As the deaths of Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose continue to capture national attention—both serving as undeniable evidence of police brutality, selective outrage and the ability of police officers to lie through their teeth even with video evidence to contradict their stories—the police killing of 39-year-old Jonathan Sanders in Stonewall, Miss., has largely flown under the radar.
According to witnesses, Sanders, a father of two and a horse trainer, was riding in a single-person buggy drawn by his horse, Diva, the night of July 8 when he saw Officer Kevin Herrington allegedly harassing a man at a gas station. Sanders yelled out for Herrington to leave the man alone, to which, according to witnesses, Herrington replied, “I’m going to get that n—ger.”
Less than a half hour later, Sanders would be dead.
According to witnesses, Herrington’s unexpected approach down the long, winding road startled Diva, who then threw Sanders from the buggy and ran away. As Sanders tried to stand, Herrington allegedly pulled Sanders by the strap of a headlamp Sanders was wearing that had slipped down around his neck, and allegedly choked him for approximately 20 minutes.
Sanders’ last words, according to witnesses: "I can’t breathe."
Herrington has been placed on administrative leave while Sanders’ death is under investigation, but even with stark similarities between this case and that of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., there has not been a concerted national mobilization effort behind it.
This has left Sanders’ mother, Frances Sanders, struggling to force her son’s name into a national conversation about police brutality and the state-sanctioned killing of black people that too often go unpunished.
In an exclusive interview with The Root, Frances Sanders talks about her son and her continued efforts to make sure his family receives justice in his name. The Root also spoke with attorneys Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who is representing the Sanders family, and C.J. Lawrence, who is representing the witnesses. They both said that it’s past time for the national spotlight on injustice to shine on Mississippi.
The Root: Tell us about Jonathan.
Frances Sanders: Jonathan was a very softhearted, understanding person. You could go to him with any problems and he would try to help you in the best way. That’s the way I taught him. He would try to help everybody in the community.
Jonathan’s kindness is what brought all those people to his service. Jonathan’s memorial service had a thousand people in a town with a thousand people.
TR: How are you feeling?
FS: I hate this. I wonder why this happened to my son. I’m wondering why things are coming to a halt and why things are coming to a standstill. Somebody is going to have to tell us something. If it’s 10 years from now, somebody is going to have to tell me something.
[His] babies are something else. They are cranky. Today the little girl [went] from one person’s lap to another person’s lap. It was like she couldn’t get comfortable. It’s heartbreaking to see. The night before the funeral, she was going from one door to the other door looking at all these people in the room. She placed her face against the window with her hands above her forehead, looking, because she didn’t see who she was looking for. She was looking for her daddy. That broke my heart. They took a piece of these children’s heart.
His son would see his dad’s face and he would have a grin that was out of this world. Their daddy saw them every night. She used to fall asleep on his chest every night. She would wrap her arms around his neck and just fall asleep. They took that way from these babies.
TR: What does justice look like for you?
FS: I want Kevin Herrington to go through the judicial system. I want him to be tried through a court. I want them to find him guilty for the death of my son. That’s just a little justice because ain’t nothing going to bring him back. But that would help, if [Herrington] had to pay in some type of way for what he did to my son.
And it’s going to happen again. If something isn’t done, then this is going to happen again. It’s too much that has already happened in this little town and they covered it up. But they won’t cover this one up. If I have to walk to every news station [there] is and tell my story, then it won’t be covered up.
TR: What is the status of the case against Herrington?
Chokwe Antar Lumumba: The investigation is ongoing. The [Mississippi Bureau of Investigations] is leading the investigation, and we correspond with them daily.
The preliminary autopsy determined that the cause of death was manual asphyxiation, and the manner of death was homicide. That means that the results determined that Jonathan Sanders was choked to death by another person. That person was Kevin Herrington. So you have eyewitnesses saying that Kevin Herrington choked Jonathan Sanders to death, and an autopsy saying Kevin Herrington choked Jonathan Sanders to death, and yet this is day 22 since his death and there is still no arrest.
District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell made the statement that in the 28 years he’s represented four counties, he’s done approximately 15 police-related killings before a grand jury, and he cannot recall one indictment coming from those instances.
His statements concern me deeply. So much so that we are prepared to request that the state step in and appoint a special prosecutor, based on his admitted inability to secure indictments in the nearly 30 years he’s been a district attorney in four counties. Zero-15 is very unimpressive. And we demand justice in this case.
TR: There was so much social media buzz surrounding #TakeItDown, the push to get the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina Capitol. Yet when faced with the state-sanctioned violence that often goes unchallenged in the Deep South, there is a lot of silence. Why do you think that is?
C.J. Lawrence: Thank you for asking this. To be quite honest, the dilemma is quite perplexing. As we witness the phenomenon of black men and women and boys and girls being killed while unarmed, only to be later [character] assassinated and have their killings justified across this nation, it seemed inevitable that this type of injustice would make its way back to Mississippi.
I say “back” because Mississippi is the place that perfected injustice through systematic racism and oppression. Look no further than Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner to realize the history is real here. You have to drive through a Confederate cemetery to get to Stonewall, Miss. There are houses with rebel battle flags hanging outside. You can feel the weight of oppression bearing down on the place.
This is small-town Mississippi—a town of about 1,088 people. Often when people from outside the state think “Mississippi,” they immediately think perpetual injustice, but if there was ever a place where we could establish the blueprint for how to beat state-sanctioned violence, I think this is the place to do it. And if we do it here, we can do it anywhere. We have been in contact with several of the players on the national scene. It would be great to feel their presence here as well. Black lives matter in Mississippi, too.
TR: How will you get the community involved in fighting for Jonathan?
CAL: We are certainly going to galvanize the people. This is different from Ferguson[,Mo.,] or Baltimore. The conditions are different. The nature of the oppression is different, and so how we get people involved will be different from those areas.
In Ferguson and Baltimore, you had two places where violence, oppression, poverty and a multitude of in-your-face systematic conditions were at play. Here, you have that deliberate Southern oppression. It’s passive, in-your-place-type oppression. When we had the citizens hold up their fists at town hall, I had no doubt that it was the first time in history that in Stonewall, Miss. … many people were standing together for the purpose of showing black power. We intend to empower the community and show them just how powerful they already are.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that the Sanders family’s attorneys had confirmed that Jonathan Sanders was riding on his horse and not in a buggy. The attorneys now say that Sanders was in a buggy and not on the horse.