Into the Killing of Rayshard Brooks
Trymaine Lee: It's happened again. A black man has been shot dead by a white police officer. And we see it happen again on video. This time, it was Atlanta this past Friday night. Police answered a call that a man had fallen asleep in his car at a Wendy's drive-through. That man was Rayshard Brooks, 27 years old.
On Sunday, the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed that his death was a homicide. The cause of death: two gunshot wounds to his back. (MUSIC) Today, on Into America, the killing of Rayshard Brooks, the anger, the aftermath, and what it's like to be a black journalist covering this moment in our country.
Blayne Alexander is a correspondent for NBC News based in Atlanta. Blayne, it's been a really rough several weeks in Atlanta. You have the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Georgia. Then you had the killing of George Floyd, a really botched election, and now the killing of Rayshard Brooks. Just give me a little background on just this moment and how we got here.
Blayne Alexander: Well, Trymaine, I think what we're seeing right now is a lot of unrest over all of the things that you just said and possibly more. So we've seen protests around the city that have kind of spanned for days. And so certainly a feeling that people are protesting not just one specific incident, not just George Floyd, or Rayshard Brooks, or the elections but protesting all of it coming together. And I think that's why you're seeing them as fiery and as passionate as they have been over the past few weeks.
Lee: So we had all of that kind of bubbling over at times. And then we get this really, really tough shooting of Rayshard Brooks. Where were you when you first got word of what happened to Rayshard?
Alexander: It happened overnight on Friday. And I actually woke up to a news release from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. So they sent out a news release saying, "Hey, we're investigating this officer-involved shooting." Interesting to know, Trymaine, this is the 48th officer-involved shooting that the GBI is investigating this year alone.
Lee: Wait a second. Hold on. 48 shootings this year?
Alexander: 48. Four-eight--
Lee: My goodness.
Alexander: --shootings this year. Rayshard Brooks, 27-year-old man, was in his car, had apparently fallen asleep in the drive-through lane of a Wendy's here in southwest Atlanta, and somebody called police. So that was what led up to the confrontation there. And then what happened afterward, of course, was the events that ultimately escalated and led to his death.
Lee: And so a lot of us by now have seen some video footage of this shooting and the moments before, like 45 minutes of conversation between Rayshard Brooks and the police officers. And it seemed kinda calm for a little bit there. But give us a sense of where these videos came from and what do we actually see in these videos.
Alexander: You know, this was a relatively calm interaction, Trymaine. You see the officers go up to his driver's side door, knock on the window, (KNOCKING) and say, "Hey, it looks like you've fallen asleep in your car."
Police Officer: What's up, man? You just have a long day or somethin'? What's up?
Alexander: For a few minutes, Mr. Brooks sits in his car, the officer asking him questions. "What have you had to drink tonight? How much have you had two drink?"
Rayshard Brooks: I had one and a half margaritas, Mr. Officer.
Police Officer: One and a half margaritas?
Brooks: Yes, sir.
Police Officer: Margaritas?
Police Officer: Have you had anything else today? Any other type of drink?
Brooks: No, sir.
Police Officer: You haven't had any daiquiris?
Alexander: At one time, he does say he doesn't necessarily remember exactly what was in those margaritas.
Police Officer: Can you step out with me, please?
Brooks: Yes, sir.
Alexander: He does a sobriety test, but investigators say that he fails.
Brooks: I know. I know. You just doin' your job.
Alexander: But he takes a breathalyzer test. He offers several solutions.
Brooks: I can walk home.
Alexander: He says, "Hey, I've got a family member who lives nearby. Can I walk to their house over there?"
Police Officer: Why would you walk home?
Brooks: I just don't want to be in violation of anybody. I can walk. My sister's house is right here.
Alexander: So you see this very calm interaction that plays out for the better part of the first 40 minutes of this tape, Trymaine.
Lee: Do we get any sense from that video of just what shifted the moment, the energy in the moment from being calm, cool? You know, we hear him saying, you know, "I can just walk." What happened?
Alexander: You see the moment where the officer says, "You've had too much to drink. I believe you've had too much to drink to drive," and moves to put handcuffs on him.
