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Why Did the Police Shoot Matthew Zadok Williams?
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=57685"><span class="small">Charles Bethea, The New Yorker</span></a>   
Friday, 09 July 2021 08:17

Bethea writes: "Outside Atlanta, a mother and five sisters look for answers."

Matthew Zadok Williams, in a selfie taken with his mother, Chris Ann, in 2005. (photo: Hahnah Williams)
Matthew Zadok Williams, in a selfie taken with his mother, Chris Ann, in 2005. (photo: Hahnah Williams)

Why Did the Police Shoot Matthew Zadok Williams?

By Charles Bethea, The New Yorker

09 July 21

Outside Atlanta, a mother and five sisters look for answers.

n the afternoon of April 13th, around two o’clock, Hahnah Williams, a lawyer in Atlanta, received a call from her twelve-year-old niece, who told her to come to her mother’s house right away. Hahnah could hear her mom, Chris Ann Lewis, crying in the background. The phone rang again a few minutes later, as Hahnah was putting on her shoes; it was an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He said that Hahnah’s younger brother, Matthew Zadok Williams, a self-taught investor in his thirties who lived alone and went by his middle name, had died the day before in “an officer-involved shooting.” “I thought, How?” Hahnah recalled later. “He doesn’t leave the house!” Zadok preferred solitude and rarely went anywhere. When she arrived at her mother’s house, the agent was there. Hahnah asked him where the shooting happened, and he gave her the address. “He lives there!” she exclaimed. “Did they just come and hunt him?” she recalls thinking.

The DeKalb County Police Department had issued a statement about the shooting that morning, though it did not mention Zadok by name. The statement reported that a man “aggressively wielding a knife” had “lunged at officers with the knife causing one of them to discharge their firearm” and then had “fled into a vacant residence.” He had, according to the statement, come back out and lunged at officers with the knife, again “causing an officer to discharge his firearm,” and then gone “back into the residence.”

Hahnah did not stay long at her mother’s place. She and her mom got in the car and headed to Zadok’s house, a townhome-style duplex in a wooded subdivision near a highway, about fifteen minutes from Chris Ann’s house. On the way, Hahnah got another call, from an investigator with the DeKalb County medical examiner’s office. She put him on speakerphone, and he summarized the version of events he’d been given. The officers were responding to a 911 call, he told them. At one point, he said that “there wasn’t anything spectacular that happened” to Zadok.

“Sir, wait a minute, don’t be disrespectful,” Hahnah said. “Something spectacular did happen. My brother got killed.” She added, “He owns that apartment. He was in his own home when they killed him.”

“O.K.,” he said. “I apologize.”

Hahnah pressed him for details, but he couldn’t answer her questions, and he gave her the number for the homicide unit. Before the call ended, Chris Ann said, “I want you to know my son was a good person. Never been in trouble. He owned his home outright. Rehabbed it. The house next to him is abandoned. They probably went to the wrong door.” She went on, “My son is saved. I got a good son. He’s never been in trouble. Ever. He helped his sisters get through law school, medical school. He helped me—I was an R.N.—he helped me to retire.” She repeated, “He was a good son.”

The idea that Zadok would pull a knife on anyone made no sense to his family. He was the youngest child, and the only boy, in a family of six children. Zadok is an Old Testament name meaning righteous; his family also called him Pure of Heart, because he always seemed to assume the best in people. Hahnah couldn’t recall a single heated argument with him and told me that he’d never been in a fight, as far as she knew. Once, at Six Flags, when Zadok was a teen-ager, a security guard pulled him out of a line and frisked him as white boys his age filed past, she said. “We were so mad,” Hahnah told me. “But he said, ‘They do this randomly.’ He tried to convince us that it had nothing to do with race.”

Hahnah’s sisters include a nurse, a general contractor, a doctor, and a specialist in risk management, but Hahnah believed that Zadok was the smartest of all of them. He’d started a computer-repair business at thirteen. He drifted out of high school, eventually earning a G.E.D. at his mother’s insistence. He rarely bothered storing numbers in his phone, Hahnah said; he preferred to memorize them. He bought his house, in a complex called the Terraces, in a working-class corner of DeKalb County, for less than fifteen thousand dollars, after the 2008 financial collapse. The complex was not well maintained, but Zadok was proud of his place, which is where he spent basically all of his time—day-trading, listening to gospel music, reading about finance. “He was almost out of touch with reality, he was so focussed on the cyberworld,” Farah Bryant, his longtime girlfriend, told me. She and Zadok spoke four or five times a week for years, she said, even after breaking up, and she still imagined marrying him someday. He did well enough to buy another home, where one of his sisters has lived since being diagnosed with cancer a decade ago. For years, his sisters and mother would check in on him and bring him groceries when he asked. In 2018, he told his family that a gun was put to his head at a nearby convenience store; he stopped going to convenience stores. “His house was his sanctuary,” Hahnah told me. “His safe place. There was nothing we could do to make him leave. He was quarantined before we were all under quarantine.”

