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Episode 8: True Justice

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Lance Kagey Of Rotator Creative

Manny’s death led to sweeping reform, but what really changed?

The 2020 police killing of Manuel "Manny" Ellis, a Black man in Tacoma, brought a reckoning to Washington State and has set up what promises to be one of the highest-profile trials in Pacific Northwest history.

The story unfolds in The Walk Home, a podcast byKNKX Public Radio andThe Seattle Times, with support fromNPR. It's sponsored byMovetoTacoma.com, theGreater Tacoma Community Foundation and Group Health Foundation.

Find more information atthewalkhomepodcast.org.


Links to source materials

Dive deeper into this story and our reporting.

Transcript

Note: The Walk Home was produced as an audio series. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the series. This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

Episode 8: “True Justice”

Victoria Woodards: “Why does it always take a video for the public to believe when a Black person's life is taken unjustly?”

Mayowa Aina: After Manny’s story came to light, after Monet helped uncover that first video by an eyewitness that showed officers throwing Manny to the ground and getting on top of him … one of the strongest reactions came from Tacoma’s mayor, Victoria Woodards.

Victoria Woodards: “As an African-American woman, I didn't need a video to believe. Yesterday, I committed to action. Tonight, I am stepping up again to show that commitment.”

Mayowa Aina: Monet blamed the police department, the Sheriff's department AND the mayor. Mayor Woodards was addressing the whole city in a livestream, in response.

Victoria Woodards: “As I watched that video, I became even more enraged and angered and disappointed. I don't get to take this skin color off every day. I don't get to come out a different person. And while I am mayor, I am still Black. I am still treated as an African-American woman. I am still looked at as an African-American woman. And my life could be taken. And today it stops in Tacoma.”

Mayowa Aina: Mayor Woodards said the video confirmed Manny’s death was a homicide. She said the officers committed a crime and should be prosecuted. She directed the city manager to fire them and immediately set aside money to get the police department body cameras.

Victoria Woodards: “We have waited way too long and we have heard way too many excuses. It stops tonight and we move forward.”

Mayowa Aina: This was impressive to me, to hear a mayor talking like this. She was being real. She was saying what a lot of people were thinking. That was in June 2020. Millions of people were marching in cities across the U.S. And those eyewitness videos capturing Manny begging for his life under the full body weight of an officer brought the racial justice movement to Mayor Woodards’ doorstep. People were angry and hurt. And they were looking to Woodards to do something about it. From KNKX Public Radio and the Seattle Times, this is The Walk Home Episode 8: “True Justice.” I’m Mayowa Aina. Mayor Woodards’ statement caught a backlash right away. Two Tacoma police unions called her out directly. They said her statement was divisive and premature, and her anger was uninformed. They called her theatrical. But, that same month, the City Council, led by the mayor, set out to transform Tacoma into an anti-racist city. They passed a resolution saying Tacoma needed to fundamentally change the way it operated, starting with law enforcement. The resolution mentioned Manny by name. Tacoma’s police department finally started using body cameras. Within a year of Manny’s killing, nearly all the officers had one. When the officers involved in Manny’s death were charged with crimes, Woodards said the city would do a separate review of the officers’ conduct. She asked people in Tacoma to be patient. And she promised these moments would lead to meaningful change. But now, more than two years after Manny’s death, I hear something else when Mayor Woodards speaks.

Victoria Woodards: “Let me say this, and let me be very clear as I do: This city council and myself as its mayor fully support every great officer who wakes up every single day caring for our community. We support the entire Tacoma Police Department and Chief Avery Moore and every one of our officers.”

Mayowa Aina: There’s Woodards proclaiming national police week in Tacoma a few months ago. She doesn’t talk about firing officers anymore. The three facing trial are still on the payroll. That internal review is still going on. And that passion and outrage from those early days of the protests is gone. Today, She’s more careful now, more diplomatic.

KIRO News interviewer: “Tell us your thoughts and what's on your heart with that case.”  

Victoria Woodards on KIRO: “You know, I wish I could, I wish I could pour out my heart around this particular instance. But I have to stay, in my role as mayor, as we talk about this case and right now, we're in litigation. And so there's not a lot I can say at this time as it relates to the Manny Ellis case.”

Mayowa Aina: She’s walking a tightrope.

Victoria Woodards on KIRO: But we continue to talk about transforming our community to be a better community, making sure that we have better relationships with our police department in our community, making sure, again, that our community feels safe.”

