Hundreds of people marched through Tacoma last June with outrage in their hearts and the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on their lips. Monet Carter-Mixon was among them.
She was on a different mission.
She carried photographs of her brother, Manuel Ellis, and ample resentment. Her brother, a lifelong Tacoma resident, died nearly three months before Floyd in similar circumstances. Why didn’t it spark the same visceral reaction at the protest?
“Everybody was coming out of the house for a man who lost his life in another state,” said Carter-Mixon. “To know my brother let out those same cries, ‘I can’t breathe,’ I was trying to bring awareness to what happened to my brother.”
At the time, the Pierce County sheriff’s investigation of Ellis’ death was nearing a close, and little had been disclosed besides officers’ accounts that cast Ellis as the aggressor, signaling their use of force was justified.
Carter-Mixon had a hunch there was something more. The officers’ violent description of her brother didn’t square with Ellis’ recent progress toward a more orderly life. Without an eyewitness video, she knew the officers’ accounts would stand. She wanted the truth.
She found it at the protests in Tacoma over Floyd’s death.
“A person came up to me and said, ‘I know somebody who saw what happened,’ ” Carter-Mixon recalled.
Within hours Carter-Mixon was on the phone with Sara McDowell, an eyewitness, who described police instigating the fatal interaction with Ellis, pummeling him on the street.
And she had video.
Carter-Mixon, as relatives of other people killed by police have done, turned her grief into advocacy, pushing against the legal system in hopes that it would deliver accountability that historically has been lacking.
And she succeeded where few others have, by finding a crucial video and eyewitness that the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s flawed three-month investigation had not. The first video led to the discovery of another.
Carter-Mixon saw the fruit of her efforts Thursday. Three officers were charged with felony crimes for her brother’s death, matching in a single day the cumulative number of charges against officers for on-the-job deaths in Washington over the past 40 years.
The cellphone videos that emerged from Carter-Mixon’s efforts proved to be the cornerstone of the charges. As she suspected, they undercut the officers’ initial statements that justified their use of force, and cast them, not Ellis, as the instigators of violence, according to the charging documents.
The videos showed “There was no sudden, random attack by Ellis as the officers described that night,” according to the charges.
At an arraignment in Pierce County Superior Court on Friday, Tacoma officers Matthew Collins, 38, and Christopher Shane Burbank, 35, pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, and officer Timothy Rankine, 32, pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter. They could face up to life in prison if convicted.
Ellis died after being confronted by Collins and Burbank in south Tacoma on the night of March 3, 2020, as he returned home from a convenience store. According to the charges, Collins pummeled Ellis and then applied a chokehold while Burbank repeatedly used a Taser and continued using force after Ellis had gasped for breath and gone limp. Rankine is accused of leaning on Ellis after he was hogtied and declining to call for aid as Ellis slowly asphyxiated.
In a state that has rarely prosecuted officers for on-the-job killings, the relentless demands for justice from Ellis’ family forced the investigation to be taken seriously, said James Bible, the lawyer representing Ellis’ family in a claim against the city of Tacoma seeking $30 million.
“These officers made two serious mistakes that night,” Bible said. “The first mistake they made was that they killed a human being. The second mistake was that the person they killed was Monet’s brother.”
“I want him to know”
Marcia Carter’s grief at her son’s death was compounded by a surreal connection with one of the officers who helped restrain him that night: Masyih Ford was her former student, with whom she shared an unusually tight bond.
When they first met, Ford, then a teenager, didn’t speak when he introduced himself to Carter, his new counselor at Tacoma’s Stadium High School. When she asked his name, Ford made a zipping gesture across his lips. He explained in a handwritten note that he was protesting bias against LGBTQ people by refusing to speak, a silent cry for justice.
“I respected that,” said Carter.
Ford became Carter’s teaching assistant, “my right-hand guy.” He impressed her with his ambition and character. He lived 40 miles from the school, and put in more effort than most of his classmates by the time the morning bell rang.
When Ford’s high-school graduation was approaching, Carter asked what he wanted as a gift. His answer: ties, “to look sharp every single day,” Carter recalled.
Carter and her husband brought Ford a large selection of ties and a couple of shirts at his family’s home just south of Seattle. Ford’s family, devout Muslims, invited the couple in. They took off their shoes to honor their hosts’ tradition, then had a happy, memorable dinner.
Carter and Ford remained in touch for the next decade through Facebook, until March 2020, when Ford deleted his account, soon after he was publicly identified as one of the officers under investigation in Ellis’ death.
“I was just like, ‘What? Not Masyih.’ Masyih to this day has not reached out to me to say, ‘Ms. Carter, I know we had a relationship’,” she said. “I loved Masyih.”
During a news conference outside the Pierce County Courthouse last August, on the day her son would have turned 34, Carter bellowed Ford’s name until it echoed through downtown Tacoma.
“Because I want him to know that I’m here, and I know what has happened. I want to hear from you. Call me up or let me know that you’re sorry for what you did,” she later explained. Ford, 29, was not charged in Ellis’ death on Thursday.
