NATIONAL NEWS

Hundreds pack funeral for Roger Fortson, the Black airman killed in his home by a Florida deputy

May 16, 2024, 9:10 PM | Updated: May 17, 2024, 3:46 pm

STONECREST, Ga. (AP) — Hundreds of Air Force members in dress blues joined Roger Fortson’s family, friends and others at a suburban Atlanta megachurch on Friday to pay their final respects to the Black senior airman, who was shot and killed in his Florida home earlier this month by a sheriff’s deputy.

People lined up well before the start of the service at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest to file past the open coffin and say their goodbyes to Fortson, who was shot six times by a deputy responding to a May 3 call about a possible domestic violence situation at Fortson’s apartment complex in the Florida Panhandle. He was 23.

Fortson’s face and upper body were visible in his Air Force uniform, with an American flag draped over the lower half of the coffin. After viewing the body, many mourners paused to hug one another.

“As you can see from the sea of Air Force blue, I am not alone in my admiration of Senior Airman Fortson,” Col. Patrick Dierig told mourners, referring to the rows of airmen who took up nearly an entire section of the sprawling church.

“We would like to take credit for making him great, but the truth is that he was great before he came to us,” said Dierig, who commands the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Air Force Base in Florida, where Fortson was stationed.

The Rev. Jamal Bryant opened his eulogy with a story about how civil rights icon Medgar Evers joined the Army during World War II even though he and other Black American service members were fighting for freedoms abroad that they didn’t enjoy at home.

The 1963 killing of Evers, a Mississippi NAACP leader who was gunned down by a white supremacist, “showed all of America that you can wear a uniform and the uniform won’t protect you, that regrettably sometimes the skin you wear is more of a magnet to opposition than the uniform that you bear,” Bryant said. “Because in America, before people see you as a veteran, as an airman in the United States Air Force, they’ll see you as a Black man.”

Bryant also called for justice in Fortson’s killing.

“We’ve got to call it as it is — Roger died of murder,” Bryant said. “He died of stone cold murder. And somebody has got to be held accountable. Roger was better to America than America was to Roger.”

A police officer “came to his door and shot him up like a dog in the street, as if he was not defending the rights of America all over the world,” Bryant added.

The Fortson family’s lawyer, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, delivered a rousing address, telling the gathering: “We will remember him for the American patriot he was.”

“He was the best from East Atlanta. … He was the best from the state of Georgia. He was the best from America. He was one of the best this world had to offer,” Crump said.

In a recorded video played at the service, the Rev. Al Sharpton also highlighted Fortson’s military service and called for his death to not go unpunished.

“He as a young Black man stood up, signed up to fight for this country. The question now is will the country stand up and fight for him? … That is the question and that is what we intend to get an answer to,” Sharpton said.

After the service, airmen saluted and Fortson’s mother embraced mourners outside the church as his casket was carried to a horse-drawn carriage draped on the inside with gold curtains. The black horse that pulled the carriage away was adorned with red, white and blue flowers around its mane and silver on its hooves.

On Thursday, Fortson’s mother vowed to get justice for her son, who had served in overseas combat zones. At a news conference held by the family and Crump, Meka Fortson spoke glowingly about how her son had always stayed on a positive path and had never been in trouble or shown signs of violence.

She also had a message for Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden: “You’re going to give me justice whether you want to, Sheriff Aden, or not,” she said.

On the day he was killed, Fortson opened the door while holding a handgun pointed toward the floor, according to the deputy’s body camera footage. The deputy shouted, “Step back!” and then shot Fortson six times. Only afterward did he shout, “Drop the gun! Drop the gun!” The deputy then called paramedics on his radio.

Fortson’s family and Crump argue that the shooting was completely unjustified and that the deputy had gone to the wrong apartment while responding to a call about a possible domestic disturbance in progress at the apartment complex. Fortson was home alone and talking to his girlfriend on FaceTime when he grabbed his gun because he heard someone outside his unit, Crump has said.

The deputy, whose name has not been released, shot Fortson within moments of the airman responding to the deputy’s knocking and opening his door. Sheriff’s officials say the deputy acted in self-defense.

Two weeks after the shooting, the sheriff has yet to release an incident report, any 911 records or the officer’s identity, despite requests for the information under Florida’s open records act.

The case is among many around the country in which Black people have been shot in their homes by law enforcement personnel.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating and the deputy has been placed on administrative leave.

___

Anderson reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Hundreds pack funeral for Roger Fortson, the Black airman killed in his home by a Florida deputy