Mayowa Aina: Throughout this series, I’ve been wrestling with a question: How did Manny Ellis’ killing change my hometown? Did the racial justice movement actually change the experience of Black people living here? To try to answer this question, I’ve thought about my own experiences growing up in Tacoma and living here now. I’ve had pretty raw discussions about Manny’s case with so many Black people who live here: leaders, activists, my friends, my own family. I’ve talked with people around the region who lost loved ones to the police. And this shift in Mayor Woodards’ tone — it reflects this feeling a lot of people have about where we are today: That this radical moment has passed, that the energy has dissipated. Multiple people even brought up Woodards’ changing rhetoric, from 2020 to today, as a symbol of what felt possible then versus where we are now. For months, I’ve really wanted to talk to Mayor Woodards about this. She committed to transforming the city and I wanted to know if she actually believed she could. I felt like talking to this mayor could help me figure out what’s changed, what hasn’t and why.

[Noise of Pacific Avenue in Downtown Tacoma]

Mayowa Aina: So I’m rushing through Downtown Tacoma, trying to get to Tollefson Plaza, this open, concrete space in the middle of town. For as long as I can remember, the city has been trying to get people to want to spend time here. I think they set up food trucks at one point. Nothing really stuck. But now, I’m starting at a tidal wave of color. A giant mural covers the entire plaza. Black faces. Clasped hands, raised hands. In big block letters, phrases like: “Protect Black Women.” “Say Their Names.” Artists have worked on it for months.

Victoria Woodards: “Good morning. Oh, let's try that again. This is a great day in the city of Tacoma. Good morning!”

Mayowa Aina: Mayor Woodards is here to dedicate this new piece of public art. She’s going to talk about the racial justice movement, and I want to hear what she has to say. It’s mostly other officials here with her: City Council members, a few state legislators. Tacoma’s new police chief is here. He’s just a few months into his job. He’s the second Black chief in the city’s history.

Victoria Woodards: “What you see before you really is an opportunity for the Tacoma City Council and the city staff to visually show our support of our anti-racist work and the commitment that we made when we unanimously, unanimously, every single council member voted yes on Resolution 40622, which has an excerpt right here in this plaza. That is our commitment as a council, and for this city, to be anti-racist and to call it out in such a way that everyone understands that we have to not just be quiet, but we have to be vocal and loud, and we have to show those in our community who look like me today that their lives matter.”

Mayowa Aina: That resolution she mentions, it’s the same one the City Council passed right after Manny’s killing. It says flat out that reform hasn’t worked and directs the city manager to make anti-racist work a top priority for the city. It’s the basis for all these initiatives and reports and recommendations that’s part of this citywide transformation she’s been touting. It’s supposed to reimagine the way the city operates. The city has a website where they track everything they’ve done. Dozens of PowerPoint presentations, Town Halls, surveys, trainings, workshops, discussions. Hiring a new police chief, a new chief equity officer. Having this mural painted.

Victoria Woodards: “Dionne, I remember when George Floyd first happened and then the Manny Ellis homicide — or the Manny Ellis death — happened here in Tacoma. And I remember meeting a young man whose name I don't remember at this time, but after Washington, D.C., painted their Black Lives Matter mural, he was like, Well, why don't we have one in our city? I said, We're going to get well, we're going to do one. He said Sure, sure we are sure we're not going to do it. I said, No, trust me, we're going to do it.”

Mayowa Aina: And they did. Tacoma’s Black Lives Matter mural joins others in major cities like Seattle and Washington D.C. Ours is big. You’d have to work really hard to miss it. It really is a very beautiful symbol. After weeks of back and forth, Mayor Woodards declined to speak with us. She’s not alone. In this series, you haven’t heard from one locally elected official or active local law enforcement officer. Not the Pierce County executive or deputy executive. No one from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. No one from the Tacoma Police Department. None of the officers involved. None of the lawyers for the officers or the Tacoma police union. The Tacoma city manager said no and so did several of Tacoma’s City Council members. We reached out to all of them. Some cited legal issues. Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine are going to stand trial soon. Sheriff Ed Troyer’s trial is starting right now. Manny’s family sued Pierce County and settled for $4 million and they have an ongoing lawsuit against the City of Tacoma for $30 million. So in this silence, people I talked with are left with this feeling. It’s a feeling that, yes, a bunch of stuff is different — a new Black Lives Matter mural here, a City Council resolution there, a new police chief — but not much has really changed. It’s something I hear a lot in Tacoma.

Jamika Scott: “I think what happens a lot in Tacoma is they have all these processes, processes of like, you know, ‘You got to go through this, you got to play by these rules, you got to follow these steps.’ But it's designed to tire you out so you never get to the end.”

