ON THE first day of 2015, a young black man died while in custody of local law enforcement.
No one took to the streets in outrage. No riots and looting ensued. No city officials called for a boycott of the gas station where he was arrested. I can’t help but wonder why.
Don’t get me wrong; the last thing we need is another Ferguson. Yet given the events of the past year, it seems like the death of Matthew Ajibade ought to be tinder for a major blaze:
According to the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, 22 year-old Ajibade was arrested on charges of domestic violence and taken to the Chatham County Detention Center, where he became “combative.”
After he clocked one deputy in the face, breaking her nose, and injured two more, he was forced into a restraining chair and put in an isolation cell. When the officers returned to check on him, he was dead.
The young man’s family says there are facts not mentioned in the police report: The Nigerian-born Ajibade had a well-documented case of bipolar disorder, and during his arrest, his girlfriend—who he had been fighting with at the convenience store—begged the police to take him not to jail but to the hospital, pressing his meds into the arresting officer’s hand.
The cause of death has yet to be determined by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and sheriff’s deputies Maxine Evans and Jason Kenny have been placed on leave until a conclusion is reached.
To add fuel to the combustible elements of possible abuse of police power and the potential mismanagement of a mentally ill detainee, the family has retained Mark O’Mara—the Florida attorney who defended George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Given these factors, it seems like Savannah should be blowing up.
But instead of angry vigils and Molotov cocktails, there has only been a subdued press conference and sad tributes shared through social media.
Ajibade—also known by his nom d’art, Matt Black—had a gift for fashion, and Facebook profile shows a stylish man overflowing with charm and optimism. Born in Lagos, he seems to have embodied the energetic, enterprising spirit of Africa’s fastest-growing city, working four jobs to support his ambitions.
Raised in Hyattsville, MD, Matt came to Savannah to study film at SCAD and moved on to computer science at Savannah Tech, where he was designing an app for his burgeoning textile company. His co-workers at Banana Republic and Wells Fargo unanimously adored him.
In a Facebook video posted on Jan. 4, his older brother, Chris Olodapo, tearfully asks those who knew Matt to record their memories of him for their grieving mother in Nigeria. He requests that the posts be labeled #thetruthaboutmattblack, a hashtag meant not to incite but to celebrate Matt’s short, bright life.
“This has to come from a place of love and not hate,” Chris pleads, calling his brother a “magnificent soul.”
Though Matt may be another black man who has recently died in the hands of police, family lawyer O’Mara believes that the reason the situation hasn’t flared with the fury that followed the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is his relatives’ insistence that everyone remain calm until the end of the GBI investigation.
“I think the sweet temper of this family has a lot to do with the minimal reaction,” mused O’Mara in a phone interview.
The high-profile CNN legal analyst and Orlando, FL.-based criminal defense attorney immediately picked up the case after Matt’s uncle contacted him, explaining that he has “a soft spot” for this type of case.
“When I found out a kid with mental illness had died, I knew I had to get involved,” he said.
While O’Mara may be best known for sensationally defending Zimmerman, he began his career by defending a mentally-disabled teenager accused of the murder of her newborn baby. He’s built a practice on representing under-served defendants against overzealous prosecutors, and advocates for systemic change in the courts via his non-profit Justice Outreach.
“You do enough of this kind of work and you realize that a lot of people involved in the system have some kind of mental health concern—and that the system is completely ill-equipped to deal with it,” he railed. “It’s disgusting.”
It’s too early to press charges, and O’Mara promised that he is giving the police the chance to be “transparent and forthright.” He anticipates the results of the GBI autopsy in the coming weeks as well as a copy of the video that will show whether Matt’s assault of the deputies was a deliberate attack or the flailing confusion of a manic episode.
“If this guy is in boxing stance, getting some good jabs in, maybe that’s not mental illness. If he’s swinging around crazy and his mental illness affected what was going on, that’s what they’re supposed to be trained to deal with,” he said, noting that while cops are human, too, they’re still not allowed to fight back in anger.
“If you break a cop’s nose, yes, it’s a felony, you’re going to get charged, fine. What’s not supposed to happen are injuries caused to a guy because he hit a cop—and it ends up killing him. If that’s what happened, that’s first degree murder.”
He added bluntly: “You don’t die from bipolar disorder in a restraining chair.”
O’Mara also plans to carefully weigh the role that race may or not have played in the tragedy—a salient point, since his client Zimmerman was exonerated in part because he convinced a jury that Martin’s death was not racially motivated.
“If he had been white, would the cops have listened to his girlfriend and taken him to hospital? I don’t know,” contemplated O’Mara, who spent 45 minutes talking candidly about the case and provides more analysis at omaralawblog.com.
“What I do know is his family deserves to know what in God’s name happened to their son.”
Right now, no one knows the truth about how Matt died. What we can be fairly certain of is that he was a sweet, creative kid managing a mental disorder who wouldn’t have wanted to cause any more violence than there already is in this mad world.
But I’m still pondering the lack of public outrage. Is it crude apathy, a sign that we’ve already become immune to the seemingly endless stories of unarmed black men up against those supposed to serve and protect?
Or could it be that we are maturing as a society and a community, learning to be more patient as investigators do their jobs, waiting for all the facts before we respond instead of react, respecting a family’s wishes in the midst of great loss?
As we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, I’m choosing to believe the latter.
And no matter what emerges, I dearly hope that we will remember Dr. King’s admonition that justice is only truly served when we choose love over hate.
T-shirts with a design by Matt Black are available at www.matt3lack.com for $20. Proceeds will help fund funeral arrangements and a memorial service.