Article Thumbnail

When Corporations Let Cops Kill Us

Inspired by Malcolm X, Black Lives Matter is campaigning to hold companies accountable for siccing cops on Black men. Can we help end police shootings by hitting Starbucks, 24 Hour Fitness and others right in the pocketbook?

The first time Sonya Smith visited L.A., the 47-year-old single mother flew from Washington, D.C., to claim her baby brother’s dead body. Smith had a bad feeling about her 30-year-old aspiring-musician sibling’s move to L.A., and she repeatedly begged him to turn around and come back home as he’d headed west. 

“Why you keep saying that?” he’d respond. “I’m gonna be all right. We gonna be good. I’m gonna put my songs out there. I’m gonna put my music out. All I gotta do is meet the right people, and we gonna be good. I’m tired of seeing y’all struggle. I’ve seen y’all struggle all my life, and I’m the man of the family. I want y’all to be stable, taken care of, so y’all don’t have to worry, no more. No more struggling.” 

Smith pauses to regain her composure from an eruption of unexpected emotion. She says this is her life now — wave after wave of debilitating grief. “He had so much music,” she tells me. “He had so many songs that he’d written by himself. Every word, every sound, every beat, everything, it was him. He was an awesome person. He was amazing. He wasn’t no bad person. He wasn’t a drug dealer. He just wanted to make it.”

Smith had promised her brother that they’d move to L.A. together. She just needed some time, since she’d recently started a new job as a truck driver. But he didn’t want to wait — he was on a mission to make it as a musician.

Instead, a little less than a month after he left D.C. — on October 29, 2018 — the LAPD shot Albert Ramon Dorsey to death in the showers of the men’s locker room of a 24 Hour Fitness.

The gym is located in Hollywood, situated on the fourth floor of a complex above the Arclight Hollywood movie theater and iconic Cinerama Dome. The neighborhood is mostly filled with young couples, clusters of hipsters and European tourists — all moving through the growing population of homeless that also gather in the area.

Although Dorsey was a paying member of the gym, the manager of the popular fitness chain had called the police and requested that cops remove him for trespassing. There’d been trouble in the days before, claims that Dorsey got into an altercation with a security guard. (He’d also once been accused of harassing a female member of the gym, and even been arrested the day before, charged with trespassing at the historic L.A. Coliseum.) The management tasked two security guards with escorting Dorsey from the premises, but that failed. Dorsey was still there then — in an area of the gym bathroom that was closed off for repairs and marked with yellow tape — when two uniformed officers from the Hollywood Division arrived at roughly 9 a.m. “He is not listening,” the gym manager informed the police. 

As body-cam footage released by the LAPD shows, when Officer Edward Agdeppa and his female partner arrive and confront Dorsey, they discover him alone, naked in the shower stall. At 6-foot-1 and nearly 300 pounds, Dorsey towers over the two officers. (Agdeppa stands 5-foot-1 and weighs 140 pounds; his still unnamed partner is 5-foot-5 and 145 pounds.) The initial interaction, however, isn’t tense. In fact, Dorsey calmly asks the officers what the problem is and informs them that he’s a member of the gym. 

“Okay, I don’t care,” Agdeppa answers. “You have to put on your clothes right now. You got to listen to us.”

Dorsey responds with a simple request: “Can I have some privacy please?”

“No, I have to watch you,” Agdeppa curtly tells him.

“You have to watch me?”

“Yes, I got to watch you get dressed.”

Given his size, Dorsey was self-conscious about his body and weight. As his sister recalls, “He was secretive about his body. Ever since we were younger, he’d wear a towel above his chest whenever he got out of the shower — how women fold their towels. But they humiliated him.”

After both officers insist that they must watch Dorsey towel off, they grow agitated when he moves too slow for their liking. “Jesus Christ,” Agdeppa sighs. A little later he adds, “They called on you. So you need to hurry up, because I’m losing my patience right now, sir.” 

Lil Wayne’s “Ice Cream” plays from Dorsey’s phone as he once again asks the cops what he’s done wrong. The cops offer no explanation, other than he wasn’t listening to the manager.

Just before the confrontation turns deadly, Agdeppa puts on a pair of black nitrile gloves, which are used to protect an officer from bodily fluids like blood. As he tugs them on, Agdeppa mutters to himself, “I don’t have time for this shit.” 

It’s been just 4 minutes and 19 seconds, but now fully irritated, the diminutive officer moves on Dorsey, trying to handcuff him. “Hey bro, what the fuck is going on?” Dorsey asks him. 

No answer is given. Instead, Agdeppa grabs Dorsey by his arms. Dorsey looks to the gym security guards, who are also standing in the showers. They both glumly look on, seemingly glad it’s not them. “Hey, you got this… on record… I am not doing anything,” Dorsey calls out at them.

