Barber and other civil rights leaders spoke moments before Gov. Roy Cooper called for a special prosecutor to investigate law enforcement’s killing of Andrew Brown Jr.
Nearly a week after a Black man from Elizabeth City was killed by local deputies, Rev. William Barber II and other North Carolina faith and civil rights leaders questioned Tuesday whether local prosecutors in Pasquotank County can be trusted to handle the investigation.
Speaking Tuesday in Elizabeth City, Barber repeatedly called the elected District Attorney Andy Womble “inept, incompetent and incapable,” following a week of back-and-forth with family members over bodycam footage.
Barber spoke moments before Gov. Roy Cooper called for a special prosecutor in the case, which has roiled many North Carolinians and Americans across the country as the latest police-involved killing of a Black American.
The case erupted into the national news April 21 after local deputies killed Brown while serving a search warrant. The 42-year-old man’s slaying is just the latest in a string of high-profile police shootings of Black Americans that reignited the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement in states like North Carolina.
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The FBI has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the case, the News & Observer reported Tuesday afternoon.
Attorneys for Brown’s family have characterized Brown’s killing as an “execution,” describing a scene Tuesday in which deputies in Pasquotank County surrounded his vehicle while attempting to execute a search warrant and shot him in the back of the head. Family members saw a 20-second clip of the shooting Monday after unexpected delays as local officials said they had to blur faces in the clip.
North Carolina’s relatively secretive bodycam law allows officials such discretion. Media outlets in the state have asked a judge to release deputies’ footage publicly, with a hearing slated for Wednesday morning.
Harry Daniels, the Brown family attorney, said Tuesday that deputies got out of their vehicles shooting at Brown last week.
Barber called the case “a moral emergency, a justice emergency.”
“Accountability must mean arrest,” added Barber. “That’s what they would do to me if I shot someone today.”
Barber called on onlookers in the Elizabeth City crowd to repeat Brown’s name multiple times Tuesday. “When you kill one of us wrongfully, you may kill one of us, but we rise in their name,” he said.
Cardinal & Pine could not reach Womble for comment Tuesday afternoon, with no answer at his the district attorney’s office. Womble serves a seven-county region in Eastern North Carolina that includes Pasquotank.
Womble said in a statement to news outlets Monday that he would follow state law as it relates to bodycam footage, leaving discretion for release of that footage to the general public to a Superior Court judge. A hearing is scheduled Wednesday morning to consider the footage’s release.
“Everyone should want a full, fair, complete, and impartial investigation,” Womble said in his statement. “I commit to review that investigation and make decisions based on the facts and the law.”
However, Gov. Cooper, North Carolina’s former attorney general, said Tuesday afternoon his recommendation for a special prosecutor to review the case follows the recommendations of state racial equity task force launched last year following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
“In the interest of justice and confidence in the judicial system, I believe a special prosecutor should handle all matters regarding the shooting in Pasquotank County,” Cooper said in a statement. “This would help assure the community and Mr. Brown’s family that a decision on pursuing criminal charges is conducted without bias.”
Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, head of North Carolina’s NAACP, urged the NC Attorney General Josh Stein to investigate the “obvious coverup” in Pasquotank County. “We are here today because we know what we’re up against,” Spearman said.
White North Carolinians need to get involved with the racial justice struggle, said Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the NC Council of Churches, a statewide coalition of social justice-minded faith leaders.
“We can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch,” said Copeland, who is white. “We must be with our Black neighbors. … We must be with them in dismantling racism.”
Barber pointed out the diversity of the Black and white protesters who have marched peacefully in Elizabeth City since last week, calling it evidence of “the newness of the South.”
“The South is going to rise again,” he said. “But it is not going to rise like it used to.”