Police Officer: Put your hands behind your back. (NOISE)
Police Officer: Hey, stop that. Stop it. Stop fighting. Stop fighting. You're gonna get tased. You're gonna get tased. Stop.
Let go of the taser.
Police Officer: Let go of the taser.
Alexander: You see him put the handcuffs on in that body camera video, and then you see Brooks start to move and start to get away. And that's where the body cameras start kind of going chaotic. That's where the eye witness video captures what you see is this tussle between the two officers and Brooks on the ground.
Investigators say that Mr. Brooks grabbed one of the officer's tasers and then started running away, started running away from the officers. You see in the video, and this is part of the investigation, what appears to be him turning and pointing that taser. And then the officer responds with deadly gunfire. And we've learned now that his official manner of death, Mr. Brooks was shot twice in the back. And that's what led to his death.
Lee: Oh my goodness. So Rayshard Brooks starts off calm, cool. It escalates with a scuffle. Brooks is running away and appears to fire the taser that he grabbed from the police officer, and he's shot twice in the back?
Alexander: Yeah. And I think that really raises the question that, you know, attorneys for Brooks' family told me, is that: Why did it have to escalate? Why did there have to be a chase? If he was running away, why not let him run? They've got his car. They've got his license tag. They know the man's name. They would be able to track him down if they felt that was necessary. So that's really the case that the family attorneys are making. Why did it get to the point where you felt that you had to chase after him and ultimately use deadly force?
Lee: That's the thing. You know, I've been around the block as a police reporter for many years. And lethal force is usually used when an officer believes his own life is in danger or that a subject poses an imminent threat of danger to someone else. Are the police saying what the officer believed was going on, that he feared for his life? I mean, the taser, it's a taser, right?
Alexander: And I think it's important to point out, too, and this is a case that the attorneys for Brooks' family have also repeatedly made. Under Georgia law, a taser is not considered a deadly weapon when it comes to police training using nonlethal force. As for the aftermath, I think what we noticed is that we saw things move very quickly.
And you know very well, as well as I do, that typically these things take a long time. When there's an accusation of excessive force, sometimes the officers are placed on administrative duty, administrative leave for quite some time before they are terminated, if it ever comes to that. And then when you talk about criminal charges, that certainly takes even longer.
We've not seen charges in this case, but the district attorney is saying that he could announce his decision on whether or not to bring those charges as early as this week. So for the fact that the police chief stepped down in less than 24 hours, the officer who fired those shots terminated in less than 24 hours, and the second officer placed on administrative duty, things did move very quickly after that shooting.
Lee: Did Brooks die at the scene, at the hospital? Where was he pronounced?
Alexander: He died later in the hospital.
Lee: What happened in terms of, like, the community response after the shooting?
Alexander: The community response was very swift. And I have to point this out, too, Trymaine. This happened on a Friday night in a Wendy's parking lot. You know what a Friday night at a fast food restaurant is like. It was crowded. There were plenty of people there, which is why you have so many eye witnesses.
So there were folks who actually witnessed this happening, and there were some protests that actually broke out that night among the people who saw what was happening (SIRENS) and word started to spread. But really what we saw was the next night, Saturday night. That's when people descended upon this Wendy's, this area in southwest Atlanta.
It's right off the highway, 75-85, which is a major artery here in downtown Atlanta. Some of them took to the highway. Hundreds of people took to the highway, blocked traffic for the better part of an hour. Cars couldn't get through. And then after that, you saw this Wendy's ultimately set on fire by some people within the crowd. Not clear who exactly set the Wendy's on fire, but that happened amid the protests as well. Sunday, you saw more protests and again now continuing for a third day.
Lee: When you see George Floyd, the interaction began over allegations that he used a counterfeit $20 bill. Ahmaud Arbery is jogging, suspected to be a burglar but he's jogging through the neighborhood. And now, this case begins with perhaps an intoxicated man in a Wendy's drive-through and another man ends up shot and killed. How much fuel did this put in the fire that had already been kinda simmering in Atlanta over all these other cases?
Alexander: Oh, that's the anchor point. That's the boiling point, Trymaine. That's exactly it. That's what people have been saying. They're saying, "Look, if the man had fallen asleep, make him pull over to the side. Sleep it off. Or if you're concerned about him getting back behind the wheel, take his keys."
