The room was cool, dark and smelled of dying flowers. There were just a few people in it, sobbing quietly, some eyes shiny with anger. " I hope those police see 'zackly what he saw last," a woman cried out, being led from the viewing room at Haywood Funeral Home in Raleigh.
Inside the majestic steel box resplendent with heavy chrome fittings, clad in a crisp new suit, hair neatly cut--short--lay the formerly living container of 31-year-old Batrone Jermal Hedgepeth, a neutral, serene expression on his face, eyes closed.
"Jesus, Trone," I thought, "just sit up. I know you can."
But Trone won't be sittin' up.
What happened? How did this happen? How did a man who reportedly opened a beer in the street in front of his home end up at Haywood? Trone's death Wednesday night, May 11, "followed a struggle with police officers outside of his Taybran Lane home," The News & Observer reported. "Police said Hedgepeth appeared to develop medical problems in the struggle," the story said. They'd come to get him for failing to appear in court on a charge of drinking alcohol in public.
The story went on to say:
"Eyewitnesses said Hedgepeth resisted arrest, refusing to comply with officers' requests to show his hands, and then was wrestled to the ground. A group of officers tried to hold Hedgepeth down.
"'They had him on the ground,' neighbor James Hargrove recalled Friday. 'They were stacked on top of him. They were all over him.'"
I'm looking into the dead man's face. A man who has a mother, a wife, cousins, aunts and uncles. A big, happy, friendly guy who liked to grill out with his running buddies, a man who regularly attended Mount Pleasant Worship and Outreach Center, ends up in a box over public consumption? "It could have been me," I reasoned.
And then I realized that was not correct. OK, Trone was no tea-sipper. Neither am I. He had a record. So do I, longer by pages than his. I've been to the dance and I know what handcuffs feel like.
"Barney," I sneered, the officer's jaw muscles quivering
"GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR," he yelled.
"I'm not going down. You've already got me bound like an animal," I hissed, ready to get my ass kicked.
Yet despite the fact that I got all "lippy" (and if anyone deserved to have their ass whupped it was me), I'm the one standing here looking at this man lying in a coffin.
I didn't know Batrone Jermal Hedgepeth. I am getting to know him. Trone lived in a cage off Rush Street, a small strip of apartments that, save for the windows, looks for all this world like a storage unit: same fence, same electric gate, same key pad.
I've met Trone's brother, his cousins, his aunts and some of his friends, and Pastor Philip Walker, the man who delivered Batrone's eulogy, Walker's words soaring in the chapel: "When truth meets circumstances, there's more than facts, there are versions of the truth." The chapel was at full capacity, well over a hundred souls, voices swelling finally in ragged harmony, "His truth is marching on," me electrified, speechless at the power in that room, wanting to believe Walker's robust, strident voice, wanting to believe it and yet, knowing how this ugly world works, hesitant, but ultimately accepting it, internalizing it, making it real.
There were no representatives from the Raleigh Police Department--I understand, to an extent, liability and the raw, ugly wound this horrible death of the man has dug in this city's soul. This is a tragedy for the police, too, and the officers involved deserve compassion. But what surprised me was that there was no one from the rest of the community, no one who was there to witness the dreadful pall that hung over that room like a toxic cloud, Walker finally ringing out, shouting to the heavens that Trone's death "had the power to transform the City of Raleigh."
Batrone Jermal Hedgepeth lived in a cage, a fairly nice one, but still, a cage, one he knew. He didn't want to go to another cage, one he also knew, this one not a very nice one at all. I wouldn't have handled it like he did, probably, but you never know. I can't blame him for not wanting to go into that night.
I am going to get to know Trone a lot better in the coming weeks and months. He seemed like a pretty nice guy with some problems; like me, like anybody. He is sort of a friend now, one I can't talk to right at the moment. I'm going to let his life, his family and friends, the police, the medical examiner do the talking, to find out about this man, how he lived and how he died. I think it is very important for the people, the city itself, the streets, the very dirt upon which it sits, to understand how it was a can of beer put Batrone Jermal Hedgepeth in a cold, dark hole in the ground.