In the early morning hours of September 8, 2018, Marcus Deon Smith, a 38-year-old Black man who was suffering from a mental health crisis and was pleading to be taken to the hospital, was instead fatally hog-tied by eight white Greensboro, North Carolina, police officers, two of whom were supervisors who refused to intervene to stop the brutal process.
The Greensboro Police Department (GPD) and the City of Greensboro then embarked on a cover-up that continues to this day. Similar to the initial press release issued by the Minneapolis Police Department in the George Floyd case, the GPD chief of police, after reviewing the police body camera videos, issued two successive press releases in which he and his department omitted the crucial operative fact — that Smith was hog-tied — while falsely asserting that he “collapsed” while in police custody. They maintained this fiction until Smith’s father and the family’s lawyer viewed the police body camera videos and the North Carolina Medical Examiner publicly announced that Smith’s death was a homicide with the leading cause being prone restraint (that is, hog-tied with a RIPP Hobble belt wrapped around the ankles and attached to the handcuffed wrists behind the back while face down on the ground).
These events compelled the city to publicly release the videos, but its obvious attempt at damage control only intensified public outrage, and the protests were taken to the floor of the city council, to Black churches and to the streets in weekly “Mondays for Marcus” demonstrations. Smith’s mother Mary became a powerful spokesperson for the movement, a role that she has continued to assume despite her continuing grief and anger.
Undeterred, the GPD conducted a sham internal “investigation,” publicly exonerated the officers before its “investigation” was complete, and followed with a report that failed to probe either the obvious failures in training and supervision, or whether there was a GPD practice of similar brutal hog-tyings, while formally absolving all of the officers.
After numerous local Black ministers and the North Carolina NAACP called for an independent investigation, the Greensboro City Council, in April 2019, agreed to consider doing so, only to indefinitely table the proposal two weeks later after the Smith family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive force and municipal liability.
The Smith Family’s Lawsuit
The lawsuit and the battles to interrogate the city and police officials responsible for Smith’s death and the resultant cover-up began to take center-stage in the fall of 2020 after Federal District Court Judge Loretta Biggs denied the city’s attempt to dismiss the case on the basis of qualified immunity, and its subsequent plea to stay the discovery process. This occurred in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests that followed, and demonstrators at a “Blackout North Carolina” rally raised up Smith as “Greensboro’s George Floyd.” Feeling the pressure, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan publicly embraced the obvious similarities between the police-perpetrated murders, saying, “To all who are outraged by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Marcus Deon Smith, and so many others, I hear you. I hear your anger, your pain, your frustration of justice denied for far too long. I hear you crying out for a new way, for changes in policies, in systems and structures.”
The city hired the local defense firm of Mullins Duncan Harrell & Russell at taxpayers’ expense, to defend the city and the police in the case, while utilizing the city attorney, Chuck Watts, as the primary front man for the continuing attack on the Smith family, its legal team and the community activists who were focusing the demand that “Black Lives Matter” on the Marcus Smith case. Shortly after Vaughan’s statement, Watts announced that the “unfortunate death of Mr. Marcus Smith was totally different than what happened to Mr. Floyd,” and accused respected community activist Lewis Pitts, who was working closely with the Smith legal team, of having “pimped” the Black clergy of Greensboro. Watts would later tell community activists in a widely publicized statement that Marcus Smith’s life was not worth six figures.
The Battle for Transparency
In the lawsuit, the city cloaked all of the thousands of pages of police documents which they produced with a “highly confidential” designation, including those that revealed 275 incidents of hog-tying that occurred over the four years prior to Smith’s death. The parade of city and police officials — the mayor, city manager, the current and former chiefs, command and supervisory officers, and the eight police hog-tyers — all closed ranks behind a shared code of silence in their lengthy deposition testimony, with Mayor Vaughan walking back her statement connecting Smith to George Floyd, and another prior public statement where she accused the chief of lying in his September 2018 press releases.
The movement on the streets continued to demand a fair settlement, a public apology, a public memorial and transparency in the Marcus Smith case. The city responded in court by moving to hold the Smith lawyers, including the author of this article, in contempt for allegedly disseminating to community activists and the media non-confidential testimony and documents and for making public statements about the case, while claiming that the Smith lawyers had acted unethically. They also attempted to file non-confidential documents that outlined the cover-up secretly under court seal. Their blunderbuss attack also roped in Pitts and another stalwart community activist, Hester Petty, together with an independent journalist , Ian McDowell, who had received the North Carolina Press Award for his work exposing the Smith cover-up, and a prior Truthout article on the case was also cited as an alleged transgression.
The Smith lawyers fought back by defending their right as public interest lawyers in an important civil rights case to inform the public and to combat the false and slanderous statements made by Watts, Vaughan and other City and police officials. On August 2, 2021, Magistrate Judge Joe Webster denied the City’s motion. Vindicating the Smith family’s position and the broader First Amendment and transparency rights that were at risk, the judge wrote:
In a case involving a government and its agents, the public’s access to judicial materials is essential to fulfill the public’s role as a guardian of both its judicial system and its elected officials. This Court did not enter the P[rotective] O[rder] to stifle that role, and it will not punish Plaintiff for responding to the narrative originally put forth by Defendants from the date of Mr. Smith’s death.