But everybody is pointing to the fact that if there was a man who had just fallen asleep in his car, he wasn't currently at the point where he was endangering anybody. He wasn't doing anything violent. And so why was it that deadly force had to be used against him ultimately?
Lee: You talked about how swiftly things moved after Rayshard Brooks was killed. The police chief, Chief Erika Shields, resigned, and I wonder why. She seemed to be actually a calming voice. And you don't get that often. She seemed to be kind of a steady presence. Why do you think she stepped down?
Alexander: Oh, she absolutely was. Here's the thing. The timing of this is so incredible because it was just two weeks earlier that she was getting nationwide praise for going out. I actually watched her go out, stand among protesters, talk to them, and really listen to some who were passionately yelling at her.
Erika Shields: Because what I saw was my people face to face with this crowd. And everybody's thinkin', "How can we use force to defuse it?" And I'm not having that. I'm not having that.
Protester: We're here peaceful.
Shields: You have a right to be upset, to be scared, and to want to yell. And we're going to have everybody do what they need to do, and we're gonna do it safely.
Alexander: And so she was praised for those moments. It was the very next night though that we saw something that also kind of made national headlines. Two college students were pulled from their cars, tased, glass windows smashed. Six officers were ultimately charged in that incident, and the city moved quickly, the department moved quickly in terminating some of them. But to have this happen just about two weeks afterwards, you know, the chief said that she wanted to step aside so that the city could begin the process of healing and restoring trust.
Lee: The one thing I think that always rises out of these cases for me is the family, right? We cover this as journalists. You care as citizens and how our police behave. But ultimately someone lost their husband, their brother, their son. You talked to Rayshard Brooks' wife. Tell me about that conversation. How is she doin', and where is her mind right now?
Alexander: Tomika Miller, I spoke with her yesterday. She told me that, I think it adds just kind of another just human layer to all of this, is that Rayshard Brooks was the father of four, three girls and stepfather of a 13-year-old boy.
Tomika Miller: He was a very loving and kind father. Very. Didn't discipline the kids much. He just believed in love and cared on them.
Alexander: Their eight-year-old was celebrating her birthday on the day that he was killed. Tomika talked to me about the fact that they'd celebrated all that day Friday. Saturday they had a birthday party with cupcakes and everything set up for her celebration, and she had to break the news to her daughter that, you know, "Daddy's not coming." She found out when GBI agents banged on her door, knocked on her door and showed her her husband's ID and said, "Are you Rayshard Brooks' wife?" And she said, "I knew immediately then something was wrong."
Miller: I said, "What do you mean, 'excessive force'?" And he said, "Well, we can't tell you much about it. We're still under investigation." I said, "So you're telling me the police killed my husband? He's not a threat. He doesn't carry a gun. He doesn't have anything that could possibly cause an officer to use aggressive force or to pull out a weapon."
Alexander: So you still haven't watched--
Miller: I haven't.
Alexander: --any of that video?
Miller: No. I'm already in enough pain right now. So to see anything of my husband being shot down, I I couldn't see that.
Alexander: It's incredible to think about the fact that the world now has seen these tapes from different angles, watched the final moments of Rayshard Brooks. And she told me she hasn't watched any of it. She can't bring herself to watch any of it.
Miller: I can't stomach that right now. (UNINTEL) what we lost.
Lee: You know, there is no despair like looking into a mother's eyes whose child has never come home or a wife's eyes who their hundred or the husband's wife never came home again. Blayne, I want you to stick with us for a few minutes. After the break, we're gonna take a step back and talk about what it's like being a black journalist covering these moments. Certainly, it resonates with us in a very kind of specific way. So stick with us, and that's after the break.
Lee: So, Blayne, as black journalists covering moments like this where the pain is thick, the history is thick, I think we experience this in a different way than some of our counterparts. How have you been? And how have you been kind of, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but wrestling with this notion of black death and also black journalists?
Alexander: Yeah. This is hard. This is a lot. This is a lot. People keep asking, "How are you doing?" and that's what I keep coming back to, "This is a lot." Because I think that so much of this story, it's not these individual instances, Trymaine. It's not, you know, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor. It's not the individuals.