The female officer steps in to help cuff Dorsey. She grabs onto him and warns, “Do not fucking tense up on me.” 

As both officers clumsily attempt to wrench Dorsey’s arms, their body cams are knocked off and clatter across the tile floor. One of them continues to film the scene, but it’s aimed up at the ceiling. 

The ongoing struggle carries the two officers and Dorsey outside of the shower stall. They move closer to the sinks and mirrors as the female officer loses her patience and pulls out her Taser. Large as Dorsey is, and adrenalized as he is, the Taser has little effect. So she threatens to taser him again. And proceeds to do so — at least a third time, and possibly a fourth, too. The shocks electrify the air. 

Then, two shots are fired. 

They arrive without warning. They’re deafening, with their booms ricocheting off the locker-room tile. Eerie silence quickly follows, filled only with the sounds of Lil Wayne’s “Break Up” playing from Dorsey’s phone. Eventually, Agdeppa shouts over the silence, asking his partner if she’s okay. 

“I’m good,” she responds. 

In the official police report, both officers claim that Dorsey snatched the Taser away from the female officer, pinned her to the floor and punched her in the face. None of this, though, is shown or heard in the body-cam video. But Agdeppa claims that’s why he drew his gun and had to kill Dorsey. 

The last thing you can hear from the officers’ body-cam recordings is Lil Wayne spit the rhyme, “Big, bad flow Weezy, fuck the polices.” If the body-cam footage had continued, a few lines later, you’d hear Lil Wayne reach the end of his bars: “Life’s a bitch, now die for her.”

Not long afterward, paramedics pronounced Dorsey dead at the scene. 

* * * * *

After word of Dorsey’s death hit the local news cycle, Black Lives Matter LA activists and civic leaders questioned why a naked unarmed Black man in a gym shower was considered such a threat that two cops needed to use deadly force to subdue him. Meanwhile, the LAPD’s rationale for the shooting was reported nearly verbatim by local media. For instance, KNBC reported, like most outlets, that Dorsey was “believed to have been homeless, according to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.” 

“They lied on my brother when they called the cops,” Sonya Smith tells me during our phone interview from her Washington, D.C. home. “He thought he was safe. He paid for membership in their gym. And look at what happened. They stereotyped him. They were like, ‘This Black nigger don’t belong up here. He don’t belong in here… every day.’”

To raise the money for her first-ever trip to L.A., Smith had to rely on a GoFundMe campaign, in which she raised $3,068 from 57 donors. The much-needed support of strangers made it possible for her to retrieve her brother’s body from the L.A. County coroner — the same one who claimed that her brother was homeless, not knowing if that was true. Smith insists it was not: Dorsey had a home, her home. (Smith says she doesn’t know where he was staying in L.A., since he’d only arrived a few weeks before he died.) 

One of the strangers who contributed to Smith’s GoFundMe was Melina Abdullah, chair of the Pan-African Studies Department at California State, Los Angeles, and co-founder of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter. “Her name stood out because she put in such a great contribution toward the shipment of his body coming back home,” Smith recalls. “I reached out to thank her, and that’s when she let me know who she was. From that day forward, we stayed in touch. She stayed checking on me. I appreciate her. I love her. Black Lives Matter LA — all of the members — have been so supportive. I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with this by myself.”

They’ve also begun working together to seek justice in a city known for police violence against men of color. (Between 2010 and 2014, for instance, officers in L.A. County fired their weapons at 375 people; 24 percent of those shot and killed were Black, while African Americans comprise only 9 percent of the county’s population.) It started with a series of marches and protests against 24 Hour Fitness, but after the company ignored their protests at gym locations around L.A., Smith and BLM LA raised the stakes and called for an all-out boycott of the fitness chain (which is now in its 11th month).

Meanwhile, Smith is working with a lawyer, exploring options to sue the City of Los Angeles, the LAPD and 24 Hour Fitness (she holds them equally responsible for her brother’s death). She’s just waiting for the results of the LAPD’s official investigation, which they have yet to release. 

“I miss my brother so so so much — everyday. I know this feeling is never going to go away,” she says between sobs. “This is an ongoing feeling, one I’m gonna feel for the rest of my life. They damaged me for life. Those police. And 24 Hour Fitness. I hold them fully responsible because they coordinated, and they lied on him when they called and told that lie. If they hadn’t lied on him, those police wouldn’t have come in there to come get my brother at all.”

It turns out, too, that Dorsey was the second officer-involved shooting in the last two years at an L.A.-area 24 Hour Fitness. The earlier shooting occurred at a location in southwestern L.A. that boasts a very different culture than the Hollywood gym. Situated somewhat near LAX, it’s in Ladera Heights, a well-to-do, traditionally Black neighborhood — one that’s witnessing increased gentrification that’s pushing deeper and deeper into the ‘hood. 

