“Emmett Till of our generation”: what happened to Kendrick Johnson? | Documentary films


AMerica’s recent attention to 22-year-old Gabby Petito, whose body was found last month in a remote part of Wyoming, has rekindled criticism of ‘missing white woman syndrome’ and media failure to address it. understand that black lives matter too.

There are few more vivid examples than Kendrick Johnson, an African American teenager found dead in a rolled-up gymnastics mat in his high school gymnasium in 2013. How and why he lost his life remains a mystery that has never been solved.

Kendrick is missing: no one has looked for him, ”his mother, Jacqueline Johnson, told The Guardian by phone from Valdosta, Georgia. “No one called an American marshal or the FBI for him. No one called all of these people. They didn’t mention it on the news. They didn’t do any of that.

“You see the imbalance right there. If a black person is missing, it’s like they really don’t care. As soon as she [Gabby Petito] disappears, because of her color, she gets all the media, all the shows, everything. Everywhere you see Mrs. Petito. No one else matters.

Local and state authorities ruled that 17-year-old Kendrick’s death was a freak accident, concluding that he got stuck in the middle of the mat as he searched for a sneakers and was unable to breathe. Jacqueline and her husband Kenneth insist he was murdered, accuse law enforcement and school officials of cover-up, and continue to campaign for the truth.

The case is the subject of a new documentary, Find Kendrick Johnson, based on a four-year covert investigation into a tangled web of allegations, new evidence and alarming questions about the authorities’ handling of the tragedy. With the didactic narration of actress and activist Jenifer Lewis, the film demands attention.

Kendrick was an avid sports teenager. Jacqueline, 49, remembers: “He was the baby of our family. He was like the funniest person ever. He played three sports until high school: he played football and basketball, and he ran on track. Football was his passion in life. Older children admired him because he said, “Yes, one day I’m going to be successful in football. You will all see.

The brilliant glow of memory darkens. “They just took away his dream and they took away our goal because it was our goal for him. He loved soccer. I would say he was two or three years old, he played football with his dad and brothers, and then when he was old enough to go on the pitch he had been playing football since he was four.

When she thinks of Kendrick now, Jacqueline says, “It’s so painful, so painful. We can’t even really start to cry or cry because of the struggle we have had to endure.

Comrades found Kendrick’s body in the gymnasium at Lowndes High School in Valdosta – a town in the Deep South where Confederate monuments still stand – around 10:30 am on January 11, 2013. Kendrick was 5ft 10in; the rolled up rug is 6 feet high. The mat was leaning against a wall next to the gymnasium bleachers.

Sheriff investigators closed the case four months later, concluding that Kendrick died in a strange accident while searching for a shoe inside one of the rugs. A state medical examiner ruled the cause of death was “positional asphyxia,” meaning the teenager got stuck upside down in a position that made him unable to breathe.

But Kendrick’s family were left with many unanswered questions. There were strange gaps in the surveillance footage of the gymnasium. The county coroner was not called to the scene until six hours after Johnson’s body was discovered; under Georgian law he should have been notified immediately.

Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson. Photography: Gravitas Ventures

The family obtained an order from a judge to exhume the body so that a second autopsy could be performed. A private pathologist discovered hemorrhage under the skin of Johnson’s jaw and neck and concluded that he had suffered a fatal blow near his carotid artery which appeared to be “non-accidental.”

The second autopsy made another shocking discovery: Kendrick’s internal organs were missing and paper had been stuffed into the cavities (the fate of the organs remains unknown).

In October 2013, a federal civil rights criminal investigation was announced, leading to interviews with nearly 100 people, but the Justice Department closed the case in June 2016, saying investigators “have found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges “.

The Johnson family also pursued various unsuccessful civil lawsuits; they or they have even been prosecuted and face potential legal fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“My whole family is hurt because they treated us as if we were the ones who had committed a crime and rather the victims,” ​​recalls Jacquelyn. “We are Kendrick’s mom and dad, his family and friends, and they treated us like we had committed a crime. It’s hurtful and it’s so wrong on so many levels.

Brian and Branden Bell, Kendrick’s white comrades, were would have been considered as persons of interest in the FBI investigation. The brothers were never charged, and an FBI video analysis determined they were in different parts of the school when Kendrick went to the gym. (Their father, Rick Bell, was an FBI agent who resigned after his house was searched for evidence.)

