster’s hiring in Feb. 2018 by the Greensboro Police Department was reported by The Associated Press, leaders within African-American communities throughout the Eastern Shore internally expressed their concern.
In April, Robert Thomas, a retired military serviceman and Anton’s coach for the statewide champion North Caroline High School track team, warned attendees at an annually-held awards ceremony of the looming menace of Webster’s presence in Eastern Shore’s Black community. He would reiterate his fear during the recent town hall as he addressed the mayor and police chief.
“You sat up here and told me that, ‘Rob, it’s no way I’d hire anybody who would be a danger to this community.’ And now there’s a loss of life yet we are still respectful to be standing up here,” he recalled.
The Eastern Shore’s newspaper of record, the Star Democrat, and local television station WBOC have followed the death of Anton Black and community reaction.
According to a front page story in Sunday’s Star Democrat, the paper has made a formal request to the Maryland State Police under the Maryland Public Information Act for the body camera footage from Greensboro Officer Thomas Webster IV, Anton Black’s autopsy report and investigation documents.
On January 4, 2019 Potter and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black made a separate Public Information Act request to the chief of the Greensboro Police Department for documents pertaining to the hiring of Webster. According to public law, a response is required within 30 days.
Caroline County State’s Attorney Awaits Full Report
During the review of Webster’s hiring last year, Chief Michael Petyo met with then-interim Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley, who ran unopposed last fall and was sworn in to serve his first full term Monday.
“The only question I was asked is how would the dismissal of criminal charges impact the ability of the officer to testify in court,” Riley said. The evaluation of Webster’s application was a decision independent of the state’s attorney, according to Riley.
Although Riley has publicly expressed sympathies for the family of Anton Black and met with representative counsel, his office, “doesn’t do any independent investigation.”
Meanwhile, he awaits release of the final report from the Maryland State Police saying, “we cannot make any decision about the case until all of the evidence is made available.”
It should be noted that the Office of State’s Attorney for Caroline County would have no jurisdiction if the Anton’s family should file a civil lawsuit.
For information on the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black visit their Facebook group at www.facebook.com/CoalitionForJusticeForAntonBlack/, Twitter @CoalitionAnton or email email@example.com.