A crowd of about 80 protestors gathered Saturday afternoon at the street corner where two Roanoke County police officers shot and killed 18-year-old Hidden Valley High School student Kionte Spencer in 2016.
Kionte would have been 22 this year, his older brother Carl Spencer said. He and his supporters have been trying to bring more attention to his brother’s killing since it happened.
A different tragedy, one that seized international attention — the slaying of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25 — has added momentum to Spencer’s cause.
The protesters applauded as the Rev. Alonzo Smith of Price Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church praised Carl Spencer’s courage. “Four years since Kionte’s life was snatched away from him, it hasn’t gotten any better,” Smith said, making reference to other African Americans across the country who have been killed by police. “We cannot just march and go back home and act like nothing has ever happened. Leave here fired up that you want to make a change happen.”
“I don’t even like being here,” Spencer, 25, told the crowd, thanking them for their support in helping him get through the ordeal. “Hopefully once we leave here today, you’ll tell somebody else about this story and what happened.”
On the evening of Feb. 26, 2016, Roanoke County police responded to a call about a person near Cave Spring Corners shopping center waving a gun. According to the police account, Kionte Spencer, who had headphones in, was holding what appeared to be a pistol and did not drop it despite repeated commands to do so. After attempts to hit the teen with Tasers failed, two officers shot him. He died soon after. The object in his hand turned out to be a broken BB gun.
After an investigation by the Roanoke County Police Department, then-Roanoke County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Leach cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing, saying their actions were justified. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in November 2016 that a probe found no basis for criminal civil rights charges.
The police department has never released the names of the officers who shot Kionte Spencer, nor has it made any dashcam video of the incident public.
Carl Spencer and his supporters want the dashcam video released, and they want an independent investigation by another agency, demands they have been making since the teen was killed.
Bernadette “B.J.” Lark, 40, organized the Justice for Kionte candlelight vigil and protest, which started 1 p.m. Saturday at the Cave Spring Post Office and included a march to and from the corner of Electric Road and Normandy Lane, where Kionte Spencer died.
The peaceful protest featured animated speeches and playback of a song Carl Spencer recorded, “How Much More,” expressing his grief over his brother’s death and the questions that remain unanswered.
An advocate for the Spencer family, Lark works at the Music Lab at Jefferson Center, where Kionte Spencer was once a student. “I knew him as a music lover.”
“He made YouTube dance videos that are still up to this day,” Carl Spencer said. “He wanted people to know his name, even though this is not the right way.” Though the recent Black Lives Matter protests have put Kionte Spencer’s death back in the spotlight, “there’s nothing to be happy about.”
Lark said that Roanoke County police have only shared carefully edited photos and footage of the events leading up to Kionte’s death with his family.
“We don’t need you to translate what you saw,” Lark said. “We need to see it. Just play us the raw, unedited footage.”
“The cops that killed Kionte Spencer, we don’t even know their names. We don’t even know who it was,” said J. Lambert, an organizer with Roanoke People’s Power.
“It’s been four years of struggle, not even for justice, for basic demands.”
“Clearly there’s a lack of trust,” Lark said. “We’re asking for transparency.”
As of Saturday evening, an online Change.org petition calling for a new investigation and release of evidence has accumulated more than 19,000 signatures.
Lark said that Justice for Kionte will gather again 1 p.m. Monday in Roanoke’s Washington Park to publicly share a new list of demands for the Roanoke County Police Department.
“We want to light a candle for justice,” Lark said.
“The light of Kionte has to speak from the grave.”