The brothers told investigators and the media they did not see Kendrick on the day he died. But the documentary unearthed surveillance footage showing Kendrick standing about four feet from Brian Bell in a school hallway, as well as an unwritten FBI report that states: “Kendrick Johnson is seen in a covered walkway heading towards the camera. Bell is observed in the same location at this time.

The Bell brothers deny any wrongdoing.

The film’s director and writer Jason Pollock first met Jacquelyn while living in Ferguson, Missouri, during the uprising that followed the death of Michael Brown, a black teenage boy who was gunned down in 2014 by a white police officer (the subject of his film Stranger Fruit). After befriending Jacquelyn on Facebook, Pollock noticed graphic images of Kendrick’s mutilated face appear daily in his newsfeed.

An illustration of Kendrick Johnson by Nikkolas Smith
An illustration of Kendrick Johnson by Nikkolas Smith. Photography: Gravitas Ventures

As the film points out, Jacquelyn’s willingness to share the heartbreaking image of her son evokes Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955, whose mother decided to open a coffin for the world to see. could see what had been done. to him. The killers have never been brought to justice, but the scorching image galvanizes the civil rights movement.

Jacquelyn believes someone first posted the image with malicious intent. “I would never have shared any pictures of him with his appearance – as a mother it pains me that you see this picture – but I started to share this and remind people that this is what they did to my child.

Moved and enraged, Pollock then spent four years researching Kendrick’s death, determined to show it was a searing injustice that had long needed a new look. “If a white kid had been rolled up in the gym that day, I wouldn’t have had to,” he said by phone from California.

“We wouldn’t even speak now because the system would have done its job and the system didn’t do its job from day one. They wanted to pretend it was an accident because they didn’t want to do an investigation.

Pollock continues: “The whole story is only Shakespearean, what they go through, watching the state abuse them like that. The film does not come to a conclusion. We are not trying to support conspiracy theories, but we are just trying to show the facts that we are bringing to light.

“I hope that this work of art gives a human face to the trauma and that it only spreads the story. We don’t know what happened. But it’s a story we should be talking about because I think he’s the Emmett Till of our generation.

The director, who began his career working for documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, has become a staunch advocate for the family. “We call on President Biden and his team to look into the FBI and DoJ malpractice with the Kendrick Johnson case and unless Washington DC starts looking into this case the state of Georgia will never deal with it.”

“If you want to clean up our nation’s deed, you have to clean up this business because it’s really, really, really bad and this family deserves a lot more from America than they’ve received.” If you care about Black Lives Matter issues, you need to take care of the Kendrick Johnson case in Washington and fix it.. “

A photo of Finding Kendrick Johnson
A photo of Finding Kendrick Johnson. “I hope this work of art gives a human face to the trauma.” Photography: Gravitas Ventures

Finding Kendrick Johnson opens with whistleblower Mitch Credle, a 23-year-old Washington police veteran homicide detective who investigated Johnson’s death with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He said by phone: “I hope the film will wake up the police to the point of wanting to see it again. What bothers me at this point is: who is going to take care of it?

“No one is really going to trust the local court to investigate because of, I guess, the bad feelings, the story. The federal government has been removed from the situation. So I don’t know who they’ll get to come and look at it and just base it on the facts.

“Don’t do it with bad guys involved. Just go investigate the evidence, no matter who the suspects are. Just start with A and study it the right way. All families ask is to do it right. That’s all they want.

Earlier this year, Ashley Paulk, a Georgia County Sheriff, reopened the investigation in Kendrick’s death, claiming he was examining 17 boxes of evidence collected by federal agents that his office obtained from the US Department of Justice.

Jacqueline is skeptical of this effort but says: “I remain hopeful. I will keep hope and I will stay in prayer that one day the truth will come out.

The memory of Kendrick accompanies him constantly. But it is also the manner of his death. If “closure”, whatever that means, is even possible, it always escapes him. “There are no days without thinking about him and the things that happened to him and how can people be so mean? That’s eight years of pain, and it gets stronger and stronger every day. They say it’s getting easier, but it’s not.


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