Nearly ten years before the killing of George Floyd, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department suffocated another Black man to death.
By Terrion L. Williamson
I’ll never forget the burn of hot tears rolling down my face as I watched the video of my little brother being murdered by the men in blue. It’s a deeply rooted, unimaginable, soul shattering pain that has changed my family forever. After years of court appearances and depositions I accepted the sad reality that a little black girl could never win justice against the brotherhood of blue.
—Angela Smith, excerpted Facebook post, May 27, 2020
David Cornelius Smith loved the ocean. He could not swim, and he had never actually seen the ocean—any ocean—in person, but he loved it all the same. It wasn’t until a summer sojourn to Florida, during what would be the final months of his life, that he at last had the opportunity to see the Atlantic’s vast expanse for himself. When he first set foot on its shores, he went running and crashing into the water with his characteristic exuberance, oblivious to everything except the waves before him, including the cell phone in his pocket.
David’s sister, Angela Smith, was not surprised by the sense of wonder and abandon with which David met the ocean. She was just three years older than David and had grown up witnessing her younger brother’s boisterous displays of affection for all that he loved—and he loved, and was good at, many things. He enjoyed music, sports, and the arts. He played violin, basketball, and baseball, once drew the mascot for a school art competition, and wrote poetry that often turned into raps. (He would ask Angela to sing the hooks.) David was charismatic and kind-hearted, and, as his sister put it, “the kind of smart that didn’t have to study,” and he had a way with people that made them feel important and heard. More than anything, David, whose nickname was Pumpkin, loved his family and wanted to be a good example for his five younger siblings, and for the children he hoped to have himself one day.
David, Angela, and their siblings were primarily reared by their single mother, Diane Smith, on the South Side of Peoria, Illinois, a city that sits about halfway between Chicago and St. Louis on the Illinois River. Peoria’s disproportionately Black South Side is marked by the same types of socioeconomic disadvantages that structure most majority-Black cities and communities throughout the industrial Midwest, including a poverty rate of nearly fifty percent and an unemployment rate around twenty percent. In recent years, Peoria has been found to have the sixth-highest rate of Black-white residential segregation and the single highest rate of school segregation in the nation, and these disparities have remained essentially unchanged for the past forty years.
I know Peoria’s South Side intimately, as it is where I also grew up, and, though I now live in North Minneapolis, it is the place I continue to call home. It is also where Angela and I met and became good friends while students at Trewyn Middle School. I never got to know David personally, in part because Angela and I largely lost touch after she graduated from high school a year early, but when she told me David felt that he had to leave Peoria, I recognized the feeling from my own young adulthood; I left Peoria for college in Chicago shortly after I graduated from high school. But, to be clear, David’s leave-taking was never meant to be an act of abandonment. He wanted to improve his financial circumstances so that he could eventually return home and help take care of his family. Like so many young and idealistic Black men before him, he dreamed of buying his mother a house and moving her out of the hood.
And so, he moved to Minnesota.
David applied to Job Corps and, after being accepted into the Twin Cities program, picked up, at the age of seventeen, and moved north. He spent three years in Job Corps and decided to remain in the area upon graduation, because he was convinced there were still more opportunities for him there. He moved into his own apartment, had a long-term girlfriend, and enrolled at Minnesota Community and Technical College, where he took classes in business and political science. He also developed a relationship with a mentor at Penumbra Theatre, who helped him engage his love of acting, and he even tried his hand at modeling (because, as Angela put it, “People told him he was cute!”). According to Angela, David believed that a person could become anything they wanted in the Twin Cities, and he regularly tried to convince her that she should move there as well.
Still, David began to struggle. What the family understood to be major depression was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. The diagnosis remains controversial for David’s family, some of whom were concerned that racial bias—not uncommon in the mental health profession—and David’s lack of access to appropriate resources might have contributed to a misdiagnosis. Yet, whatever their misgivings about the diagnosis, David’s family helped him get the care he needed, which included getting on a regular diet and exercise regimen to help better manage his symptoms. That regimen is the reason he was in the downtown Minneapolis YMCA on the afternoon of September 9, 2010.
According to most media accounts of the incident, the Minneapolis Police Department was summoned because David, who is typically described in these accounts as being “mentally ill” or potentially under the influence of drugs or alcohol, was disturbing patrons in and around the sixth-floor gym. It is not entirely clear what the exact behavior was that was supposedly disturbing patrons. Most accounts of the incident offer up vague assessments that David was “acting bizarrely” or being “disruptive,” while one account suggests that he was walking around shirtless and mumbling, that he threw a basketball into a kickball class, and that he “scared” a thirteen-year-old boy. According to Angela’s understanding of the incident, the only “disturbing” behavior committed by David was that he was talking to himself while shooting jump shots in the gym.
