Pepper-sprayed, arrested, grieving: The mother who was at the front lines of D.C. anti-police protests

Karen Hylton wants justice for Karon Hylton-Brown, her son who died in a scooter crash while being followed by officers in a cruiser in October 2020

Karen Hylton, mother of Karon Hylton-Brown, poses for a portrait along Kennedy Street NW. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

As a scrum of protesters crowded before a makeshift barricade of metal bike racks outside the D.C. police station, Karen Hylton’s voice echoed through a bullhorn above the chorus of anti-police protesters.

“No justice, no peace!” the crowd shouted.

Hylton hurled a string of profanities aimed directly at police inside the station, marred by shattered glass doors and smashed windows from the previous weeks of protests. On this December night one year ago, a month after Hylton buried her son who died after a police encounter, officers had locked themselves inside and shut off the lights. She challenged them to come out and face her.

“Yo! Y’all beat my a-- the other night,” Hylton screamed. “I’m here for another a-- whupping.”

Then she spotted an officer laughing inside the darkened station.

“I’ll come by myself!” Hylton shouted.

Raw anger suddenly propelled her over the police fences woven with yellow caution tape. Bullhorn in hand, she scampered toward the front door. A half-dozen officers darted out of the station, took her into custody and swept her inside a dark hallway.

“Let her go! Let her go!” protesters yelled.

Hylton’s rage explodes from a place of deep hurt — a pain born on Kennedy Street, where family members were twice ripped from her on a stretch of Northwest Washington, blocks away from the police station. First, when she was an infant in 1971 and her father was stabbed in an alley on Sixth Street and left to die. And then, a block away nearly 50 years later, when she lost her namesake child, Karon.

After Karon Hylton-Brown died in a scooter crash while being followed by police in October 2020, his mother was at the forefront of some of the most volatile anti-police protests this city had endured since the killing of George Floyd. Police pepper-sprayed her as she marched down the street. Her son’s father was arrested. And crowds of demonstrators united in support of her cause lobbed fireworks and projectiles at the lines of law enforcement guarding the station that became a target of unrest, with police in turn launching sound grenades and more chemical spray to scatter them.

D.C. officer charged with murder after deadly pursuit

More than a year later, the protests have quieted — but Hylton still seeks justice. A D.C. officer accused of launching an improper pursuit was charged recently with murder in Hylton-Brown’s death. Shortly after, Hylton filed two lawsuits against the city, one claiming police wrongfully killed her son and another claiming police violated her constitutional right to protest when they arrested her outside the station last year.

But it’s not clear whether any legal win would salve her wounds. Her son’s death still leaves her feeling hollow.

“Who has the right to say what my son’s life is worth or what any human life is worth,” she wrote in her lawsuit, addressing D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) directly. “Your officer took more from me than you or anyone can pay me.”

She ended the missive to Bowser echoing a cry she often howled in grief during last year’s protests: “Karon is my baby.”

‘I had my sons for me’

On her hands and knees, Hylton had prayed to God to have Hylton-Brown.

Growing up, she watched many young women get pregnant to please a man. But when Hylton decided to have children, she said, she did so out of a desire to express love for them.

“I had both of them for me because I wanted to take care of them,” she said. “I had my sons for me.”

Hylton named her oldest son, Robert, for her father. But her baby boy was her legacy.

As a boy, Hylton-Brown and his mother lived on Kennedy Street with his father — happier times until they weren’t and the couple split, leaving mother and son without a home, Hylton said.

The split began a five-year struggle of homelessness for her and her son. She bounced from family and friends who grew to become family, she said.

Through it all, mother and son kept a close bond.

“They called him my pocketbook because no matter where I went Karon was with me,” Hylton said.

Hylton arrived in the United States around age 8, when her mother sent for her and her two brothers from their home in Jamaica. She grew up and went to high school in Northwest Washington, later studying clothing design at the University of the District of Columbia.

