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(USA TODAY) – Two weeks ago, Chinedu Valentine Okobi, who had been darting in and out of traffic on a busy downtown street in Millbrae, California, went into cardiac arrest after being tackled by San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies and repeatedly tased.
The drama unfolding over the death in police custody of this 36-year-old father and Morehouse College graduate who may have been suffering a mental break is similar to other high-profile cases of unarmed black men that have gripped the nation in recent years.
Ebele Okobi, Chinedu’s sister, is demanding a probe into the police tactics used to subdue her brother in the fatal encounter. Were sheriff’s deputies trained in crisis intervention for people who are mentally ill? Why didn’t the deputies summon medical help?
What’s different this time, Okobi is a prominent Facebook executive and her grief over her brother’s death is striking close to home for employees of the technology giant, where there’s been an outpouring of support from top executives including Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Okobi, 44, says she wants her younger brother’s death, which occurred just miles from her company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, to reverberate in this place where privilege and race keep many people far removed from the everyday lives and experiences of black people.
“There’s a part of me that’s angry that this is the reality for everybody black I know and that people can live completely oblivious to that reality,” she told USA TODAY.
What happened to Okobi’s brother is still unclear. At least five deputies were involved. The sheriff’s department says when Chinedu Valentine Okobi was first approached, he “immediately assaulted” a deputy. At least two deputies fired their stun guns for a total of four discharges, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, whose office is investigating Okobi’s death.
The Okobi family’s attorney, John Burris, who represented the families of Mario Woods, Oscar Grant and Rodney King in civil lawsuits against police departments, says a passerby described seeing Okobi sitting on the ground, chin on his chest, appearing to be unconscious with foam around his mouth, while being propped up by the knee of one of the deputies.
Despite public scrutiny and nationwide protests over the deaths of unarmed black men in police custody, Ebele Okobi says she knows the statistics: very few officers are criminally charged and, even when a case is prosecuted, officers are rarely convicted. That has only made her more determined to bring attention to law enforcement practices, not just for her brother, but to keep this pain from being visited on other families, she says.
At the same time, she wants to raise awareness among people who’ve never had the police deaths of black people personally touch them, like many of her own colleagues at Facebook who, in the days since her brother’s death, have confided in Okobi: “I didn’t think this could happen to someone I know.”
“I think this has helped people who aren’t African American and who aren’t in the African American community recognize that this is something that every black person faces,” Okobi, Facebook’s director of public policy for Africa, told USA TODAY. “I definitely think within Facebook, for a lot of my friends and my colleagues, there has been this realization and this recognition that this is a significant national problem.”
In the city where Okobi’s brother was killed, less than one percent of the population is African-American. Four percent of employees are African American at Facebook which, like other big Silicon Valley tech companies, is mostly white and male and sensitivity to the Black Lives Matter movement has not always been evident. In 2016, Facebook employees crossed out “Black Lives Matter” and wrote “All Lives Matter” on the walls of the company’s Menlo Park, California, campus. Facebook investigated the racially charged incident and CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the defacing of the movement’s slogan “deeply hurtful.”
It was those kinds of racial attitudes in the U.S. that prompted Okobi to uproot her family and move to London four years ago after the birth of her son.
In the hospital, a nurse remarked: “Oh he’s got such big hands. He’s a big boy. He’s going to be a football player.”
“I remember in that moment thinking, first of all, he can’t be a pianist? He can’t play the violin? He can’t be a surgeon? It just felt like in that moment there was already a story being told about my son being big and intimidating and he was only six pounds nine ounces and he was only three days old.”
Okobi says she left the U.S. “so that I would never have to have this phone call about my son. To get this phone call about my brother felt both shocking and inevitable because this is what I was running away from.”
African-Americans are far more likely than white people and other groups to be subjected to use of force by the police, according to a 2016 study by the Center for Policing Equity. And that use of force can be deadly. Michael Brown in Ferguson. Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Walter Scott in South Carolina. Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Philando Castile in Minnesota. Stephon Clark in Sacramento.
And there are other examples of black men, who suffered from mental illness, dying in police custody. Terrence Coleman, a Boston man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was killed in 2016 after his mother called for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The family of a mentally ill Milwaukee man, who was tased repeatedly before his death, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in May.
Stun guns, used by officers as an alternative to deadly force, can cause or contribute to people’s death, research shows. More than 1,000 people in the United States died after being stunned with Tasers, most of them since 2000, according to a Reuters investigation published in 2017.
Earlier this year, body camera footage of Milwaukee police officers using a stun gun on the NBA player Sterling Brown led to discipline for the officers and an apology from the Milwaukee mayor. And Burris says Okobi is the third person this year to die in San Mateo County after being tased.
Okobi, who was not suspected of any crime and had no outstanding warrants, was the youngest of five siblings who grew up in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights neighborhood. He graduated from Morehouse, a historically black college, with a degree in business administration and with dreams of “taking over the world,” his sister says.
Then he began struggling with mental health issues and, while studying for the GMATs, began hearing voices. One psychiatrist diagnosed him as bipolar, another as schizophrenic.
His ambitions derailed, he still held down a steady job, attended church regularly, wrote poetry, had a child. He was managing his condition until December or January when his sister fears he stopped taking his medication.
Ebele Okobi says she knew something was wrong when she came home for Christmas and her brother, who adored her three children, didn’t join the family celebration. He lost his job at Home Depot in January. “He was definitely not himself,” she says.
Okobi was in and out of touch with his family. A week before he died, he texted his mom: “Hello sunshine.” The day before, he sent a child support payment to his 12-year-old daughter who lives in Nashville with her mom.
Cell phone video posted to Snapchat from Oct. 3 shows Okobi wandering around El Camino Real, a busy thoroughfare, in the middle of the day, Burris says. A few minutes later, surveillance video from a hotel shows deputies arriving on scene. After a scuffle, Okobi was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.
On Tuesday, a service was held for Okobi at the San Francisco Christian Center. Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of partnerships, Maxine Williams, global diversity chief, and Joel Kaplan, vice president of policy, attended the memorial. Friends and colleagues of Ebele Okobi have contributed more than $40,000 to a Facebook fundraiser benefiting Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.
Okobi says she wants her brother to be remembered as more than a hashtag.
“His name is now one of too many names,” she wrote. “He was a person. He was my little brother, he was a father, he was loved. Now he is gone, and our hearts are broken. Black Lives Matter.”