But so much of the story is the black experience in America. Everybody that I know is really just upset over this, right? My parents, my husband as a black man, my father, my sister. Everybody that I know, friends, everybody on my social media timelines, really this is it.
Again, I think it feels so different this time because it really feels that people have reached this boiling point or this breaking point, however you want to describe that in that there that have been protests before. You and I have covered them before as journalists. People that we know have marched in them as citizens. But it feels like this just overwhelming frustration of, "Here we are again," and that's why it seems in as a journalist covering this. It's just difficult stuff.
Lee: You know, Blayne, you are always so measured and graceful, and you exhibit such poise under really tough circumstances. Does it add to the pressure that you have to present this face and you have to present this poised kind of form but inside you're grappling with this? Does it add to the pressure?
Alexander: It does. It does. It does.
Lee: I've gone through this also. All of our friends, all of our family, the collective weight of this, you can't disassociate yourself from it.
Alexander: I think I'm optimistic. I think that I'm an optimistic person generally. But you do have this moment where you question, you know, "In three months, are we gonna be doing this again? Is there going to be more protests? Are there going to be more protests?"
And the other piece of it, too, I think that gets difficult is: Is that understanding seeping in? Because I think that even in the midst of all of it, you still see the conversations of, you know, "Things aren't bad," or, "There is no racial inequality," or whatever the types of conversations are.
And I think those are frustrating because it's not necessarily a political issue. It's not a policy issue. It's an issue, just the fact that, yes, there are differences when it comes to the black experience in America. And, you know, having that understanding, that conversation around it and having people just realize that I think is just so important.
Lee: It's important and that word "frustrating" to have to explain again and again the trauma and grief generationally.
Alexander: I think that's the biggest thing, Trymaine. One of the my biggest surprises in all of this was a story that I did about the talk. And I've gotta say that I got more reaction for that story than maybe any that I've done before. And what surprised me, Trymaine, was how surprising that conversation was to so many people.
And I say this not as an indictment on anyone, but I got so many notes, and texts, and calls saying, "Oh my goodness. I had no idea that these talks were happening. I had no idea that something like this would go on." And one person even told me that they looked at me and said, "You know, it clicked for me that maybe 25 years ago eight-year-old Blayne was having that same talk with her parents," right?
And so that was kind of an eye-opening situation of, like, "Yes, this experience really is different." And so it was certainly surprising for me, but it really just highlighted how vastly different the experience is. But I will say that I think that the positive from it is that's the first time I've seen that level of almost understanding or that level of just this kind of like ah-ha moment when it comes to covering these incidents and these protests.
Lee: If there is a shining moment, it is that some light has been turned on in the darkness. And those who have not had to deal with the burden of moving through America with your race on your forehead, right, and the burden of trying to protect your children, and the burden of trying to navigate these very hostile spaces, and navigate the history, and navigate the present. If there's any shining light, it seems to be in journalists such as yourself and others are casting a light on this issue and people are getting it, I think, a little bit, maybe, possibly. Maybe?
Alexander: I think maybe they are. I think they are. You know, I think that there is certainly, yeah, you and I have both said that it feels different this time. I think that there are different conversations happening. But, you know, I can't close without saying this.
I think that moments like this just really, really highlight how incredibly important it is to have diverse perspectives in the newsroom because there are so many stories that wouldn't necessarily come forward if it wasn't for the fact that black journalists are bringing them to the table. We all come into stories from a different perspective. And I think that being a black woman in this time in this country absolutely informs my perspective covering this story.
Lee: Blayne Alexander, hopefully the first of many important conversations that we get to have. And you've been doing an amazing job out there covering it. Thank you again for shining that light for us. You're doing your thing, and we appreciate it.
Alexander: Thank you. Such an honor to join you today, Trymaine. Thank you.
Lee: That's was Blayne Alexander, a correspondent for NBC News. (MUSIC) Before we go, one more thing. The U.S. Supreme Court today issued one of the most important civil rights decisions in years, its first ruling on LGBTQ rights since the historic same-sex marriage ruling five years ago this month.
The court said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to fire workers for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The vote was 6-3. Our NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams calls this decision, quote, "a stunner coming from this conservative court."
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan, original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.