Evidence of a Pattern and Practice of Hog-Tying Is Revealed
The pretrial battles for video evidence demonstrating a routine practice of GPD hog-tying have now also come to a head. In June 2020, the Smith family lawyers first sought this evidence, but the city resisted. This resistance continued throughout the discovery process, with the city’s lawyers — who, according to Freedom of Information figures provided by the city, have now collected $1.1 million in publicly funded fees — finally producing police body camera videos after being ordered to do so first by the magistrate judge in April 2021, and subsequently, on June 25, by District Judge Biggs, to whom they had appealed. After receiving the “highly confidential” videos on July 20 — after the discovery period had closed — the Smith lawyers watched all of the highly disturbing videos, and in early August, asked the judge to reopen the discovery process so that we could question the hog-tie officers and responsible city officials about the videos. Additionally, we moved the court to make the videos, redacted to protect the privacy of the victims, publicly available. In our motion, the lawyers summarized what we saw on the videos.
- Of the 50 incidents produced, 38 of the victims (76 percent) were Black, and 39 (78 percent) were of color;
- 84 percent of the hog-tiers were white, 24 of the victims (48 percent) were women, and all of these women were hog-tied either by all male officers (58 percent) or by a crew of majority white officers (42 percent).
- Analysis of the police reports from 2014 to September 2018 where “maximum restraint” was mentioned, showed 275 incidents, with 68 percent of the victims being Black, and 17 percent suffering from a mental health crisis;
- Several of the eight officers who participated in the hog-tying of Marcus Smith, and the supervising sergeant and corporal, were repeat hog-tiers, with one having 16 prior hog-tie complaints.
The motion also summarized individual incidents of racially and sexually discriminatory use of painful, deeply humiliating and potentially life-endangering hog-tying:
- A Black woman hog-tied by a Defendant with her legs at less than 90 degrees from her body, left prone on the ground for more than five minutes, with her breasts exposed, yelling and screaming in pain, outrage and humiliation;
- Other persons expressing pain, with eight also saying that they could not breathe;
- Indifference and verbal abuse by the Defendant hog-tiers to the pain and suffering of the victims;
- Numerous examples of people with their legs bent at an angle of less than 90 degrees from their back, including during an incident only hours before Marcus Smith was hog-tied;
- An officer tightening the RIPP Hobble restraint device beyond the 90-degree angle despite being told by a fellow officer not to do so;
- An officer complaining that they don’t make the RIPP Hobbles like they used to, and that the new ones hurt more;
- An officer responding to an older Black woman peacefully asking for her lawyer by hog-tying her while she screamed out in pain;
- An officer, while hog-tying a Black victim without apparent cause, saying that he ends up RIPP Hobbling people all the time for “some reason”;
- A veteran officer saying that “just about every time” he’s had to use a RIPP Hobble, he’s had to go back and get a new one “because it’s covered in blood”;
- On one occasion, an officer has his knee on the neck of a pregnant Black female victim, similar to how George Floyd was fatally restrained, for more than 2 minutes while she is being hog-tied; she is prone, hog-tied and crying out that she can’t breathe;
- An elderly woman suffering from dementia was RIPP Hobbled while she repeatedly complained that the officers were hurting her arms. She was crying while on the ground, facedown, with her dress up throughout the RIPP Hobbling;
- Officers put pressure on the head, back, and/or buttocks of the victims on numerous occasions while hog-tying, and pushed a victim’s face into the ground;
- Victims were left in a prone position after hog-tying on numerous occasions;
- Several hog-tied victims were placed face down in a squad car.
In the wake of the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, City Councilmember Michelle Kennedy, a sometimes-outspoken critic of the GPD, once again called for transparency, as well as for an independent investigation, this time not only into the handling of the Marcus Smith case, but also into the systemic problems within the police department. Once again, the council initially decided to take up her request, but in early June of this year, in a secret closed-door meeting, and in apparent violation of the open meetings act, rejected the proposal. To add insult to injury, Kennedy was forced to publicly read the council’s statement rejecting her request to investigate that was drafted by Chuck Watts. On August 18, 2021, Mayor Vaughan announced that Kennedy, who had again broken ranks in her June 29, 2021, deposition testimony in the Smith case by calling out the cover-up, had resigned, effective immediately, ostensibly to take another city job.
The Movement for Black Lives in Greensboro continues to fight on behalf of Marcus Smith’s loved ones. Frustrated by the city’s continued secrecy, denials, resistance to a decent settlement and refusal to admit any wrongdoing, the community, on the eve of the third anniversary of Smith’s homicide, in a letter signed by numerous community and religious organizations and activists, including Rev. William Barber II, has formally called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the GPD’s racially and sexually discriminatory patterns and practices of policing, as most recently demonstrated by the hog-tie videos, by a previous pattern of racially discriminatory stops and arrests, and by repeated incidents of police violence and misconduct.
Hopefully, the Justice Department will hear the powerful cry of the movement and the compelling evidence that supports it, and not be deterred by Greensboro’s “liberal veneer,” which long-time Greensboro activist Rev. Nelson Johnson has correctly identified as a mask for its “reactionary underbelly.”
Without doubt, the Marcus Smith case, and the issue of hog-tying as a method of brutal restraint most often used against people of color, is not only an issue of local importance, but also commands national attention and official condemnation as a dehumanizing and life-threatening police tactic that has been repeatedly used at Guantánamo, at Camp Delta in Iraq and in U.S. prisons as a component of torture.