Beverly Smith strives to stay busy.
If she’s not at a rally against police brutality, she’s traveling through neighborhoods in Southeast Washington, preaching against violence by officers.
One week, she joined mothers on the lawn of the National Rifle Association to protest gun violence, and the next, she led discussions on race relations at the Anacostia Library.
“There’s something to do every week,” she said, fiddling with pamphlets on her coffee table that she planned to distribute throughout the community.
For Smith, 52, this work is not something she always wants to do, but she has to do it. It’s a form of therapy and a way to escape the haunting thoughts of her son’s death after a November confrontation with security guards.
As the nation debates police shootings and use-of-force tactics in cases of unarmed black men, Smith, of Southeast, has waited to see whether she’ll receive what she considers justice for her son.
D.C. police found Alonzo Smith unconscious and handcuffed in the custody of two guards known as “special police” in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, a Sunday, in the Marbury Plaza Apartments in Southeast. Special police are armed and have arrest powers, and they typically work for private companies, being licensed by the city to protect places including schools, libraries and apartment complexes.
[Death of man found unconscious in handcuffs ruled a homicide]
The November incident began when residents of Marbury Plaza called 911 to report a man racing through the halls, shouting and banging on doors, authorities said. Smith thinks that man was her son.
What happened next remains unclear, but D.C. police officers responded about 4 a.m. to the encounter between Smith and security guards.
The city officers found Alonzo Smith between stair landings: shirtless, facedown and handcuffed. Two guards were over him, one near his head, the other with a knee in Smith’s back. Smith was not breathing.
The D.C. officers started CPR, and Smith was taken to a hospital. But efforts to save his life failed. He was 27.
Beverly Smith said she did not learn of her son’s death until the next evening, when detectives knocked on her door. She had been sending messages to her son on Facebook throughout the weekend without getting a reply.
“Before they said anything, I asked them what happened to my son,” she said. “I already knew.”
“Was he shot?”
No, Ms. Smith.
“Was he stabbed?”
No, Ms. Smith.
They told her that her son had been in an altercation with special police officers and had died.
“I just blanked out,” she said. “I just kept repeating, I remember saying, ‘This is a dream, this is a dream.’ It was just awful.”
Alonzo Smith’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner’s office — meaning the death occurred at the hands of another. Authorities, who must determine whether the guards committed any crime, said the investigation continues. The guards have not been publicly identified.
The autopsy report — which Beverly Smith shared with The Washington Post in December — showed that Alonzo Smith suffered cardiac arrest complicated by acute cocaine toxicity while being restrained.
Smith had trauma to his head, torso and extremities, according to the report. His torso had also been compressed, which the autopsy report called a contributing factor in his death.
The scene as D.C. officers arrived was captured on police body-camera footage that was the first such video released by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). But the video does not show the initial altercation between Alonzo Smith and the guards.
In the months since her son’s death, Beverly Smith said she has learned little from law enforcement about the investigation and wants firm answers. Authorities would not comment, citing the ongoing probe.
“It builds up more anger toward MPD . . . and everyone else involved,” she said, referring to the Metropolitan Police Department. “Now I consider them as my enemy.”
Beverly Smith now lives alone in the Anacostia apartment she once shared with her son.
Signs demanding accountability for his death are piled on chairs in her living room. “Justice for Zo,” and “Stop the Coverup,” a few read, each with photos of Alonzo Smith with a smile, one of the features his mother loved most.
“He was very handsome, and he knew it,” she said, cracking a grin.
She raised Alonzo and another child, Shelita Smith, as a single parent. Times were rough, she said, but there were happy moments as well.
From an early age, she said, her son had an affinity for work. He wanted to be the man of the house.
“You would never find him without a job, and if you do, it would be for about a week,” she said.
Alonzo Smith worked as a teacher’s assistant at Accotink Academy Learning Center, a private school in Virginia for special-needs students and those with troubled pasts. He had a knack for calming students when they were acting out.
“He was excellent, excellent with the kids,” said Joseph Morris Jr., a behavioral counselor at the school. “They loved him.”
Alonzo Smith was able to see eye-to-eye with the youngsters, many of whom were ordered by a court to attend the school. Beverly Smith said several students saw him as a father figure, someone to whom they could relate. He, too, had had challenges.
