Every time a black person gets killed by a cop in America, I think about Perry Jones.
He was 19 years old and apparently homeless when he climbed onto the roof of a barbecue shack in Columbus, Georgia, shimmied down the chimney and hacked some meat out of a freezer with a cleaver. When he climbed up and out onto the roof of the restaurant, it was surrounded by cops — nine, by one officer’s count.
A sergeant who was an excellent shot and had recently won a sharpshooting competition took a bead on Perry Jones and killed him as he stood up there on the roof — no more than eight feet from the ground.
The next day, it was my job as the morning police reporter for the Columbus Ledger to write about what had happened. All these years later, I still remember feeling shocked when the police department’s internal affairs department quickly declared the shooting justified. I’m not sure Perry Jones had even been buried.
The NAACP was also shocked. How, the organization asked at a news conference, could the police have possibly determined in such a short time that the shooting was justified? The organization demanded an inquest into the young man’s death.
The coroner, a guy named Don Kilgore (can’t make this stuff up), agreed to perform an inquest if the family agreed.
Perry’s family? I had been able to find only two people with any connection to him: a grandmother, who lived in a shotgun shack with no phone or indoor plumbing south of town, and a sister who lived on the other side of the border in rural Alabama. I could see the sadness in the grandmother’s eyes, foggy from cataracts, as we talked a little about him. I had never encountered such a deep sense of powerlessness in a human being.
The sister was hard to reach. I remember calling a funeral home and the young man who answered the phone offering to run down the road to her house to get her because she didn’t have a phone, either. When she got on the line, she was still breathless from the walk and confused by my call. I explained I was just trying to find out about Perry, her brother, whose life had seemed to leave barely an imprint. She hadn’t seen him in a while. She was angry and confused by what had happened. He wasn’t the kind of person who would ever hurt anyone.
In the days after his death, I asked the police chief to explain to me why the sergeant had killed Perry, who was unarmed except, maybe, for the meat cleaver he still had in his hand. There was no video of what happened. No smart phone cameras. No body cameras. Just a story about a guy on a roof with a cleaver.
“Well, you know, Katherine,” the police chief said to me. “He could have jumped off that roof and hurt someone with that cleaver.”
Nine cops with guns. One 19-year-old with a cleaver. What about asking him to drop the weapon? Had anyone tried that?
The police chief gave me one of those looks I had seen many times since I’d moved to the Deep South from Chicago. It said, girl, you’re not from around here, are you?
Then the day arrived. The coroner announced a news conference where we media types expected to hear something about an inquest into the death of Perry Jones. All of the city’s reporters seemed to be there, and the TV crews were especially apparent that day as they set up their lights and cameras and did their stand-ups.
“The family of Perry Jones,” the coroner said, “does not want an inquest.”
And that was that. The TV crews started packing up their gear to leave.
Something didn’t seem right.
“Wait,” I said, raising my hand. “What family?”
The coroner looked irritated. He moved some papers around on the table where he sat at the front of the room. “His family.”
“Yes,” I persisted. “But who exactly do you mean?”
The other reporters were looking at me in confusion. I thought about the road between Perry’s sister and a telephone. I thought about the grandmother, living in near-darkness with seemingly no connection to the world and no understanding of what had happened to her grandson.
The coroner blew up at me, ended the news conference and we filed out of the room. Back in the newsroom, I called the funeral home in Alabama and asked the young man who answered the phone if he would please, just one more time, run down the road and get Perry’s sister. Several long minutes later, she came onto the line.
I asked her if she’d told the coroner that she did not want an inquest into her brother’s death.
There was a brief silence on the line, then she said: “Inquest? What’s an inquest?”
One more phone call — this one, to the coroner. “You didn’t ask them, did you?” I asked. This was not a journalistic approach. It was pure outrage that came from the deepening realization that public officials could and would tell outright lies to the public through the media. I told the coroner I would be calling him out in a newspaper story the next morning. He promised me that if I did, I would never have access to him or the police again. He kept his promise.
Watching the videos these past few years of young black men and women being killed by police, I have thought a lot about Perry Jones. He died more than 30 years ago in a medium-sized southern city that had in no way reckoned with racism. I can’t help but do the math. There have been a multitude of unseen, unheralded deaths, pre-cameras, pre-social media, pre-public outrage.
I’m putting Perry Jones’ name down right here, right now. He was 19. He was stealing meat from a freezer.