The first time I met Rolanda Byrd was outside of a community meeting at the Bible Way Temple in southeast Raleigh following the fatal shooting of her son, 24-year-old Akiel Denkins, by RPD officer D.C. Twiddy in February 2016.
It was a sunny day but Byrd wore the mantle of the brokenhearted. Standing next to her younger son, Travon, she smiled weakly at media members, clergy, and neighbors as they streamed inside. Her eyes were lowered, her shoulders hunched; she seemed exhausted from the weight of grief.
It would be easy for a parent who’s lost a child in such a way to drown in a kind of all-consuming despair. That isn’t to say that Byrd is not still angry or hurt, but she isn’t consumed by bitterness or pain. Instead, Byrd has put a voice to the injustice that claimed Akiel’s life and, today, uses it to fight for police reform.
A new two-part report from Frame, a digital magazine that publishes interactive documentaries on political and social issues from the perspectives of those affected, follows Byrd from her life with her family in Raleigh before Akiel’s death to the day of his shooting, its aftermath, and the work she’s done since with the Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT) advocating for changes in the capital city’s police department. Raleigh native Chelsey Brejanee reported and directed the documentary, which uses local reports, social media posts, video footage, and interviews with Byrd herself to tell an interactive story about police violence.
It took Byrd five months after Akiel’s death, the documentary tells us, to work up the will to go speak before the Raleigh City Council for the first time.
“I was so nervous,” Byrd says. “My gut hurt. Like, scared to even talk about myself or my son and just asking for change from them that first time.”
That day in July 2016, Byrd told the council members who she was and who Akiel was. She asked the council to implement a body camera policy for officers. The documentary reveals that Byrd believes she would know for certain which version of how her son was shot and killed—the officer’s version or the one reported by neighbors—was true had Twiddy been wearing a body camera.
But it quickly became clear to Byrd that the council wasn’t going to engage.
“They went from my period, at the end of my three minutes, to the next person without [conversing] with me, without responding to what I had just read to them,” Byrd says. “And then realizing after that first meeting that it was going to continue to be that way.”
Byrd kept showing up to the council meetings with PACT and kept speaking out, even when new rules of decorum the council members instituted dictated how speakers were allowed (and not allowed) to address them.
A jarring moment in the documentary highlights, absurdly, how disconnected some government bureaucrats and elected officials are from the victims of policing. Byrd, again, spoke before the council to ask that officers wear body cameras and that the council create a police accountability oversight board. The council listened and then spent the next 20 minutes of the meeting talking with residents who wanted a pool in their community and needed a rezoning.
“They have these dialogues with these folks,” Byrd says, “but can’t have a life or death conversation with these parents that come before them, with these sisters and brothers, family members, children who’ve lost their parents, come before them and there’s no conversation. It’s dead silence.”
As executive director of PACT, Byrd helped influence the city to finally adopt a body camera policy in early 2018. The policy was updated the next year, following the shooting of Soheil Mojarrad, a 30-year-old man killed by an officer who was wearing a body camera but failed to activate it.
Then, last spring and summer, the George Floyd protests in downtown Raleigh took Byrd’s activism to a new level. More than 5,000 people converged downtown and Travon, Akiel’s younger brother, confronted officers with a blown-up photograph of Akiel. Raleigh’s city council agreed to assemble a police oversight board. It was a symbolic gesture, more than anything, as the board, due to state laws, doesn’t actually have investigative or subpoena power or the authority to discipline officers.
Still, PACT’s membership grew last summer, and PACT and five other local social justice organizations formed the umbrella group Raleigh Demands Justice. Raleigh Demands Justice advocates for more police reform measures in a city where six people—four of them Black—were shot and killed by police between 2013 and 2020, and where 58 percent of drivers pulled over are Black versus 20 percent who are white—despite Black people comprising less than a third of the city’s overall population.
In a scene at the end of the first part of the documentary, Byrd stands outside a corner store on Bragg Street, near where Akiel was killed, and describes how she came to realize her new mission in the wake of her son’s death.
“I started to understand that my purpose now, because of what happened to my son, was to be that voice for our community,” she says. “To be that mother that can stand up and fight for other mothers because of what’s happening to our family members. … Our story means so much to the people in our communities. … This is our hood, this is our city. And one way or another, we’re going to take it back.”
Check out Frame’s newly launched #MapTheMovement feature, an interactive map of organizations fighting to end police violence and mass incarceration. Learn more about Frame and sign up
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