Fam­ily man en­tan­gled in the sys­tem

Brooks’ life was chang­ing when he was killed by po­lice

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Sud­hin Thanawala and John Seewer

AT­LANTA — Rayshard Brooks didn’t hide his his­tory.

About five months be­fore he was killed by At­lanta po­lice in a Wendy’s park­ing lot — be­fore his name and case would be­come the lat­est ral­ly­ing point in a mas­sive call for ra­cial jus­tice and equal­ity na­tion­wide — Brooks gave an in­ter­view to an ad­vo­cacy group about his years of strug­gle in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

He de­scribed an ag­o­niz­ing cy­cle of job re­jec­tion and pub­lic shame over his record and as­so­ci­a­tion with a sys­tem that takes mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, many of them Black like him, away from their fam­i­lies and treats them more like an­i­mals than in­di­vid­u­als.

“That’s a hard feel­ing to stom­ach,” he told the group Re­con­nect, as he lamented the lack of sup­port, both in prison and once re­leased. “Once you get in there, you know, you’re just in debt. I’m out now, and I have to try to fend for my­self clue­less of ev­ery­thing that’s been go­ing on, I don’t know, I’m try­ing to adapt back to so­ci­ety.”

When he died June 12, Brooks seemed to fi­nally be gain­ing firmer foot­ing, fam­ily mem­bers and friends say. He was work­ing to sup­port his wife, three daugh­ters and step­son. He planned even­tu­ally to move to Ohio, where he’d re­cently spent months get­ting to know his fa­ther and was an en­er­getic and sup­port­ive co-worker at a con­struc­tion com­pany. Those close to him de­scribed him as al­ways happy and smil­ing, ready to do any­thing — a silly dance or a cook-off — to make peo­ple laugh or defuse any tense sit­u­a­tion.

He was a full-time car­pen­ter and was re­gain­ing his kids’ trust, even start­ing to an­swer their ques­tions about his time in­car­cer­ated, he said in the Fe­bru­ary Re­con­nect video.

“I feel good about my­self,” he said, smil­ing and rock­ing in his chair, ea­ger to share his story.

Fam­ily was a con­stant in his life. In 2014, he sent a plain­tive, hand­writ­ten let­ter to a Ge­or­gia judge plead­ing to be freed from jail to care for his loved ones. With­out his in­come from work­ing full time in truck­ing, his wife was strug­gling with a new job and care of their kids, and she had to bor­row money from a friend to get by, Brooks ex­plained.

“Be­fore I was ar­rested,” he wrote, “my job and home were the only things I was about, try­ing to feed my fam­ily. The kids are start­ing school back this up­com­ing Au­gust, and they’re go­ing to need things to start back with such as uni­forms, color pen­cils, line paper, notepads. So I’m ask­ing by chance i f you could grant me some pro­ba­tion if pos­si­ble, and I prom­ise that you will never have to worry about me com­ing be­fore you ever again for any­thing.”

In the years that fol­lowed, though, he re­mained tan­gled in “the sys­tem,” as he called it in the Re­con­nect video. By the time he was killed, he had fallen be­hind on court payments, been sen­tenced to more time be­hind bars, and been re­quired to wear an an­kle mon­i­tor.

The week­end he died, Brooks, 27, had planned to take his old­est daugh­ter skat­ing for her birth­day. In­stead, wear­ing a bright shirt with the words “Rain­bows, Uni­corns, Week­ends,” 8-year-old Blessen joined rel­a­tives at a news con­fer­ence.

Gy­maco Brooks re­called laugh­ing over drinks with his cousin less than two weeks be­fore he died. Rayshard Brooks re­as­sured him he was stay­ing out of trou­ble. The fam­ily had grown up close, Gy­maco Brooks said: “We could ar­gue. We could fight. We could sleep 10 to one bed grow­ing up, with feet and heads and arms across each other. We didn’t have a lot of any­thing, but we had a whole lot of love for each other.”

In his 2014 let­ter to the judge, Brooks de­scribed how fam­ily helped him fo­cus.

“When I’m down, my wife makes me happy. I feel in­vin­ci­ble when we are to­gether,“he wrote. He and Tomika Miller were mar­ried June 14, 2013, three days af­ter Blessen’s first birth­day: “Truly I can say that was the loveli­est day of all the twenty-one years I have been breath­ing.”

At the pub­lic view­ing the day be­fore Brooks’ fu­neral,

Miller wore a white dress with a photo of the two of them printed across it.

“It’s go­ing to be a long time be­fore I heal. It’s go­ing to be a long time be­fore this fam­ily heals,” she told re­porters af­ter his death.

In 2018, Brooks trav­eled to Toledo, Ohio, and met his fa­ther for the first time. Brooks stayed with him and his sis­ter when he ar­rived.

“He loved it up here,” Brooks’ fa­ther, Larry Bar­bine, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “He was like, ‘This is the life I want to live. This is where I want to be.’

Within a few months, Brooks made that hap­pen: He moved to Toledo, though he knew al­most no one there, hav­ing grown up in Ge­or­gia. He found work with a con­struc­tion com­pany and got his own apart­ment. He didn’t have a back­ground in the in­dus­try but quickly picked up what­ever was thrown his way, said Am­brea Miko­la­jczyk, who owns ARKRestora­tion & Con­struc­tion with her hus­band.

“It didn’t mat­ter if he was clean­ing some­thing or learn­ing how to tile or paint; he brought that same en­ergy, al­ways cheer­ful and bright,” she said.

In Jan­uary, Ge­or­gia au­thor­i­ties brought Brooks back to the state on a fugi­tive war­rant al­leg­ing he failed to no­tify them of his ad­dress and com­plete a theft pre­ven­tion class as his pro­ba­tion re­quired.

It traced back to 2014, when he pleaded guilty to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, theft and other charges. Pros­e­cu­tors said he twisted the wrist of his wife. In his let­ter to the judge, Brooks called it a “mi­nor dis­agree­ment.” His wife couldn’t visit him in jail be­cause she was the vic­tim, but they talked on the phone and she sent him food, he said. The kids gave her a hard time in his ab­sence, he wrote.

But Brooks was the “pri­mary ag­gres­sor” in an­other in­ci­dent, this one wit­nessed by a child, lead­ing to a child cru­elty charge, ac­cord­ing to a grand jury re­port. He pleaded guilty and was sen­tenced to a year be­hind bars and six years of pro­ba­tion.

And in 2016, he pleaded guilty to credit card theft, for an­other year­long sen­tence.

When of­fi­cials brought him back to Ge­or­gia, he owed $219.21 in court payments and spent 19 days in jail be­fore he was re­leased on pro­ba­tion, court records show.

He’d been out for nearly six months when of­fi­cers ap­proached him at Wendy’s, where he was asleep in­side a car block­ing the drive-thru lane. Body­cam­era video showed Brooks and of­fi­cers hav­ing a calm, co­op­er­a­tive con­ver­sa­tion for more than 40 min­utes. A strug­gle erupted when po­lice tried to hand­cuff Brooks for be­ing in­tox­i­cated be­hind the wheel.

Brooks said he didn’t want to be “in vi­o­la­tion of any­body” and told the of­fi­cers he could walk home.

JOHN BAZEMORE/AP

A mu­si­cian plays mu­sic be­hind the hearse car­ry­ing the cas­ket of Rayshard Brooks on June 23 in At­lanta.

Brooks

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