Both fatal incidents occurred due to management’s calls to law enforcement to come and deal with what they deemed to be a problematic Black man. However, the manager of the Ladera Heights gym didn’t call the LAPD. Instead, they called upon the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to have 41-year-old Dennis Todd Rogers removed by force. Nevertheless, the result was the same.

There’s something else that links the two shooting deaths: Both men appear to have been in the throes of a mental health crisis. A year prior to his death, Rogers, who held a degree in accounting and finance from the University of Houston, had moved from Indiana to L.A. to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. He’d also had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At the time of his encounter with the L.A. Sheriff’s deputies, Rogers was off his medication, according to his mother. Still, “There wasn’t any other way they could have subdued him?” she asked rhetorically in the aftermath of his shooting.

According to the L.A. County District Attorney’s official report on Rogers’ death, two squad cars with four deputies arrived at the gym at 8:35 p.m. They “peacefully escorted Rogers from 24 Hour Fitness,” as the manager informed Rogers that his membership had been “revoked.” Convinced the situation was resolved, the deputies left. 

But Rogers remained outside of the building, waiting to speak with the manager. When the time came for the manager to leave, he saw Rogers was still there. The manager feared for his safety. He asked the gym’s armed security guard to escort him to his car, but the armed security guard was afraid of Rogers, too. And so, the manager called the Sheriff’s Department, for a second time. (Numerous requests to 24 Hour Fitness about both the Rogers and Dorsey shootings went unanswered beyond a perfunctory email from the Hollywood location’s manager to contact corporate, which I did, to no avail.) 

Once again, a quartet of Sheriff’s deputies returned to the gym. Officer Leonard Garcia, one of the deputies who’d answered the earlier call, was re-partnered up as he was now in the midst of his second shift. As the official report states, “Seeing Rogers was irate, and believing he was possibly unstable, Garcia requested a supervisor respond to their location and an S918 unit.” 

An S918 unit is a mental evaluation team, of which there are just 23 throughout all of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Such a staffing pinch is particularly relevant here, because per the official report, Garcia was advised that “they were on another call, and were not able to respond to his location in a timely manner.” The supervisor he requested also failed to arrive on the scene in time.

Convinced that Rogers’ anger was “mostly focused on the manager,” Garcia attempted to step inside the gym to speak with the manager. But Rogers stepped toward the officer. He warned Garcia, “You want to fight? I’ll fuck you up, too!” When Rogers made what Garcia felt was a threatening move toward him, the officer stepped out of the way. 

This, however, motivated another deputy to decide that he had just cause to use his Taser. He screamed, “Taser! Taser! Taser!” And then fired it, to little effect.

Rogers did, though, gather up his things and walk away from the 24 Hour Fitness. But now, the deputies followed him as he walked around the corner to a strip mall parking lot. When the deputies cornered him, Rogers warned them to leave him alone before reaching into his backpack. One of the officers, fearing Rogers was looking for a weapon, shouted, “Let me see your hands!”

Rogers didn’t listen and took out electric hair clippers. “I’m gonna fuck you guys up! I’m gonna kill one of you,” he yelled, using the electric cord of the hair clippers like a lasso and swinging it at the officers, narrowly missing Garcia’s head. 

Rogers turned his attention to a second officer, Deputy Ryan Imaizumi. “I’m gonna fuck you up. I’m gonna kill you!” Rogers shouted, as he moved toward him. The officer grew frightened and backpedaled. He raised his left arm to shield his eyes and face. According to the official report, the deputy was scared that the clippers “could have knocked him out, or cut his eyes or throat.” 

In the meantime, he’d already drawn his gun. With his eyes covered, and his weapon down by his hip as he stumbled backwards, he fired four times at close range. Rogers was shot three times in the abdomen and once in the back. Paramedics arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. Alarms blaring, they transported Rogers to nearby Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where Rogers was declared dead.

In the official report, the L.A. County District Attorney’s office concluded, “Deputy Imaizumi was honestly in fear that he would suffer great bodily injury at the time he fired his duty weapon.” The report goes on to claim, “We further find that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this decision was unreasonable.” (Over the phone, Greg Risling, a public information officer at the L.A. County DA’s Office will only add, “You’ve read the report? There’s no other comments we can make. Those reports are our final comment.”)

The Supreme Court decided the legal grounds to use deadly force in 1985, in the case Tennessee v. Garner, and then expanded its decision four years later, with Graham v. Connor. The highest court in the land has determined that the reasonable threshold for an officer to use deadly force is if they fear for their life or the lives of others. 

But per the official report, Imaizumi was only worried that he “would suffer great bodily injury.” That isn’t the same as being afraid for one’s life. Yet that was good enough for the L.A. County DA’s office. More largely, over the last 20 years, only two police officers in L.A. County have been charged for their use of deadly force in the line of duty (out of the 842 times they’ve shot and killed citizens). This discrepancy has rendered officers practically immune to prosecution.

