Colvin Hinson heard his neighbor die.
It was about 3 a.m. Thursday when Hinson was awoken by a commotion outside his Montgomery, Ala., home. Someone was frantically pounding on his window and shouting his name.
As Hinson searched for his phone to dial 911, a flurry of gunshots suddenly split the night in two.
When he looked outside, though, Hinson realized it was pointless to call the police.
An officer was already there, with a gun in his hand.
“By the time I got to the door, the officer was standing there, my neighbor lying dead,” Hinson told the Montgomery Advertiser.
Details are still vague, with police providing few details, but the little that is known about the fatal Feb. 25 shooting already has stirred outrage.
The officer is white. His victim, a 58-year-old grocer named Gregory Gunn, was black and unarmed. Police say he was acting suspiciously, carrying a retractable painter’s stick and that the shooting followed some sort of struggle.
Now Gunn’s family is claiming he was killed because of the color of his skin.
“I know he was racially profiled,” Franklin Gunn, Gregory’s younger brother, told The Washington Post early Tuesday morning. “He was black. That was the only thing suspicious about him.
“They thought he was a low-life nothing, walking the street,” he said. “They didn’t see a man. They didn’t see a black man. They saw somebody who needed to die, and they executed him. Now they are trying to cover it up.”
— Mark Bullock (@markb_wsfa) February 27, 2016
Authorities say that isn’t true. Local police say they have turned the case over to state investigators, and the mayor has promised a thorough and impartial investigation.
“We will get to the facts. It will be open. It will be transparent, and wherever the facts lead us, that will then tell us what our next steps will be,” said Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange on Friday, according to WSFA. “I understand that there is frustration right now. The [state investigators] will not do a quick investigation; they will do a thorough investigation.”
But in Montgomery, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, those promises have done little to soothe the anger of Gunn’s family, friends and neighbors — some of whom are now calling for white police to stay out of their historically black neighborhood.
“I want to see all white officers out of the black community,” Chris Miles, a close friend of the Gunn family, told the Advertiser. “I don’t want them patrolling here anymore, because we’re either ‘suspicious,’ or if something happens, they say they were in fear of their life. Those ‘talking points’ get them not indicted. We can’t live under those conditions anymore.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has organized protests. Meanwhile, Franklin Gunn has gone so far as waging a literal staring contest with the mayor over Gregory’s death.
Sixty years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery bus, the city is again a cauldron of racial tension.
“We cannot sit idly by and let our young men be shot down,” Alvin Holmes, a state representative, told the Advertiser on Monday. “We don’t want to start marches or massive demonstrations in Montgomery again, but we will unless something is done about this case.”
Little is known about the shooting, other than the shock, sadness and anger it has left behind.
Police have identified the officer as A.C. Smith, a white male with less than four years on the force.
According to Montgomery Police Chief Ernest Finley, who is black, the officer thought Gunn looked “suspicious” when he spotted him walking along McElvy Street in Mobile Heights at about 3:20 a.m. Thursday morning.
As Gunn neared the house he shared with his 87-year-old mother, the officer exited his patrol car and approached Gunn. A struggle ensued, and the officer fired several shots, fatally wounding Gunn, Finley said, according to the Associated Press.
Neither Finley nor Strange has said what, exactly, was suspicious about Gunn, although Strange said there has been rash of burglaries in the area.
In an interview shortly after the shooting, however, Finley told the Advertiser that Gunn was killed while holding what appeared to be a weapon and was later identified as a retractable painter’s stick.
Franklin Gunn says that story is bogus.
“He was not carrying a painter’s stick,” he told The Post. “I do know the painter’s stick is a lie, and they know it’s a lie.”
— Ellis Eskew (@EllisEskew) February 29, 2016
Gunn tells a different tale. He said his older brother was a “good man” who was the glue holding their family together. He said that as far as he knew, Gregory’s only past offenses were “two or three traffic violations.”
According to the Advertiser, Gregory Gunn did have a criminal record, but nothing foreshadowing Thursday’s fatal shooting.
“Gunn was arrested a dozen years ago for stealing a refrigerator and hand trucks,” the newspaper reported. “He had charges for bad checks the year before that. And he had outstanding traffic tickets. But there was no violence, no altercations with police, no signs of a dangerous man.”
Kenneth Gunn, another brother, pointed out that their father had been one of Montgomery’s first black police officers.
