Author’s note: As protests against police brutality and racism swept the United States in 2020, the name of a Tacoma man was sometimes shouted alongside George Floyd's and Breonna Taylor's. Manuel Ellis was killed by Tacoma police on March 3 after he encountered officers on a dark residential street. For protesters, Ellis' death was part of a pattern of police using inappropriate force against Black people. As KNKX spoke to Ellis' family and friends, other themes emerged as well: the ways in which childhood trauma and mental illness can alter the course of a person's life, and how not everyone has the same access to treatment. This story offers a glimpse into the life of someone who became one of 2020's unfortunate symbols. (This story originally aired June 12, 2020.)
Manuel Ellis has been a focus of national attention for the way he died: saying he couldn’t breathe while lying on the ground, handcuffed by Tacoma police officers, one night in March.
Ellis’ 33 years of life also were marked by trauma and struggle against forces pressing down on him — as well as a long, slow road toward stability, according to friends and family members.
“We went through a lot of pain growing up and in life,” said his sister, Monet Carter-Mixon. “So, I mean, we were pretty strong. But then for him to have to die in pain, it just kind of speaks volumes as to like what's going on in our community. We're not really given a fair shot, just from the beginning. What do you expect to happen, you know?”
Carter-Mixon, 29, has emerged as her brother’s most visible advocate in recent weeks, standing before TV cameras and crowds to draw attention to her brother’s death and call for the four officers present at the scene to face criminal charges.
Meanwhile, Ellis’ name has been chanted alongside George Floyd’s at local protests against police brutality and racism.
The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, attributing it to a lack of oxygen linked to the way he was restrained. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for a new, independent probe into the case.
But before Ellis was a cause, he was “Manny,” Carter-Mixon’s magnetic older brother who would make fun of her and sometimes lead her into mischief.
“I did everything that he did, and if he told me to do something I would do it,” Carter-Mixon said. “Me and Manny were kind of the free ones, the free spirited ones.”
‘IT DOESN’T GO AWAY’
Ellis was the middle child of three siblings who grew up in Lakewood and Tacoma. He was just an infant when his father died of stomach cancer, Carter-Mixon said.
From there, life got harder. Carter-Mixon said her father — a different man from Ellis' father — was physically abusive to her brothers and sexually abusive to her, and a cousin sexually abused Ellis.
“He lacked the guidance and the support” to navigate the trauma, Carter-Mixon said. “I think he needed to be able to recognize, you know, his mental health and how it plays a major role in your life and your decision-making skills. It just wasn't taught to us.”
Ellis went to Tacoma’s Wilson High School, where he played the drums and dreamed of playing music for a living, Carter-Mixon said. But Ellis also had a gift for talking to people, she said, and soon after high school he started selling cars.
Problems started catching up with Ellis after he moved out on his own at 18, his sister said.
He had schizophrenia, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity, all of which went undiagnosed for years, on top of the abuse he experienced as a child, Carter-Mixon said.
At some point, he started using methamphetamine.
“He was just trying to cope,” Carter-Mixon said. “We both went through the same thing growing up.”
She said she didn’t self-medicate, but she understood why her brother did.
“Even now, the pain that you feel, the resentment that you have, it doesn't go away overnight,” she said.
Ellis had two children, a son who’s now 11 and a daughter who’s under 2.
He lived with Carter-Mixon on and off over the years, and helped her care for her five children. But she also took care of him.
“Even though I'm the youngest, I always had more stability,” Carter-Mixon said. “So I would always let him come back or try and help him out, try and get them into rehab and get him therapy.”
But it was a struggle. “In our communities, we're not given the same opportunities as white people,” she said. “He had the same problem that I had, trying to get a good counselor, a good psychologist, with crappy insurance.”
But in the last year of Ellis’ life, pieces started falling to place.
‘RIGHT IN THE POCKET’
Cedric Armstrong, who owns sober living homes in the Tacoma area, said Ellis approached him after a recovery meeting in the fall, and said he needed a place to stay. Armstrong happened to have a room open.
Ellis moved into a nine-bedroom sober living home south of Tacoma, downstairs from Armstrong and his family.
“He was doing all the things he needed to do, whether it was spiritual, whether it was going to meetings,” said Armstrong, 56, who said he is in recovery for addiction himself. “I know he was going to an outpatient thing.”
Ellis also was taking anti-psychotic medication to treat his schizophrenia, his sister said. He talked about going into landscaping and collaborating with her on a business that could provide a financial foothold for other struggling family members.
“He started to learn that, being a Black person, it’s best to own your own business and establish yourself,” Carter-Mixon said.
Ellis started going to church with Armstrong, his landlord, at Last Day Ministries in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.
One day, early on, Ellis noticed a drumset in the church.
“He said, ‘Man. I haven't played drums in so long,” Armstrong said. “And I said, ‘Go ahead,’ you know. And he's a great drummer, an amazing drummer. I was totally shocked. The whole church was totally shocked.”
He started playing drums regularly at Last Day Ministries.
“Usually we have a probation period, but there was no probation period for him,” said Timothy Williams, a deacon at the church who also plays piano and other instruments. “He had the job.”
Ellis didn’t have to be told when to show up to play; he knew when services were scheduled, and always found a way to get there on time, despite not having a car, Williams said. Plus, he was talented.
“He’d be right in the groove man,” Williams said. “He would have never heard the song, but real musicians, they can fall in line real quick and be right in the pocket. Being right in the pocket means everything.”
‘HE WAS IMPORTANT’
Playing drums was one of the last things Ellis did. He performed at a revival event at the church hours before he died.
“He was playing the drums so good,” said Armstrong, who was there. “As we were riding home, this is what Manny said: ‘Man, I enjoyed myself so much, I want my mom and my sister to know the God I know, who saved me.’”
Back home, before bed, Armstrong made Ellis a hamburger.
Ellis asked for a piece of paper. It was the last time Armstrong saw him.
At some point, Ellis walked to a nearby 7-Eleven. Armstrong said it was a nightly ritual that helped Ellis cope with restlessness caused by his medication.
The next morning, Carter-Mixon saw she had missed a FaceTime call from her brother.
Later, at work, she got a call from the medical examiner’s office informing her of her brother’s death.
Shock led to questions, which led to outrage, which led to activism.
“I want my brother's name to be a part of a change that happens,” Carter-Mixon said. “I want my brother’s life to be a part of something, because I felt like when Manny was here, sometimes he didn't feel loved or he didn't feel special enough. When you grow up being sexually abused and physically abused, it takes a toll on you emotionally. It gets to me, I feel the same way. But I want him to know that he was important.”
The morning after Ellis died, Armstrong went downstairs and unlocked Ellis’ bedroom. Lying on the bed, he said, was the piece of paper he had given Ellis the night before.
On it, Ellis had drawn three crosses and written a to-do list with three items. He intended to call his son and call King County, perhaps to deal with a court case, Armstrong said.
The last item was an unfinished thought: the word “stay,” as if a plan he had been laying for himself was suddenly interrupted.