In any event, MPD officers Timothy Gorman and Timothy Callahan arrived and attempted to subdue David and remove him from the facility. As far as Angela knows, no one from the YMCA had approached David prior to calling the police, and, given that he was a paid member of the club, he resisted the officers’ attempts to make him leave. In the ensuing struggle, the officers used a Taser on David multiple times, knocking him to the floor. They turned him face down, and Gorman pressed his knees into David’s back while Callahan restrained the bottom portion of his body, using a tactic known as “prone restraint,” which restricts a person’s ability to take in oxygen. The two officers held David down for more than four minutes, and when they finally released him, he was no longer breathing. Though paramedics eventually restarted his heart via CPR, David never regained consciousness. He remained in a coma until being taken off life support approximately a week later. David Cornelius Smith was declared dead on September 17, 2010. He was twenty-eight years old.
David was killed before body-worn cameras were in widespread use by law enforcement and cell-phone footage documenting police encounters was commonplace, but the Taser used by the officers had a camera affixed to it and Callahan had a small pen camera clipped to his uniform, which he had purchased independently. Video of the incident was eventually made public. On one of the recordings, Callahan can be heard talking to his wife soon after the incident, telling her that he wouldn’t be home for a while because “I think me and Jimmy killed a guy.”
The Hennepin County medical examiner’s office found that David died of mechanical asphyxia caused by prone restraint, and ruled his death a homicide. Gorman and Callahan were temporarily put on paid administrative leave, but they were back on the job within the month. Despite the video footage and the fact that Gorman had a documented history of misconduct complaints, both officers were ultimately cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by a Hennepin County grand jury.
The Smith family sued the City of Minneapolis, alleging excessive force and using the video as evidence. In 2013, nearly three years after David’s death, they negotiated a settlement of $3.075 million, more than half of which went directly to attorney fees. Angela said that her family decided to proceed with the settlement after realizing that if they took the case to trial it could drag on for years, and that even then they knew they likely would never—could never—be made whole or get the justice they desired. The entire ordeal had already taken a tremendous toll on all of them, and they wanted to do what they could to pick up the pieces and heal as a family. So, they settled the case, and David’s mother used part of the money to purchase a new home—the one that David had once dreamed of buying her.
The settlement also included an agreement that MPD officers would receive additional training on restraint tactics. This agreement, which provided that systemic changes would be made within the MPD as a result of David’s death, was of critical importance to the family. It provided solace that even if the officers who killed David would never be held responsible, and even if the settlement money would never bring David back, they could at least help ensure that no other family would have to go through the terror of their experience. But it is not clear if such trainings ever took place, or if policies or practices were ever established to improve how police officers dealt with individuals suspected of having substance abuse disorders or mental health conditions.
The May 25 killing of George Floyd was a gut punch for Angela. When she watched the video of Floyd—pleading and struggling for air as Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes; as three other officers aided in the offense; as outraged bystanders documented their brutality—she saw her brother laying on a gymnasium floor ten years earlier, alone. What had her brother’s story been if not a cautionary tale? What had she and her family fought for if not to prevent this very thing? As David’s younger brother Louis Brown put it during a recent interview: “My brother’s death was supposed to save Mr. Floyd’s life.”
The Smith family understood firsthand the confusion, pain, and rage that the Floyd family was likely experiencing. They understood how overwhelmed and perhaps even dismayed the family might be by the crush of cameras and commentators and reporters who showed up in the immediate aftermath looking for an interview, a soundbite, an explanation—something, anything, everything. “We didn’t have the ability to communicate through our broken hearts,” Angela said.
In the end, Angela felt that, having been suddenly thrust into a circumstance they neither asked for nor were prepared to contend with, she and her family were unable to fully express the beauty and complexity of David. They knew that the stigma attached to mental illness and housing insecurity, especially as it relates to Black people, meant that many would not understand the significance of David’s death, both to the people who knew and cared for him, and to the movements for racial and socioeconomic justice and against police brutality.
And they knew that the terms being used to describe David were insufficient to explain the realities of his life—like the fact that David might not have had a stable address, but he was living with a friend and in constant communication with his family. Like the fact that, despite reports saying he had a substance abuse problem, no alcohol or drugs—other than cold medicine—were found in his system at the time of his death. Like the fact that he was actively working, even until the final moments of his life, to stabilize his mental health. Like the fact that he had left the South Side of Peoria for the Twin Cities because he aspired to do all that young Black people from the hood are frequently told to do in order to “make it out.”
Like the fact that he loved the ocean. ■
The David C. Smith Memorial Scholarship Fund has been newly established by the Black Midwest Initiative to grant financial assistance to students attending accredited community colleges throughout the Midwestern United States. Click here for more information and to donate.
Terrion L. Williamson is an associate professor of African American & African Studies and American Studies at the University of Minnesota. A native of Peoria, Illinois, she is the director of the Black Midwest Initiative and the editor of the forthcoming Belt title Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest.
Cover image of Angela and David Smith in 2009. Photo courtesy Angela Smith.
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