Police video shows fatal crash as D.C. officers attempt to stop moped driver

She worked mostly in medical billing and held jobs such as in an apartment-leasing office. But career instability left Hylton going from couch to couch or house to house, sometimes bathing in the Union Station ladies’ rooms before catching a train to the suburbs for work.

She worked any job she could hold to ensure Hylton-Brown could eat or “look fresh” with clean sneakers or clothes, sometimes donating money when she was able.

Hylton did find stable stints, including when she landed a townhouse in the Silver Spring area during Hylton-Brown’s early teen years. He still attended D.C. public schools and lived with friends around Kennedy Street, but moved halfway through attending Coolidge High School when tensions escalated between students from the Kennedy Street and Rittenhouse Road areas.

The family decided Hylton-Brown should transfer to Luke C. Moore, an alternative high school in Northeast Washington, where his mother hoped he could learn to become an electrician like his father.

But by age 20, Hylton-Brown remained a few credits short of graduation, opting instead to join many of his Kennedy Street friends who focused on quests to become successful rappers.

Fame arrived for her son, but only in death.

‘That’s my child!’

For years, Hylton spent many Sundays visiting the Suitland, Md., cemetery where the father she never knew is buried. Weeks before her son’s death, Hylton took her ritualistic trip — but this time, she wedged the front end of her Honda across a mud bank and the bumper ripped off when she tried to reverse out.

The episode infuriated Hylton, and she vowed never to return to the cemetery to see her father.

Weeks later, she buried her son at the same graveyard.

The night of Oct. 23, 2020, Officer Terence Sutton and other members of a crime-suppression unit had pursued Hylton-Brown after they saw him riding a scooter on a sidewalk and without a helmet along Kennedy Street, police said. As Sutton’s cruiser sped up and closed in behind him, a van struck Hylton-Brown after he sped out of an alley, prosecutors said.

After the fatal crash, family and friends accused D.C. police of harassing Hylton-Brown and other young Black men around Kennedy Street, sparking nights of protest around the police station where Sutton worked.

Local anti-police protesters chanted Hylton-Brown’s name on the roster of Black lives killed during fatal encounters with police officers locally and nationwide in recent years. Demonstrators even spray-painted his name on a statue in front of Union Station one night in the spring and encouraged dozens to take photos of the artwork to memorialize his loss. And members of the city’s police-reform commission invoked his name in calling for changes in the department.

A protest over a fatal accident involving a moped driver who crashed after police tried to pull him over continued for the second night on Oct. 28. (Video: Clarence Williams/The Washington Post)

As the nation erupted in protest demands to transform, reform or abolish American policing, Hylton said she fully supported the cause, but only at a distance. She never marched, donated time or money. She cared, but never imagined her life would lead to joining the grief-stricken, angry club of parents who lost a child because of interactions with police.

“I was aware of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I was one of those people who was on the side,” Hylton said. “I didn’t think I would ever be personally involved; now I get it.

After a Black man’s death, a D.C. street agonizes over the future of policing

“When they said, ‘Defund the police,’ I didn’t get it. I get [it] now.”

Hylton has called out officers and officials alike, particularly targeting former D.C. police chief Peter Newsham and Bowser with loud, expletive-laced tirades and even challenges to face the mayor with words or in the streets.

Bowser, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this article. In a recent telephone interview, Newsham extended condolences to Hylton.

“I have never lost a child, and I can’t imagine the grief associated with it,” he said.

Following Hylton-Brown’s death, Hylton reflects on her son’s brief time as a young adult, and how he repeatedly crashed his cars. In the moment, she simply thought he was a bad teenage driver, but in retrospect she has convinced herself that officers may have been chasing Hylton-Brown for years. These thoughts fueled her scorching demands for arrests and prosecutions for the officers involved in the pursuit that preceded her son’s death.