Mayowa Aina: Tacoma Action Collective member Jamika Scott.

Jamika Scott: “And it's designed that if you do make it to the end, the ending is, ‘Well, it's great that you went through the right thing, but like we can't do anything about it. But if you want to sit on this panel or this committee where we're not going to pay you for anything and the recommendations that you give us, we're not actually going to do anything with, and you won't actually have any latitude over anything, but it'll look good on your resume and we'd appreciate you shutting up.’ Like, and that's the vibe you get.”

Mayowa Aina: Like a lot of activists in the aftermath of 2020, Jamika ran for office. She actually ran against Victoria Woodards in the primary election for mayor. She said she was disappointed in how Mayor Woodards handled Manny’s case and thought she was too comfortable as mayor to be a true advocate. Jamika lost. Woodards went on to win a second term. I don’t think Jamika expected to get elected. But just being in the race was designed to push Mayor Woodards to consider some concrete solutions to stop police killings.

Jamika Scott: “I don't think Victoria Woodards is a bad person. I don't think she's even a terrible mayor. I think that through the pressure of the job to be this person who is constantly having to kind of sit on the fence because you're trying to be the person who can bring everybody together. I get that. But at a certain point, you got to take a side. You got to take a stand. You got to say enough is enough. And you have to be more concerned about the well-being of the whole than your own comfortability and your own career aspirations.”

Nate Bowling: “I feel like Tacoma civic institutions in particular, they work to placate people, but they don't actually give meaningful responses.”

Mayowa Aina: Nate Bowling is a lifelong Tacoman. He’s a civics and government teacher who left the U.S. a few years ago to teach overseas. He still keeps close tabs on what’s happening at home though. A lot of people around here also know him as the host of a local politics podcast.

Nate Bowling: “When we go to the City Council, they oftentimes blame the city manager or blame the police contract. And then we negotiate the contracts and there's no meaningful reforms put in. And so there's a lot of passing the buck on, like, the accountability. And I have not seen any policy recommendation coming out of my civic leadership that I think would prevent something like this from happening again.”

Nate Bowling: ”I got in a fairly heated encounter with a member of the Tacoma City Council when he was speaking about how the killing of Manny Ellis had ruined trust, and that we need to restore trust. The issue is not trust. The issue is the conduct of select law enforcement officers.”

Mayowa Aina: To Nate, the feeling that things haven’t changed comes down to this fact: the officers involved in Manny’s death still have their jobs. And the ones charged for killing him have yet to stand trial.

Nate Bowling: “If you're telling me that there is a problem with the way that law enforcement is treating members of the community, then I say back to you that problem is basically rooted in a lack of accountability.”

Nate Bowling: “There’s been events over the last few years that have really shown that people who do harm to Black families and Black Americans don’t face real consequences.”

Lyle Quasim: “When Emmett Till was killed. I was 13 years old. And when George Floyd was killed. I think it was 78, 77 years old. And I thought how not much has changed from the time that I was 13 to the time that I’m 77.”

Mayowa Aina: That’s Lyle Quasim. Lyle is part of the old guard in Tacoma. He’s led a civil rights group in Tacoma called the Black Collective since it was founded in 1970. He helped get Tacoma’s first Black Mayor, Harold Moss, elected. And he’s worked at nearly every level of government since he moved to Tacoma from Chicago in 1967. I talked to him about these big moments in history when Americans had been faced with this question of racialized violence and how to stop it. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death was the moment for me when I was a teen. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s death is part of what radicalized Lyle when he was a kid. Till’s lynching in 1955 is considered one of the events that kicked off the civil rights movement. Till’s mother held an open casket funeral, putting her son’s mutilated and bloated body in a glass-topped casket so everyone could see. Lyle remembers seeing pictures of Till’s body circulated in Black publications. It was an event designed to shock the consciousness of America. Lyle lived in Chicago where the funeral was held at the time.

Lyle Quasim: “And it was sorrow and outrage and consternation in the Black community. But for the rest of America, it was just a footnote at the end of the newscasts.”

Mayowa Aina: In Lyle’s eyes, Till’s death was something that happened in Black America and something that a lot of White America either didn’t pay attention to or simply accepted. Over 65 years after Emmett Till was killed, I wondered if Lyle saw the racial justice protests of 2020, the deaths of Manny and George Floyd, as as big of a rupture as I did. If that moment made a difference after all he’s seen.

