ATLANTA (AP) – Rayshard Brooks has not hidden his history.
About five months before he was killed by the Atlanta police in a Wendy parking lot – before his name and case would become the final gathering point in a massive appeal for racial justice and equality across the country – Brooks interviewed an advocacy group about are years of struggle in the criminal justice system. He described a painful cycle of job rejection and public shame over his track record and association with a system that takes millions of Americans, many of whom are Black like him, away from their families and treat them more as animals than individuals.
“That’s a tough feeling for the stomach,” he told the Reconnect group, complaining about the lack of support both in prison and once released. “Once you get there, you know, you’re just in debt. … I’m out now and I have to try to take care of myself … no idea about everything that’s going on, I don’t know, I’m trying to adapt to society. ‘
When he died on June 12, Brooks finally seemed to gain a firmer foothold, family and friends say. He worked to support his wife, three daughters and stepson. He eventually planned to move to Ohio, where he recently met his father for months and was an energetic and supportive worker at a construction company. Those close to him described him as always smiling and smiling, ready to do anything – a dumb dance or a cooking party – to make people laugh or defuse any tense situation.
He was a full-time carpenter and regained his children’s confidence, even beginning to answer their questions about his time trapped, he said in the February Reconnect video.
“I feel good,” he said, smiling and rocking in his chair, eager to tell his story.
Family was a constant in his life. In 2014, he sent a complaining, handwritten letter to a judge in Georgia begging to be released from prison to care for his loved ones. Without his income from a full-time truck driver, his wife struggled with a new job and caring for their children, and she had to borrow money from a friend to make ends meet, Brooks explained.
“Before I was arrested,” he wrote, “my job and home were the only things I did to feed my family. The kids start school in August and they’ll need things to start uniforms again , crayons, line paper, notepads … So I just happen to ask if you could give me a probationary period, if possible, and I promise never to worry about coming for you again. ”
In subsequent years, however, he remained caught up in “the system,” as he called it in the Reconnect video. By the time he was murdered, he had fallen behind in court payments, was sentenced to more time behind bars, and was required to wear an ankle monitor.
On the weekend of his death, Brooks, 27, had planned to have his eldest daughter skate for her birthday. Instead, 8-year-old Blessen wore a bright shirt with the words “Rainbows, Unicorns, Weekends” at a news conference.
Gymaco Brooks remembered laughing with his cousin a week and a half before his death over a drink. Rayshard Brooks assured him he was out of trouble. The family had grown up close, Gymaco Brooks said, “We can argue. We can fight. We were able to grow up into a bed, feet and head and arms crossed. … We didn’t have much, but we had a lot of love for each other. ”
His mother-in-law, Rochelle Gooden, remembered how he cared for and loved his relatives as a mother. The two are said to have barbecue challenges – once she said Brooks ate some lamb, but insisted, “You know what, I don’t eat lamb.” When he finished, he teased her, “Baaaa!” ‘
In his 2014 letter to the judge, Brooks described how family helped him focus.
“When I’m downstairs, my wife makes me happy. I feel invincible when we are together, “he wrote. He and Tomika Miller were married on June 14, 2013, three days after Blessen’s first birthday:” I can truly say that was the most beautiful day of all twenty one years I breathe. ‘
At the public viewing the day before Brooks’s funeral, Miller was wearing a white dress with a photo of the two printed on it.
“It took me a long time to heal. It will be a long time before this family heals, “she told reporters after his death, her voice cracking and one of her young daughters in her arms.
In 2018, Brooks traveled to Toledo, Ohio, where he first met his father. Brooks stayed with him and his sister when he arrived.
“He loved it here,” Brooks’ father, Larry Barbine, said in a telephone interview. “He was like,” This is the life I want to live. This is where I want to be. ”
Brooks made up for that in a few months: he moved to Toledo, although he knew hardly anyone there, having grown up in Georgia. He found work at a construction company and got his own apartment. He had no background in the industry, but quickly picked up on what hit him, said Ambrea Mikolajczyk, who owns ARK Restoration & Construction with her husband.
“It didn’t matter if he was cleaning or learning to tile or paint; he brought that same energy, always cheerful and clear, “she said. “People fed his energy.”
He made his new friends at work laugh by dancing to the country rap song ‘Old Town Road’. He rode his bike to work no matter the weather, and once stopped to walk with a colleague whose car was broken. “That’s the type of man Ray was,” said Mikolajczyk, who traveled to Georgia for his funeral.
Brooks thrived in Ohio. His father said he taught him how to fish and took him sledging for the first time.
In January, Georgia authorities brought Brooks back to the state with a fugitive warrant for failing to provide them with their address and attending a theft-prevention course if his probation required.
It went back to 2014 when he pleaded guilty to domestic violence, theft and other charges. Prosecutors said he twisted his wife’s wrist. In his letter to the judge, Brooks called it a “minor disagreement.” His wife was unable to visit him in prison because she was the victim, but they talked on the phone and sent him food, he said. The children made things difficult for her during his absence, he wrote.
But Brooks was the “primary aggressor” in another incident witnessed in a child leading to an allegation of child abuse, according to a jury report. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and six years’ probation.
And in 2016, he pleaded guilty to credit card theft, for another year-long sentence.
When officials brought him back to Georgia, he owed $ 219.21 in court payments and spent 19 days in prison before being released on parole, court records show.
He had been gone for almost six months when officers approached him at Wendy’s, where he slept in a car blocking the driveway. Body-camera video showed that Brooks and agents had a calm, cooperative conversation for more than 40 minutes. A fight broke out when the police tried to handcuff Brooks for being drunk at the wheel.
Brooks said he didn’t want to “violate anyone” and told the officers he could walk home. He told the officers that he had been to a friend named Natalie White that night. White would later be charged with arson. that flooded the Wendy’s when protesters were outraged at the death of Brooks who gathered there. White’s lawyer declined to comment on their relationship, saying only that they were close.
Officer Garrett Rolfe, 27, fatally killed Brooks after taking one of the police Tasers and shooting it at Rolfe as he walked away. Rolfe is charged with murder. A second officer, Devin Brosnan, 26, is charged with serious assault. Lawyers for the men, both white, say their clients’ actions were justified.
In Ohio, family and colleagues were heartbroken. Brooks had kept in touch with ARK Restoration and talked about returning to work there as soon as he could move to Toledo with his family, Mikolajczyk said. When she saw the headlines, a bewildered customer called her, asking, “Is this our beam?”
Brooks’ father celebrates their time together, but mourns a stolen future.
“Life was short for us,” he said. “Life was very short for us, getting to know each other.”
Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio. Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.
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