Witnessing Death at the Corner of Memorial Drive & Capitol Ave

Three days ago, I witnessed death at the corner of Memorial Drive & Capitol Ave in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. I’m still grappling with the horrendous scene and trying to make sense of what I saw. The image of the older black man’s body is etched into the reservoirs of my mind and I’m not sure if I will ever forget where I was at 7:15PM on March 22,2018.  As I’m writing this, my thoughts default to the moment I saw his eyes.

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On the evening of March 22nd around 6:30 I left the house with the intention of making a few extra bucks by driving for Uber. To date I had only been driving for a little over a week and I had just begun picking up orders as part of the Uber Eats feature of the platform. After turning on the app, I received a request to pick up a delivery from Shane’s Rib Shack off Moreland Ave in the Edgewood Shopping Plaza. Usually orders are ready within a timely fashion, and this one, very similar to the others, proved to follow suit. At about 6:50PM I turned into the shopping plaza where the restaurant is located, parked the car, and continued into the establishment. Upon giving the order number to the friendly woman working the register, I received the food and set out on my way to deliver it. One minute into the drive I received a call from the customer informing me that they would like to change the drop-off address. I obliged and entered the correct address into my GPS. For some reason, unknown to me, Google Maps took me on a longer route that included a few minutes on Memorial Drive.

As I approached Grant Street I began to hear sirens up ahead and realized that traffic was shifting. Shortly thereafter, in the distance, I noticed that a fire truck was coming towards me. Now if you are familiar with this area of Atlanta, you would know that a lot of construction is currently taking place and sometimes traffic can get a bit hectic, especially during rush hour. Not thinking much of it, I simply assumed that everything that was going on was nothing out of the norm, that was until the fire truck made a sudden stop and slightly began to block oncoming traffic. Immediately following this change, two firefighters jumped out of the truck and quickly headed towards their emergency gear. At this point it became clear to me that something serious had just happened only a few minutes before. Just as traffic had come to an extreme halt, time screeched to an abrupt stop for me as well. Only a few cars were between me and whatever had happened just ahead. Quite naturally I asked myself, “What’s going on?.......

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It didn’t take long to see the answer. As the other drivers and I approached the scene, we were presented with a bloody and mangled body laying in the street. The firefighter franticly ran to the man, placed his emergency kit beside him and proceeded to attempt to save the victim. As I inched closer, the first responder turned the man’s head and shoulders to see his face. At the same moment I looked left and immediately locked eyes with the body. I saw that his hat was knocked off his head and one of his legs appeared to be badly injured, possibly severed. A puddle of blood was pooled underneath his body and his eyes stared back at me empty and lifeless. I didn’t know this man, but my heart felt deeply for him and his family. Where was he going? What were his plans for the evening? Did he get to say I love you to those near and dear to him? And most importantly, who would be held accountable for ending his life? In that moment human mortality and the fragility of life became so real to me. My sense of awareness was thrust into the hearts of every black body that had laid in the streets prior to him. I felt a strange sensation of guilt, conviction and responsibility. How could I simply drive by and carry on with life when he was denied that same liberty? I’m not sure as to the answers for these questions or if I will ever forget what I saw yesterday, but one thing that I do know is that I had witnessed death at the corner of Memorial Drive & Capitol Ave.

PART 2

On the west coast, in Sacramento, a short distance from where Black Men Smile participated in an empowerment event with fellow activist, educator, and poet Karega Bailey, a young black man had been executed by law officials. His name was Stephon Clark. He was gunned down by Sacramento police officers while standing in his grandmothers’ backyard. His crime was BEING A BLACK MAN IN AMERICA and his punishment was 20 violent shots to his vessel. Why? Why was he the target of such wickedness and why was the black community being confronted with this harsh reality once again? On one coast I was dealing with the trauma of witnessing death first hand, and on the opposite side of America the bodycam footage of the Sacramento executioners revealed to the world their murderous truths. Had this become our norm? Who among us was next in line to become the trending hashtag?

These questions revealed that I was hurting and confused. And to be quite honest I didn’t know what to do with the pain. In an effort to cope, I called upon my brother Carlton Mackey for consolation. I’m not certain as to what I intended to get from the call, however, I was sure that at least he would be willing to lend an understanding ear. Unbeknownst to me, he had recently watched the footage of Clark’s killing and he was secretly suffering from what his eyes had also witnessed. For nearly an hour we spoke with each other about our feelings towards these happenings and it appeared that we both were searching for answers. Here we were as co-leaders of Black Men Smile®, fighting within ourselves to access our joy.

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Carlton’s emotional release manifested into a post on our Instagram feed that read, “His name is Stephon Clark.” I had not yet come to grips with the trauma that I experienced from seeing the man’s lifeless eyes the day previous, so as we sat on the phone in silence I googled to see if a story had been released about the incident. Sure enough, after entering “man hit by car on memorial drive yesterday”, a few news releases popped up. To my surprise, CBS 46 and a few other news outlets shared the same four sentence report. They expressed that an unidentified man was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Memorial Drive in Atlanta. Was that it? Was that the end of that man’s story? Four hastily written and contrived lines that showed very little remorse towards the life that was loss. Did they even care to learn his name? I felt a rage ignite within me. I became very upset. I was saddened by the fact that he had been killed and that media outlets had failed to at least learn and share his name with the world. I couldn’t help but think that if he were a white man or woman, maybe then his name would be of top priority for the writers at the news station.  I felt guilty for feeling this way. But more than my sense of guilt, I felt responsible and provoked. I felt inspired to learn more about him and the other voiceless persons of the recent past.

Why was I on Memorial Drive at the exact moment? What was my part in all that had happened? Was I there as part of God’s grand design? I couldn’t help but wonder. As the conversation between Carlton and I neared its end I verbalized to him that I wanted to do something and that I felt compelled to act. I couldn’t sit by and remain silent, my eyes had seen too much, and my heart was in need of comfort. We agreed that a possible first step was to share our recent experiences with our online community via a live chat. Maybe there we could vent and connect with people who were also trying to make sense of this crazy world. Maybe there we could find an illusion of peace. Maybe there we could reveal that although things sometimes become hard to bare, we continue to smile IN SPITE OF.

My prayers and condolences go out to the families of the countless victims. 

- Devan Dmarcus (Co-Founder) Black Men Smile


UPDATE: Since typing this story, news outlets have released the name of the victim as Larry Bernard Pass.

 It has been placed on my heart to lead a vigil in his memory as well as to honor and demand justice for the killings of Stephon Clark and so many other Black men killed at the hands of police.