The fact that law enforcement operates above the law has led to activists to look for new ways to prevent police violence. For instance, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is exploring options to pass a new law making it illegal for people to call 911 on a person of color simply for existing, and thereby making the prejudiced person feel unsafe. The local ordinance would render it a “criminal misdemeanor to racially profile people of color for participating in their lives.” The punishment would be a $500 fine.

But there’s also another option, a new tactic that organizers are using to protect Black lives: They’re holding corporations that call the cops on Black customers accountable. And they’re hitting the businesses where it matters most to them — their bottom line. 

* * * * *

“When Albert Ramon Dorsey was killed, we began to look at corporate practices — especially because we’d already been looking at the role of corporations and businesses and capitalism and white supremacy and using police against Black people,” Melina Abdullah tells me while explaining the larger purpose behind Black Lives Matter LA’s continued boycott of 24 Hour Fitness. “It was really important for us to hold corporations accountable. We started thinking about Starbucks and its role in calling police on Black people who were sitting in its stores. Thankfully, they survived the interactions. But how much more responsibility should corporations have when people don’t survive that interaction? We did some work with that the year before with Dennis Todd Rogers. Then Ramon’s murder was so egregious that we couldn’t ignore the role of 24 Hour Fitness, especially when, Rogers, another Black male member of 24 Hour Fitness, had been killed by police just a year earlier.”

“The concept of racial capitalism is one that we’ve been engaging in for the last several decades, through the work of people like Cedric Robertson and Robin Kelley, who talk about how economic structure is tied to white supremacy,” Abdullah continues. “The best person to say it succinctly is Malcolm X. He said, ‘You can’t have capitalism without racism.’ The two are intertwined. When you think about the way in which corporations and the way in which capitalist structures are set up, they’re set up to target people. Especially Black people.

“Similarly, the Black Panthers had a concept called ‘survival pending revolution.’ Going back to Malcolm’s quote that you can’t have capitalism without racism, we know that you can’t demand that 24 Hour Fitness socialize the fitness industry, right? That’s a much longer struggle. So ‘survival pending revolution’ is really asking: Can you adopt more humane practices? I think that’s reasonable.”

If not, Black Lives Matter LA wants there to be financial repercussions. “We continued to pressure 24 Hour Fitness before we launched into the all-out boycott,” Abdullah explains. “We sent letters, and we asked them to do three things that we think are relatively simple: 1) Issue a statement affirming the value of Black life; 2) do a day-long company-wide training on cultural competency and de-escalation tactics; and 3) adopt corporate practices that involve not calling the police when there’s no immediate physical threat. But they refused all of them. We got back a generic letter saying, ‘Thanks for your letter. It’s a tragedy.’ And that’s it.”

“Maybe we were naive in our expectation,” Abdullah admits, “But we’ve seen Starbucks shut all of their stores, and they did this company-wide training. No one had to die for them to do that. We felt like since two people have died in 24 Hour Fitness gyms as a result of their calls to police — and this is only what we know about in L.A. — we didn’t feel that our request was unreasonable. It may have been us being naive, but we actually thought they could do these things.”

Sonya Smith, Dorsey’s sister, hasn’t heard from 24 Hour Fitness either. “When I was out there the last time, which was for Ramon’s birthday, I was trying to speak with the manager, who they told me was going to come speak with me,” she tells me. “But they told us a lie again. After hours of waiting, they told us they didn’t want to talk.” Instead, she claims (which Abdullah backs up), they once again called the police — this time on her. 

“I think they need to be accountable for what they done — the police that was on the scene and 24 Hour Fitness,” Smith continues. “I want 24 Hour Fitness to tell me the truth. Tell me you called the police because Ramon was Black. That’s what I want to hear them say. Because that’s what I feel is the reason they called the police on him. And I want to know from the police: Why did you kill him? I want to hear them say: Because he was Black. They can’t say that it was anything else!” 

Of course, the LAPD and 24 Hour Fitness will never admit that. But here’s something that’s undeniable: To call the police on a Black person these days is a known risk to that Black person’s life. So perhaps by holding corporations like 24 Hour Fitness accountable for the times they have called the police to arrest, harass or scare away Black customers, it will save Black lives in the future. “If people don’t speak up, it’s never gonna stop,” says Smith. “That’s why I love Black Lives Matter. They speak up. And they speak out. They’re not afraid.”

She’s clearly speaking not just for herself, but for all the siblings, parents and children of those not yet killed by police officers summoned to a place of business that wants a Black customer removed because they’re scaring employees. “If they’re not accountable, they’re making it possible for this to happen again,” Smith says through tears. “And then when does it stop?”