After the pandemic began, he spent even more time alone. But, on calls and in texts, he seemed like himself to his sisters and his mom. He talked about wanting to have kids one day, and about the most humane ways to deal with household pests. “Rodents and all beings should be treated equally,” he texted them in March. Later that month, Zadok invited Hahnah inside on one of her visits, which was unusual. He gave her advice on how to improve her law firm’s ranking in Internet searches, and asked her to recommend a plumber. She was careful not to wear out her welcome, she told me, hoping that he’d invite her in again on the next visit. On April 11th, she brought groceries, including some surprise fried chicken. “He smelled it and gave me the biggest smile,” she said. “And, for the first time in a long time, he hugged me.” She was vaccinated, but he was not; worried about infecting him, she pulled away. Later, she recalled that Zadok had been talking “a little slow” that morning. “I thought, Maybe he just woke up. Maybe I caught him off-guard.”

Late on the afternoon of April 13th, Hahnah and her mother joined other members of the family at the Terraces. Inside Zadok’s home, they saw blood on the floor and walls. They also noticed what looked like marks from a knife on the door handle. The condo attached to Zadok’s was being renovated by its owner, Jeffrey Dotson, who usually rented it out—it was unoccupied, and the family suspected that this was the vacant residence the police had mentioned in their initial statement, which informed early news reports of the incident. Dotson told me that, in early March, Zadok had called him to let him know about a leak in his place that could be damaging Dotson’s side, and offered to pay for any damages. “He was very proactive,” Dotson said. “A good neighbor.”

The family walked around the complex, asking neighbors what they had heard and seen. Among the people they spoke to was Jason Neal, who later told Channel 2 News in Atlanta what he’d told the Williams family, that he’d seen “a young man running from the police” who had “jumped on the rooftop, kicked in a window” and then jumped through it. Other neighbors told the Williams family that they’d seen a man with a bucket, but no knife. Zadok’s sisters had seen him with his bucket before, dealing with some kind of plumbing issue in the crawl space beneath the house. Neighbors also said that a long time passed before anyone helped Zadok. “When we interviewed witnesses,” Hahnah said, “they told us that E.M.S. did not enter the house until over an hour after the shooting.”

That evening, one of Zadok’s sisters posted a video on Instagram. The family was huddled around Chris Ann as she spoke. “My son was murdered last night by DeKalb County police,” she begins. She says that she has talked to witnesses, and calls it a case of mistaken identity. “My son happened to turn the corner with a bucket in his hand and the police started shooting at him and he ran,” she says. A state legislator named Renitta Shannon, who represents part of DeKalb County, reached out to Hahnah and offered to help.

The family also sent e-mails and made phone calls to news outlets, asking them to correct the narrative of Zadok’s story and to demand that DeKalb County release body-camera footage taken by the police who shot him. The next day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran its second story about the incident, this time including comments from Hahnah and from the family’s attorney, Mawuli Davis. Channel 2 sent an open-records request for the body-camera footage that evening, and the following day, the station received approximately three and a half hours of footage from cameras worn by the first two responding officers. The department was not obligated to release the footage, per the Georgia Open Records Act—a spokesperson told me that the department had done so in part to counter “inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading eyewitness accounts” of the incident, specifically citing the family’s Instagram video and the second Journal-Constitution story.

The Williams family went to watch the footage at department headquarters about an hour after the footage was released to Channel 2, which then aired it on the news that evening. The person who called 911, a young Black woman, had told dispatchers about “a very suspicious man who’s been lurking around the woods around my house” and then had called back, twenty minutes later, saying that the man had a knife. The knife was visible in the footage: it had a long blue blade and a short handle. Zadok didn’t appear to respond verbally when the officer addressed him on his porch or as he descended his stairs, at the officer’s insistence, which seemed strange to his family. He’d then run, briefly, with the knife in his hand, in the direction of the retreating officer, who tripped and fell and then circled back toward the house—along with Zadok, who fell toward him. Zadok had clearly spooked the officer, but the family wasn’t convinced that he had meant to attack him. Zadok quickly retreated under his house, and spent the vast majority of the encounter on the defensive, behind a door, pleading with officers who did not believe that he was inside his own home.

Davis said that the family was grateful to the police for releasing the video, and that it “changes the narrative” they had pieced together about what had happened. “They acknowledge that what they saw was their brother, their loved one, having a mental-health crisis that they had never seen before,” he said. Channel 2 aired similar comments in a follow-up story. Davis told the station that he believed the officers “acted in self-preservation mode” when they encountered Zadok outside his home, but that they should have called in standoff negotiators once he had gone inside. In its segment, Channel 2 twice played a clip of the moment when Zadok appeared to run toward the officer, and included audio of one officer saying, “Please, sir. I’m begging you. You’re a Black man. I’m a Black man. You don’t have to die today. I don’t want you to die today.” The story ended with Hahnah thanking the department for releasing the footage.

The story did not address one of the family’s lingering questions: Why had the officers left Zadok inside after firing their weapons, without rendering aid, for nearly two hours, until medical personnel were allowed in? Davis had hired a pathologist named Jackson Gates, who had examined the victims of other police shootings, to make a preliminary determination about the cause of death. Later that week, the family organized a press conference so that Gates could share his findings, and the family and Renitta Shannon could call for justice and transparency. At the event, on April 20th, Gates said that he believed that prompt medical aid would likely have saved Zadok’s life. Zadok appeared to have died from “a slow hemorrhage,” he said, caused by a gunshot wound to his shoulder. The shot seemed to have been fired down on Zadok, as he knelt on the floor behind an ottoman. your social media marketing partner