Images of Black death have become inescapable, yet footage of Momodou Lamin Sisay’s death remains elusive. Sisay was killed in Georgia on May 29 in an altercation with officers from the Snellville and Gwinnett County police departments.
Here is the story, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation: A Snellville police officer attempted to stop Sisay’s car on Skyland Drive for a vehicle tag violation. Sisay reportedly did not stop. A chase ensued. Officers eventually forced his car off Temple Johnson Road. They approached the car, giving “verbal commands.” Sisay did not comply. As they prepared to enter the car, he pulled out a handgun and pointed it at the officers. They fired and took cover behind their cars. Sisay started his engine. A SWAT team was called in. He shot at the officers. An unnamed officer shot back. Sisay was found dead. “A handgun was located at the scene,” says the police report.
Sisay was Gambian, like me. A common refrain of the Black Lives Matter movement is to say, out loud, the names of police victims. Saying Sisay’s name, I thought of its similarity to mine. Variations of the Prophet Muhammad’s name are common in Gambia; mine is Muhammad Lamin, and my mother’s maiden name is Ceesay. I imagine that most Black people, upon hearing news of state-sanctioned Black death, think, “That could’ve been me.” For me, those words have never rung truer. In saying Sisay’s name, I’m almost saying mine. But if I had come across the news from the local outlets that first covered it, one of which referred to the killing as an “officer-related shooting,” this utterance would have been impossible.
A sometimes painful aspect of diaspora existence is that grief, too often, is disrupted by distance. Being from a country unfamiliar to most neighbors but with citizens around the world means getting the news by word of mouth. Sisay was identified publicly in a Facebook post by Gambian human rights activist Banka Manneh, who is based in Atlanta. He was notified of the killing by Habib Mbye, a family friend of Sisay’s. In a May 30 Facebook post, Manneh said the Gambian community “is still holding out hope that some passerby recorded the proceedings just like that of George Floyd in Minnesota.” No such person has come forward.
From Manneh, I learned that Sisay was raised in Georgia. He was better known as Boy Sisay, according to a eulogy on Facebook posted by Aji Amber Barry. He was Muslim and “known to always be at the mosque.” He took care of his siblings after his mother died. Lare Sisay, Momodou Sisay’s father, described him as someone who “abhors violence.” The family has opened its own investigation into his death. “We’re not going to let it go,” Lare Sisay told The Fatu Network, a Gambian news outlet.
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For a few days, it seemed that Momodou Sisay’s killing was the only thing Gambians talked about, particularly in Georgia’s tight-knit Gambian community. A family member sent me a Facebook video purporting to be footage of the confrontation, but it turned out to be one that took place in New York last year. There is no shortage of footage like this. Traditional and online petitions demanding the release of body camera footage have circulated. The Gambian government has gotten involved, calling for a federal investigation.
Nelly Miles, a spokesperson for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, told The New York Times that the officers’ body cameras were recording during the altercation, implying that the police have video of it. No such video has been made public.
I asked some friends if they knew anyone with a Georgia address, and one of them put me in touch with a local activist. I contacted the Sisay family’s civil attorney, the pro bono victims’ advocate Abdoukadir Jaiteh, who told the Times that the footage was not made available to him because of the ongoing investigation.
Throughout the process, I asked myself why I sought this video, which in a way I wish did not exist. As Kia Gregory wrote in The New Republic, the phenomenon of “linked fate” can make watching these videos a traumatizing experience. “When black people watch a video of police violence against another black person, they see themselves or their loved ones in that person’s place, knowing that the same fateful encounter could very well happen to them,” she said. At the same time, we live in an age when everything can be documented—and often is. It then becomes a question of whose interests these documents serve. In the case of experiences that run counter to official narratives, like police violence, a video image can function not only as evidence but also as vindication.
The 1992 riots in Los Angeles, sparked by the acquittal of four police officers who had beaten Rodney King, might not have taken place if footage of the episode had not circulated nationwide for a year. Though I was born two years after the riots, the video, recorded by a bystander, has been embedded in my memory ever since I first saw it as a child in Saudi Arabia. Before I ever experienced American policing, I was struck by the relentlessness of King’s attackers and saddened by the inaction of the other officers present, who did nothing to stop their colleagues.
Ferguson, Mo., still burns in recent memory through an audio recording of Michael Brown being shot to death. Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” captured on video after an officer from the New York Police Department put him in a choke hold, have become a rallying cry at demonstrations against police killings. Protests ensued after bystander video surfaced of Walter Scott’s killing by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer that directly contradicted the police version of events. The killer claimed that Scott was reaching for the officer’s stun gun. The video showed Scott running away when he was shot. After these widely publicized killings—and the outrage in response—pressure mounted on police departments to implement the use of body cameras. This year the visceral and widely seen video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis has brought us to a breaking point, inspiring protests unprecedented in their reach. The national consciousness has been seared with Floyd’s echo of Garner, his strained repetition of “I can’t breathe.” We watched a man dying for more than eight minutes; the duration itself has taken on symbolic meaning. It was a murder, caught on camera, to which we all became witnesses.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was the first agency to respond to a request from my contact for information about Sisay’s death. Brad Parks, the special agent in charge of the GBI’s office of privacy and compliance, sent a form letter stating that the requested documents were “not subject to dissemination until the investigation is concluded, which may also include prosecutorial actions and the appeals process.” The same response was used for previous requests. Georgia law allows but does not require authorities to withhold any documents pertinent to an ongoing investigation. A Snellville PD records coordinator and a customer service associate for Gwinnett County stated that most of my contact’s requests could not be met at the time, citing the exemption clause in Georgia law. They did release the nearly empty initial police reports, about as blank as those filed for Breonna Taylor’s police killing in Louisville, Ky.
