Knoxville’s ‘I can’t breathe’ case: 22 years ago

Betty BeanOur Town Stories

Knoxville – Jan. 9, 1998 – It was going on midnight when my phone rang. I’d already gone to bed, but lost interest in sleep when I saw the name on my caller ID.

County Commissioner Diane Jordan was the vocal leader of the ongoing community crisis that had been triggered by the deaths of two black men – James Woodfin (June 1997) and Juan Daniels (October 1997) – at the hands of the Knoxville Police Department in senseless, utterly avoidable incidents. The atmosphere was tense as I’ve ever seen it here, before or since. And Diane Jordan didn’t play. So, I picked up the phone.

“Girl, you need to get down here. They’ve done it again.”

Fifteen minutes later I was looking for a parking place near the intersection of Chestnut and Selma, just south of Burlington. The streets and sidewalks were overflowing with angry neighbors, including eyewitnesses to the terrible thing that had just happened in the vacant lot across Chestnut Street from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Yellow crime scene tape was strung around the perimeter.

It’s more accurate to call them “ear” witnesses, because the only available light in the overgrown field where four uniformed police officers caught up with Andre Stenson came from the arching beams from KPD-issued Maglites. Witnesses described the flashlight beams going “up and down,” punctuated on the downswings by Stenson’s screams. They heard him beg for mercy; they heard angry voices curse him and tell him to stop resisting; they described the thwack of blows against flesh. Witnesses would testify under oath that he said he couldn’t breathe, and someone else said, “If you can talk, you can breathe.”

Word for word, the same exchange that Eric Garner in 2014 had with the Staten Island police officer who had him in a chokehold after catching him selling “loose” cigarettes; same conversation George Floyd had with the Minneapolis cop who was pressing his knee against Floyd’s throat. And now, we are hearing of others – a man in San Antonio who committed the offense of not dimming his headlights when passing a police cruiser. He said he couldn’t breathe, too. Right before he died in a chokehold.

That’s what you say when somebody is strangling you. And that’s what they say when they assume you’re faking.

Before that Friday night was over, KPD was baiting the rumor trap with a story that Stenson had died of a cocaine-induced heart attack. This story would be debunked within days, but not in time to save police brass from spreading it all over town.

I spent the next three or four days talking to everybody I could find who was involved with the case, including Beale Bourne, funeral director at Jarnigan & Son Mortuary, who prepared Stenson’s body for burial. He showed me, Metro Pulse editor Coury Turczyn and Metro Pulse publisher Joe Sullivan pictures he’d taken of Stenson’s head injuries – I remember a hugely swollen, purple left eye and  deep gashes on his scalp – images so horrifying that Sullivan nearly took a swing at Attorney General Randy Nichols the following weekend when they met at a social occasion and Nichols denied that Stenson had been beaten. (I confess I may have held Joe’s beer and may have been grinning like a monkey.)

Here is what I learned during that week: Andre Stenson_1998

I also wrote a short clarification when the medical examiner, Dr. Sandra Elkins, disputed the spin that city officials were putting on her findings: Stenson Medical Examiner statement

Nobody ever faced criminal charges in any of those cases. Stenson’s widow and Woodfin’s children sought damages in civil suits, but never saw a penny. It’s historically difficult to win a wrongful death case against a police department, although that may be changing some – Eric Garner’s family collected a $5.9 million settlement from New York City.

Marcellina and Andre Stenson were married Aug. 30, 1997, but had been together for years and had children. Andre was on parole from a burglary conviction and was determined to make good this time around. He worked long hours at Calhoun’s on the River and was well-liked and respected by his co-workers, dozens of whom joined the standing room only crowd at the next city council meeting to protest his death. They described him as a hard-working man who was determined to turn his life around, and they demanded justice.

George Floyd, Eric Garner and Andre Stenson had something else in common: they were apprehended for minor offenses: Floyd passed a phony $20 bill – whether knowingly or not is unclear; Eric Garner was selling “loose” cigarettes; Stenson forgot to flip his headlights on when he exited a parking lot, panicked and ran when a cop asked to see his driver’s license (which he didn’t have because he couldn’t afford the high-risk insurance required by the state of Tennessee).

Diane Jordan said she could hardly bear to watch the video of the white cop pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, telling him if he could talk, he could breathe. It instantly took her back 22 years to that night in January.

“We live with it daily,” Jordan said. “If you can talk, you can breathe.”

She said she does believe things are “somewhat better” in Knoxville because of changes forced by community reaction to the killings of Daniels, Woodfin and Stenson, primarily the citizen review board that has evolved into today’s PARC (Police Advisory and Review Committee). But she says there’s much more work to be done. The more she talks about it, the less certain she sounds.

Hannah Gladden is the eldest of Marcellina and Andre Stenson’s children, and was 11 years when her father died at age 34. Floyd’s last words took her right back to Jan. 9, 1998.

“I don’t feel like it’s changed at all. They keep killing people and they keep getting away with it.”

She thinks about her daddy every time the George Floyd story and its aftermath are on the TV news (which is pretty much 24/7 these days). She remembers him as full of life and always smiling, flashing the deep dimples that he passed on to all of his children.

“He put everybody else first,” she said. “My mother really wanted justice, but she never got it. I just feel like if they didn’t beat him, or if they had just taken him to jail, he’d still be alive. But those four policemen beat him and killed him, and now we don’t have a father. Ain’t nobody getting no justice.”

So why is everybody paying attention to these cases now?

Both Gladden and Jordan have the same one-word answer:

Video. There’s always somebody in every crowd with a smart phone.

Amelia Parker speaks to City Council. (file photo)

Amelia Parker is one of the newest city council members and has been very vocal about the need for police reform and the need for a new approach to the problems of poverty and homelessness. She is too young to have been in public office in 1998, but she remembers Andre Stenson. She agrees with Jordan and Gladden about the difference between then and now:

“The case of Andre Stenson is a horrific piece of our city’s history that has lingering impacts. It reminds us that there have been so many unjustifiable deaths that received no justice because it was not caught on video.

“White folks gotta see it to believe it.

“Otherwise, the suffering of black and brown folk, the homeless, the poor and working class, goes unnoticed and unchanged. This suffering caused by our institutions continues on a daily basis. I feel powerless to stop it. I’ve appealed to the mayor and she has doubled down in her support of the police, all of these conversations taking place in public during public meetings.”

Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties.

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