Carter-Mixon and her brother, Matthew Ellis, have tried to shield their mother from grim tasks related to their brother’s death, such as reviewing evidence. That’s given Carter time to devote to beautifying the site where her son died.
With its owner’s blessing, Carter, with help from her grandchildren and volunteers, has cultivated “Manny’s Garden” at the home closest to where her son was killed, to turn a site synonymous with loss into a bright and hopeful space. Tulips bloomed in the spring, and summer vegetables have already been planted.
“My kids told me that they didn’t want me doing anything except for the garden and getting myself together,” Carter said. “I could have really gone in a different direction.”
To the edge
As Carter planted, Carter-Mixon drove to find out the truth about her brother’s death.
“What really got me going was the hurt my mom was experiencing and still is experiencing,” said Carter-Mixon. “That pushed me to the edge.”
Carter-Mixon, 30, was working as a scheduler at a Tacoma business when she received the call about her brother’s death. Within weeks, she’d be unemployed. A single mother of five young children, including one with autism, she saw their schools and day cares shut down by the pandemic. It became impossible to do her job because remote work was untenable.
Her internet was shut off. Her phone was disconnected. Her children were confused and angry that beloved Uncle Manny, who often cared for them, was suddenly gone.
Still, Carter-Mixon knocked on strangers’ doors along the street where her brother was killed, braved the throngs at protests during the pandemic and ultimately found an essential witness and her video.
She shared it via the social media accounts of the Tacoma Action Collective, a social justice group that serves as a megaphone for issues in the city’s Black community.
TV news stations soon aired it, and a second eyewitness with video came forward. His footage, too, is heavily cited in court records as a basis for the charges against the officers.
“I’m in awe that [Carter-Mixon] hasn’t broken down and had to stop,” said Jamika Scott, 33, a founder of the Tacoma Action Collective. “That’s a testament to her brother, how close they were and how much she believed in him and his willingness and desire to grow.”
Advocating for family was a familiar role. Carter-Mixon helped Ellis cope with the recognition in adulthood that his mental health had been severely damaged by his childhood sexual abuse.
It gave way to addiction that sometimes got Ellis in trouble, including a conviction for identity theft that landed him a short prison term. Carter-Mixon convinced him to get therapy and made sure he got to appointments.
“I’ve had to do this my whole life,” she said. “I had children young. I’m a young Black woman. I have a son with autism. I had to learn how to advocate for him and stand up for him the right way, the way that doesn’t get you labeled. That made it easier for me to advocate for my brother in life, in the behavioral health system and in death.”
“I felt alone”
The perseverance of Ellis’ family is something Olympia lawyer and police reformer Leslie Cushman cites as crucial in virtually all of the Washington incidents of police violence that fuel public outrage and grab political attention.
“Their advocacy has been central to all we’ve accomplished,” said Cushman. She was the citizen sponsor of the voter-approved Initiative 940, which lowered the threshold to charge police officers for wrongful use of deadly force and changed how police shootings are investigated and officers trained.
The families of Charleena Lyles and Che Taylor, killed by Seattle police, and Tommy Le, killed by a King County sheriff’s deputy, all raised the first alarms about the veracity of initial law enforcement accounts, Cushman said.
Sonia Joseph, whose 20-year-old son Giovonn Joseph-McDade was shot and killed by a Kent police officer in 2017, said a jumble of grief, confusion, disbelief and anger drove her to keep pushing.
“I can’t tell you how heart-wrenching it is,” said Joseph, who recalled that she was told about her son’s death by a third party, not police. “I felt alone. All the systems that are supposed to provide accountability and justice weren’t there. You can’t call the police. There’s nobody.”
Joseph sued the city of Kent in federal court, where the city struck a $4.4 million settlement. The city agreed to build a memorial at a park adjacent to where Joseph-McDade was killed. None of the officers involved were charged or disciplined.
Annalesa Thomas, whose 30-year-old son, Leonard, was shot and killed by a Lakewood police sniper in 2013 as she looked on, said she was so shocked “that I wasn’t thinking correctly,” and at first just wanted to put it behind her.
Her husband and the pastor of their church convinced her to fight, a struggle that would last four years until a federal jury returned a $15.1 million verdict against Lakewood, its police chief and two officers.
The Thomas family settled the case for $13 million, some of which has been funneled into a police accountability organization, Next Steps Washington, which advocated for police reforms before the Washington legislature.
Cushman, the attorney, says the voices of families and survivors of police violence made all the difference in implementing I-940 and, this year, in passing a landmark set of police-reform laws.
But she’s left thinking about victims whose names remain mostly anonymous, whose families are too grief-stricken to speak out. “I look at those names and know that there’s a life, a story behind every one.”
Ellis’ case stands out because of Thursday’s charges, and Carter-Mixon’s perseverance.
“We absolutely would not be here, with officers being charged, if it wasn’t for Monet,” said Jaleesa Trapp, another founding organizer of Tacoma Action Collective.
“They expected nobody cared about this person. They didn’t realize he had such a strong sister with such a strong voice who was never going to stop speaking up for him, in life or in death.”