My contact’s letter asked for the “names and badge numbers of all police officers involved in Momodou Lamin Sisay’s death.” Gwinnett County proceeded to provide my contact with an Excel spreadsheet titled “List of Responding Officers,” comprising 116 names. Whether or not the intention was to bury a civilian request in paperwork, it was impossible to determine which officers actually took part in the fatal encounter. Although the request was filed on June 22, Gwinnett County said it would make an initial response by July 14—well past the three-day limit mandated by the Georgia Open Records Act. The county did not provide a description of the records when it notified my contact of the delay, as required by the public records code. Yet its report revealed a piece of information undisclosed anywhere else: the involvement, in an unspecified capacity, of the Atlanta Police Department.
The Snellville and Gwinnett County police reports and statements to the press have created a fog of uncertainty. One inconsistency between the GBI’s preliminary press release and recorded interviews with officers who were at the scene was noted by The New York Times: The bureau claims that Sisay discharged his weapon after the SWAT team’s arrival, while Detective Jeff Manley of the Snellville PD told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that Sisay fired his weapon before the team arrived.
According to Manley, “The subject produced a handgun and began firing at the officers.” But the GBI report says that although Sisay pointed a gun at the Snellville officers, he was not the first to shoot. Michele Pihera, a public information officer for the Gwinnett County PD, told the Journal-Constitution that “the patrol officer assigned to Gwinnett County decided this situation would be a SWAT activation,” but the GBI reports that it was Snellville police, not Gwinnett County police, who requested assistance from the county SWAT team. Pihera also claimed that Sisay, after a single round from the team, “still continued to move around inside his vehicle.” She said that, using a SWAT vehicle, officers “were able to get up close and determine that he was, in fact, injured.” In contrast, the GBI website says that “GCPD SWAT approached the vehicle and found the driver unresponsive.”
There are more discrepancies between the statement about the case published on the GBI’s website and a video of on-the-scene interviews with Manley and Pihera conducted by the Journal-Constitution’s John Spink. The website says that Snellville PD officers “were preparing to use a non-lethal device to enter the vehicle when the driver pointed a handgun at the officers.” In Spink’s video, on the other hand, Manley says that they went through with the use of the less-lethal device, but it “did not have the effect that we wanted.” The circumstances may well be different, but it is hard not to be reminded of Scott, who was accused of aggression and shot in the back.
When Sisay died, not only were the police his killers; they were the only witnesses. The public might see the video evidence only after the GBI completes its investigation. Even then, some information may remain redacted, as the law allows for the exemption clause to be applied to any subsequent prosecution process as well. Yet my conversation with Manneh reminded me of what local authorities had been clear about from the start. He wondered why, with the resources available to the Snellville and Gwinnett County police departments, more effort wasn’t made to obtain Sisay’s surrender. Use of deadly force is meant to be restricted to cases of extreme necessity— circumstances unlikely to arise after a stop for a vehicle tag violation without some cause of escalation. Jaiteh pointed out that Sisay did not present a threat to the community at the time of the chase, as there was little to no traffic. In his opinion, the police “should have called off the chase.”
I reached out to the Snellville PD and the city manager for comment. Police Chief Roy Whitehead’s version of events mostly aligned with the GBI’s statement. Sisay’s car was run off the road by way of two pit maneuvers because of a tag violation. Sisay at no point responded to police commands, including offers of medical aid. Whitehead told me that the Atlanta PD “only assisted in trying to find out who owned the car.” Although I didn’t ask, the Snellville PD also told me officers “recovered a gun, fraudulent ID, and a felony amount of marijuana and packaging material.” Whitehead concluded with the revelation that Sisay was “a convicted felon” and “prohibited from possessing a firearm.” Through my subsequent investigation, I learned that Sisay had a marijuana possession charge from 2011 and a previous vehicle tag violation. Whitehead, with more direct access to the same information, chose to leave his description at “convicted felon.”
The Snellville PD maintains that Sisay shot first, finally acknowledging the existence of video as proof. A particular detail from my exchange with Whitehead haunts me. He said Sisay “raised a cell phone, pointing it toward the officers, but they did not fire.” Even in Whitehead’s version of events, Snellville PD officers pointed their guns at Sisay after he pointed his phone at them. I was reminded of the police killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, after officers confused his cell phone for a gun.
Sisay was not committing a violent crime when Snellville police began chasing his vehicle. After he was run off the road, his vehicle was stuck. Whitehead verified that, during the short chase, only one other vehicle was in the vicinity. According to all the relevant police authorities, a SWAT team—with armored vehicles—was called in to deal with one man with a single handgun. No police officers were injured as a result of the altercation. At the very least, this case appears to be one in which a miniature army was dispatched to deal with one man over missing paperwork.
According to The New York Times, Butch Sanders, the Snellville city manager, claimed Sisay discharged his weapon five times. But Sanders told me that he “did not mention a specific number of shots.” He stopped responding to my e-mails after I asked him to clarify whether he maintains that the Times misrepresented the details of its reporter’s conversation with him. Whitehead, however, said that Sisay was in possession of a five-chamber revolver and that all its shots had been discharged. A photo of the car, after it was taken in for evidence, shows white stickers placed next to every bullet hole. There are dozens. If Sisay did shoot five times, the rest must have been fired by law enforcement. Was all this necessary for one man who was not presenting a danger to the public?
While I conducted my investigation into the killing of Sisay, a 27-year-old Black man named Rayshard Brooks was killed by Atlanta police officers. They claimed to have received a call from a local Wendy’s, where Brooks had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through line. Video of the killing, recorded by a bystander, was widely seen. In response, the Atlanta PD released body camera footage of the killing, even though the case is under investigation by the GBI. Under Georgia law, the choice is the police department’s alone.