Lyle Quasim: “It was really gratifying to see people from many different walks of life come to the social realization that Black people, people of color, and poor people have been historically treated this way by the police. But have the practice standards changed? Not nearly enough. I'm just as scared of police today as I was before George Floyd and before that awakening of many places in America about how Black people are treated."

Lyle Quasim: “Everything has a price. And we're not going to change this system and and not pay a heavy price to do it. Careers, lives, liberty. All those things are in play and at risk. The entrenchment is deeper and stronger than most of us ever realized. The ability for authority systems to absorb the kind of actions that we have taken is much more than I have anticipated. And its ability to take a blow and bounce back and continue to work in really oppressive ways that deny people their rightful place in American society.”

Lyle Quasim: “It is only when the contradiction has been heightened to the point that people don't have a choice, they have to take that fork in the road. We have not been pushed to that point and I don't think it will change until we are pushed to that point. We’ve come up to the edge of it on a couple of occasions. But we haven't been pushed to that point. There’s always enough to salvage in the system that says, ‘Okay, maybe we can get a little bit better deal.’ But, you know, I'm 79 years old and I'm still looking for the better deal and I don't feel free.”

Mayowa Aina: Manny’s story did change things. Three police officers are facing trial. Tacoma police officers wear body cameras now. A dozen state laws that changed the way police do their jobs. The number of people killed by police in this state has fallen by more than sixty percent. In ways big and small, there's an awareness in this liberal corner of the country — among activists, politicians, reporters, cops — that, yes, this shit happens here. But Manny’s story also made some things very clear. Things that are deeper than policy, bigger than any law that’s changed. Manny’s story showed that it wasn't just Manny's walk on March 3, 2020, that brought him face-to-face with police that night; it was the whole arc of his life, all the systems that let him down, the way this world treated him. Manny's story showed that when police kill someone, there's a whole culture of policing behind the decisions they make. Manny's story showed how, at radical moments in history, there's another force always waiting to lash back out, to snap us back to "normal." It can make it feel like walking forever, never getting to where we’re trying to go.

Mid-roll break

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “I had a serious, like, anxiety of getting him out. Like, I just wanted them to, like, cut me open, give me a C-section. I didn't want to go through with pushing him out. I don't know why. Him being almost overdue, I was just really scared.”

Mayowa Aina: Monèt’s most recent pregnancy was high-risk, like all her others. She talked about it with my colleague Kari and I.

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “I had COVID, I have lupus. Babies aren't supposed to stay in you for that long. When you have lupus, they want you to deliver, like, by thirty nine weeks because the placenta can, like, do some weird things to babies, so they wanted him to be out.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “It was getting pretty close and my body was ready. It just needed a little extra push. Nothing was working, but for some reason with all my kids, whenever I drink a castor oil shake, they just come flying out and about six or seven hours.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “It's almost as if my pelvic area is expanding and it's about to fucking break. And it's a lot of pressure. Like a lot of pressure.”

Mayowa Aina: Monèt’s sixth child was born on September 25th, 2021. He was born at 6:36 a.m. in the water, at a birth center.

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “He was so soft. And he was warm. Like he came out, like, I, he, I just pushed him out. And then I, no one was really there, like, to, like, grab him or anything. And so I picked him up and I saw the cord was wrapped around his neck so I, like, unwrapped it and I just kind of held them to me and I nursed him. He didn't really cry.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “We were listening to 90s R&B music. So when I pushed him out, I caught him. And I remember. Mary J. Blige, ‘You are everything,’ that, like, came on. And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Like, ‘He really is everything, it’s so sweet.’”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “Oh my gosh, I was just so in love. I can't even describe it.”

Kari Plog: “As the adrenaline started wearing off that day, what was sort of going through your mind? What were you thinking about?”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “How do I keep my baby alive?”

Mayowa Aina: It’s been about a year since that new baby was born. Since then, Monèt’s moved her family away from Tacoma, away from Pierce County. She and her husband are first-time homeowners now. Kari and I went to visit her.

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “This is my, um, well I love my kitchen too. I just haven’t, we have to go grocery shopping. But, I love the kitchen because of all the counter space and cabinets and I like the backsplash and it’s just very, like, spacious.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “This is Ella’s room, my daughter Her lights are off, they’re usually on, but look she has her little things.”

Kari Plog: “Very girly.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “This is supposed to be my favorite place, but this is also a mess. But this is, like, I do my homework in here. Actually I’m able to do my homework in here. I can actually sit down and do it and not be distracted.”

Kari Plog: “It looks like it’s part office, part vanity.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “It is because I do my makeup in here. And I like to play in makeup.”