Eleven months after Hylton-Brown’s death, Sutton, a 12-year veteran of the force who was working on a crime-suppression detail, was charged with murder. His supervisor, Lt. Andrew Zabavsky, was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and accused of working with Sutton to hide the severity of Hylton-Brown’s injuries after the crash and cover up the chase. It is uncertain whether the officers involved in the fatal incident will be convicted, receive departmental discipline or lose their jobs.

Sutton’s attorney declined to comment but in court this fall defended the officer’s actions, saying that he was trying to conduct a legal stop of someone he suspected of committing a crime and that Hylton-Brown’s own actions caused the crash.

Sutton’s attorney has said in court filings that Hylton-Brown had been arrested previously and was a member of a drug gang who had been in an altercation earlier in the evening. Police were concerned he was armed and sought revenge, and the officer was ordered by a supervisor to stop Hylton-Brown, court filings from Sutton’s attorney said.

Police said no gun was found at the scene of the crash.

Defense attorney Christopher Zampogna, who represents Zabavsky, declined to comment in an email, citing a gag order issued by the court. In court documents, however, the officer has asserted his innocence.

Hylton said she still wants accountability for the remaining officers who were in the car during the fatal pursuit. She hopes the lawsuit she filed without an attorney in federal court will send a message and lead to changes across the country for law enforcement, and investment into the community around Kennedy Street where her son died.

“We’re losing our friends and how are we losing them? By the hands of these police officers,” Hylton said.

Conversations about the protests, the crash, the police all lead Hylton into a common refrain, a crescendo that builds to loud outbursts that inevitably create a familiar chorus highlighted by her Jamaican cadence. Some days she shouts; other days the words come with near tears.

“That was my baby. That’s my child!”

‘I miss my baby’

About two hours after being arrested in December 2020, Karen Hylton reemerged on Georgia Avenue to cheers from a shocked throng of demonstrators, who surrounded and embraced her. She wept deeply over the shoulder of a woman dressed in black, who hugged her tightly.

Within minutes, someone handed her a bullhorn and Hylton’s rage rekindled.

“You all locked me up, but Sutton is still out here! Sutton ain’t locked up. Justice for Karon!” Hylton yelled into the bullhorn.

In the months after her son’s death, Hylton found support in the protesters who surrounded her outside the police station on Georgia Avenue and the memorial for her son on Kennedy Street.

After she was released that night, Deandre Jean Baptiste approached Hylton with a memory.

His face wasn’t readily familiar to Hylton, but he explained that he had grown up with Hylton-Brown, when they lived at the Rosemary Hill apartments in downtown Silver Spring. Baptiste flipped open his phone case, hit play on a video and transported Hylton to a scene in her son’s childhood — a brief snippet of film that captured him at age 10 or 12 outside the apartments.

Tears again poured down Hylton’s face, but this time they met a smile.

“I love you! This is the best, this is the best!” Hylton said as she wrapped her arm around Baptiste.

For months she returned to Kennedy Street to light candles or leave some sign her son lived and died in that neighborhood. Spray-paint cans rattled on the floorboards of her Honda, as for weeks Hylton and neighborhood folks left Hylton-Brown’s name in graffiti — memorials the city quickly washed away.

“That’s Karon’s spot. His spirit is still there,” Hylton said. “They are not going to forget my baby’s name.”

In the months since she angrily marched and protested outside the Fourth District station, Hylton says she has “calmed down.”

But since losing her son, she said she feels like less of a mother. She holds on to the quiet moments, remembering how when he lived in her two-bedroom apartment sometime after midnight, he’d grab a snack and yell, “Mommy, are you all right?”

Their relationship wasn’t without fights, at least one so volatile the police were called. But Hylton would love to have the good or the bad walk through her door.

“Now it’s like, you know: ‘Dude, are you here? Where are you at?’ ” Hylton said. “You want to hear the keys. I want to hear the arguing. I miss my baby. … It’s quiet.”