Gregory was “scared to death of police,” Kenneth told the Advertiser. “He might run from them, but he wouldn’t attack one. No way.”
Franklin Gunn says his brother was on his way home from a late-night card game after a shift at the grocery store when he was attacked by an officer for no other reason than being black.
“When they use the word ‘suspect,’ it’s a code word for ‘black,'” he told The Post.
“He was hollering, ‘Help,’ and he was beating [on the neighbor’s door] like it was the last breath of his life,” said Franklin Gunn, who was at his Virginia home when the incident occurred but said he spent the last four days in his home town talking to witnesses.
He claims the city is covering up the truth about the police-involved shooting. He says that the painter’s stick was on the neighbor’s porch, there were several officers involved and that his brother was shot as many as five times, including two rounds in the back.
Most controversially, Franklin Gunn claims police let his brother die.
“They didn’t call [the paramedics] for 20 minutes as my brother laid on the ground and they stood over him and watched him die after they executed him,” he said.
— Albert Cesare (@AlbertCesare) February 29, 2016
Officials have strenuously denied that claim. They have also said the officer’s record does not show any history of racial discrimination.
In interviews with the media, however, several neighbors have given fragmentary accounts.
“He was banging on the window and calling my name as loud as you could call it, his voice raising more and more,” Hinson told the Advertiser. “That was the only voice I heard. I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘Stop, halt, lay down.’ Nothing.”
Another neighbor, Scott Muhammad, said he spotted someone get “thrown around” and went outside to break up what he thought was a fight.
“It escalated. You could just feel the energy,” Muhammad told the Advertiser. “I turned around and told my wife to call the police. Then I saw him shoot four or five times and said, ‘Damn, that was the police.'”
He also said Gregory Gunn was shouting for help when he was shot.
“I saw when they killed him,” Muhammad said. “He was calling for his mother, his neighbor. He was knocking on the window.”
Muhammad said he saw two officers on the scene, one standing over Gunn and another laying in Hinson’s yard with a hand over his head.
“The paramedic never even made it over” to Gunn, he told the Advertiser. “Nobody came and actually checked on this brother. Nobody tried any lifesaving techniques or anything like that. I watched the whole thing.”
Those accusations have sparked intense interest in the shooting. On Sunday, Mobile Heights was packed with Black Lives Matter protesters and state politicians.
“There was no evidence that they had to kill him. He had no weapon, he did not attack the police officers. He was knocking on the next door and police shot him,” Holmes, the state representative, told the Advertiser. “What we are asking is that the district attorney file first degree murder charges against [the police officer] and bring him before the Montgomery County Grand Jury.”
The officer is currently on 72 hours of administrative leave, according to Finley.
“We will make sure that he’s whole when he comes back,” the police chief told the Advertiser. “We talk about external, but internal, we have to make sure that our folks come back whole.”
Tensions were strained even further by the fact that Strange, who is white, was on vacation in Central America when the shooting happened. In his absence, rumors circulated that there were problems with the officer’s body camera.
On Monday, Strange sought to dispel that rumor, saying that all evidence had been turned over to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA). He also expressed condolences for what he called a “tragic” event.
But the community meeting quickly turned into a strange staring contest when Franklin Gunn demanded five minutes of silence to honor his dead brother.
Very, very tense moments, brother of Greg Gunn returned to news conference – voices raised. Police approach. pic.twitter.com/SuUeVIORVN
— Jenn Horton (@JennWSFA) February 29, 2016
“I want five minutes, five minutes for my brother. Five. Can I get that right now?” Franklin Gunn asked the mayor. When the mayor agreed, the two proceeded to stare uncomfortably at one another. At one point, the mayor offered a tissue to Gunn, who was crying.
Gunn said he was asking for the five minutes of silence because that’s how long it would have taken the officer to figure out his brother wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“A man who runs and says, ‘Momma, help,’ and beats down on the door, he is not suspicious,” he said during the meeting. “He was fearing for his life.”
He said the worst part of the whole ordeal was that their 87-year-old mother heard her son get shot but that she wasn’t allowed to come and help him as he lay dying.
“She is torn up,” he told The Post.
The incident could have an impact beyond the Gunn family, and perhaps beyond Montgomery.
It’s a sad and ironic twist to history in the city where legally sanctioned segregation began to crumble 60 years ago.
“Should a young, white male police a black community?” wondered Muhammad. “They don’t know us. The police brought violence to the community last night.”