Mayowa Aina: “Is that a picture of Manny with the dreads?”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “Oh yeah. It was in a frame but then it dropped and it broke. I don’t know where the frame is that I bought, but yeah.”

Mayowa Aina: “I don’t think I’ve seen that picture, I don’t think I’ve seen him with hair.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “Yeah he used to have long, I used to retwist his locks for him all the time. He had dreadlocks.”

Kari Plog: Before the big move, Monet was living in the Tacoma neighborhood where she grew up. She has happy memories of childhood there: riding bikes around with the neighbor kids, sledding down the hilly street when it snowed, going to the corner store for snacks. Now, the neighborhood reminds her Manny is gone. She wanted to get away. She was also sick of checking her tires every time she left the house or worrying about who she might run into around town: people connected to her brother’s killing, people she thinks could have done more about it. She wanted her family to feel safe.

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “My oldest son was the one that said, like, um, ‘Mom, like they could, like Breonna Taylor you. Like, they could come in and, like, just kill you and say that you were associated with whatever, did whatever, make whatever they want to make up about you and kill you in front of us. Even, like, look what they did to Charleena Lyles. They could kill you in front of us. And like he said, ‘I'm not dumb. I could say that there was no reason for them to do that. But they're going to be believed by the law enforcement, police officers, whoever they could do that. And, um, you would be gone.’”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “My six year old is just now, I'd say within the past, like, maybe like three or four months, he’s just now stopped talking about his Uncle Manny, how he was killed by the police, crying for no reason because he misses him like he just stopped. He's six now. Manny died when he was three.”

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “I feel like with the older ones now, whenever, like, like, when I told them like, ‘Oh, I have to go to court for your Uncle Manny, so I might be late picking you up, or you might have to like stay home for a little bit, but I'll be back, like, I'll text you whatever,’ there, I see, like the worry in their faces when that comes up.”

Kari Plog: Monet knows the world got to know her brother because of how he was killed, through recordings of him crying out in pain. So when she’s sad, when she wants to remember Manny as he really was, when she wants to escape everything from the past two years, even for just a moment, she has another recording she plays. Four seconds of audio.

[Recording of Manny laughing]

Monèt Carter-Mixon: “Sometimes, like, when he would, like, really get into it, he would do the like: [Mimics Manny laughing]. That one, the Windex sprayer. But yeah, Manny was hella funny.”

[Sound of the baby’s birthday party, people singing “Happy Birthday”]

Kari Plog: A few months ago her new baby turned one. He was wearing the cutest Sesame Street overalls I’ve ever seen. His siblings were all wearing matching T-shirts too. He slept through most of his party, but he woke up in time to smash his Elmo cake and watch the other kids demolish the pinata. Monèt’s new home felt really lived in that day. Lots of food, lots of friends and family. Lots of laughs. Manny was always the life of the party. He would have been first in line for Monet’s homemade mac n’ cheese. He would have been egging on the kids playing outside with the garden hose, even as Monet scolded them for tracking water through the house. He would have made up for it by helping clean the cake out of the baby’s hair. Someone else helps Monet with that kind of stuff now. He would have stuck around after everyone left, binge watching “The Office or “Rick and Morty” with his sister, their Sunday ritual.

That contagious laugh, one that sounds like it was coming from deep in his chest, it’s what’s getting Monet by, while she waits to see if the world will be any different than the one her brother left behind. This world her new baby was born into. A new baby who she named Manny.

Mayowa Aina: The Walk Home is a production of KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times. It’s reported, written, and produced by me, Mayowa Aina, Kari Plog, Will James, and Seattle Times senior investigative reporter Patrick Malone. Our editor is Tiara Darnell. Our executive producers are Florangela Davila and Jonathan Martin. Bethany Denton is our mix engineer. Music comes from Tacoma artists Will Jordan, Marcel E.C. Augustin, and Quincy “Q Dot” Henry. Our cover art is by Rotator Creative. Additional audio comes from The Seattle Times videography team. Research by Miyoko Wolf. Our website is by Parker Miles Blohm. Cara Kuhlman is our online managing editor. Thank you to Lauren Gallup for contributing her reporting. Thank you to Sonia Joseph, Jim Leighty, Po Leapai, Leslie Cushman and other members of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. Thank you to my dad Abiodun Aina. Thank you to the KNKX newsroom, development, and marketing staff. And a special thank you to the Ellis family for sharing their story.

Mayowa Aina reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. Mayowa started her public radio career at KUOW in Seattle. She's worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and Alaska Public Media before moving back to her hometown of Tacoma to work at KNKX.
Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.
Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.