As an adolescent, he dealt with problems his mother declined to discuss but described as “typical teenage issues.” Relatives told The Post in December that Alonzo Smith spent a stint in a juvenile jail as a teenager. As an adult, he had two domestic violence charges in the District and Maryland for incidents with an ex-girlfriend and an uncle.
His mother does not deny her son’s problems — many of them she said were self-inflicted — but she said he should not be defined by them.
Beverly Smith said it was a surprise to her that her son used drugs. But she said her opinion that he was unjustifiably killed is not swayed by the cocaine found in his system after his death. When she first saw his body, she said, she was shaken by the swelling, scrapes and cuts.
“The drugs in his system did not give him all these contusions and scrapes and bruises on his back as though he had been dragged,” she said.
Alonzo Smith, who left behind a 7-year-old son, had been working to improve his life for the sake of his son, his mother said. He had studied social work at Morgan State University in Baltimore. And although he did not finish school, he was preparing to re-enroll, she said.
“He wanted to leave a legacy,” Smith said. “Through a lot of mistakes he made in his youth, it was so important to him that he turned his life around and that he become a role model, which he did.”
Throughout his life, Alonzo Smith found a passion in poetry and even published a book, titled “Lost Soul,” containing poems he wrote as a teenager and young adult, detailing his time jailed as a juvenile.
“I wrote this book for those who don’t understand me, for others who are misunderstood, and to express what I have felt through the toughest times a teenager can imagine,” he said in the book’s description.
Smith said her son was planning to publish a second book of poems. If she recovers his other poetry, she said, she might publish it for him.
It has been especially difficult, Smith said, coping with the reality that her son died after an interaction with police. For her, it makes no difference that they were special police and not D.C. officers.
There were times just after her son’s death when she could not eat or sleep, and she struggled to find the strength to bathe and change clothes.
“You’re just depleted,” she said. “That’s how bad it gets.”
She does not want to go through her son’s belongings, which are in a back room of her apartment. She only recently brought herself to throw out his toothbrush.
At times, she does things to remember him. She will smell his shirts to get a trace of his scent, or imagine his voice — the way he called her “Ma.” If she sees someone on the street who looks like him, she’ll pause.
Beverly Smith said it’s hard to find support from family or friends because they don’t always understand her pain. Instead, she leans on support from other women who have lost children to police or gun violence. They connect with her particular grief.
“We always call this a club that no one wants to join,” she said. In her view, it’s a different feeling losing a loved one to law enforcement as opposed to another cause.
“It’s different. It’s absolutely different,” she said. “From a car wreck, it’s an accident. Through an illness, that happens. Even in gun violence, I would say it’s different. . . . These are public figures who have taken the oath to protect and serve.”
From the moment she was informed of her son’s death, she was compelled to become an activist, Smith said.
“Whenever I’m given an opportunity to speak about my son’s story, I take that opportunity,” she said. “It’s my duty to do so.”
In the early days, she came across an online petition calling for the United Nations to look into Alonzo Smith’s case. Feeling appreciated, she reached out to the petition’s organizer, Netfa Freeman, to thank him. Smith, Freeman and a few other local activists used the momentum around her son’s story to form the organization Pan-African Community Action (PACA).
“She’s an incredibly strong woman, which is not very atypical of a lot of the mothers who we’ve been able to meet who are going through the same situation,” Freeman said.
Smith said her life is now devoted to keeping Alonzo’s story at the forefront of people’s minds. Through PACA, Smith is involved in weekly speaking engagements and occasional rallies.
“If I’m not going to speak, be his voice, then who is?” she said.
In June, the D.C. mayor released a set of proposals for tougher hiring and training for special police officers.
Smith said she doesn’t think answers will come soon concerning the investigation into the actions of the guards.
“It could very well go into next year,” she said. “There is no time frame.”
No matter how long it takes, she said, she’ll push for justice. It’s a pledge she said she made to the officers who told her about her son’s death.
“They didn’t know who Alonzo Smith’s mother was. They truly did not,” she said. “I was not going to sit back and be quiet. No. It’s never been in my DNA to be quiet on an issue that I’m very passionate about. And then it’s my own child? Oh, no.”