From Worlds Away, Thabo Sefolosha Connects With Memphis Racial Profiling Victim

For Montavious Smith, Nov. 3 started just like any other day. He gathered with friends and visited the Wolfchase Galleria mall with no intention of changing that. What Smith encountered upon entry, however, would plant his face all over the Internet, his name listed among many others who have been racially profiled.

It began with a request that has long been common practice all over America—Smith, a 22-year-old black man, was asked to remove his hoodie—but ended with security guards, police officers and handcuffs.

When Smith walked into the mall, he and three other friends were asked to remove the hoods of their sweatshirts. Smith maintains he did not hear the security guard, who was black, make the first ask. No second was granted before Smith and his friends were escorted from the mall for breaking the establishment’s code of conduct, which states that patrons should wear “appropriate clothing”. 

When they returned, police were called and Smith was placed in cuffs and arrested for criminal trespassing. The quick thinking of Kevin McKenzie, a former reporter for The Commercial Appeal, to record the incident with the Memphis Police Department provided important documentation and thrusts the journalist into the story, as he was also arrested.

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“When the recording was happening I really didn’t know why he was doing it,” Smith told The Crossover. “I told the police, ‘I don’t even know this man and I don’t know why he’s recording, I don’t know why he has this much to say.’

“And then when I actually saw the video start hitting social media and the news and how it captured us dealing with racism, I thanked him for doing it. More people will be able to see how the whole situation played out. Now I see the reason why he recorded.”

Worlds away, looking down at his cell phone, Thabo Sefolosha could relate. Back in 2014 when he was a member of the Atlanta Hawks, Sefolosha had his leg broken by police during a wrongful arrest in New York City during a team road trip.

The night that changed how Sefolosha looks at law enforcement went off the rails when former NBA player Chris Copeland was stabbed at 1 Oak, a nightclub in the city’s Chelsea section. Sefolosha, who now plays for the Utah Jazz, rushed onto the streets with other spectators. In an interview with GQ, Sefolosha said police told him to “get the hell out”. After he traded barbs and stopped to give a homeless man money, officers rushed Sefolosha.

“I would never in a million years think that something like this could happen to me,” Sefolosha told The Crossover. “I always try to respect the law and do what I’m supposed to do. What happened to me really opened my eyes to how quickly things can shift, how one-sided a situation can be and how unfair it is to people that potentially suffer violence.”

- JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Alex Spiro met Sefolosha the night he was arrested. Previously known in NBA circles, the defense attorney and former prosecutor came to Sefolosha’s aid after he received a phone call from the Hawks and NBPA. Together, Sefolosha and Spiro successfully sued the NYPD, getting all charges dropped and winning a $4 million settlement agreement for false arrest, excessive force, malicious prosecution and false improvement.

Spiro, who has represented several clients in issues involving their interactions with the police, is now taking on Smith’s case as well. Once Spiro was briefed on the case and spoke to Smith, he viewed it as a situation where a young black man was being “persecuted and then prosecuted because of the color of his skin.”

“It’s just quite clear that if I was walking in that mall with a hoodie on nobody would bother me,” said Spiro, who is white. “There’s something about that that has always upset me about when somebody is in the same situation I would be in but because of the color of their skin is then interacting with law enforcement in an improper way, and the ripple effect that has in communities and sort of the aftermath of that.”

Spiro wanted to bring attention to Smith’s case and what he called the civil rights issue of our day. With that in mind, he reached out to Sefolosha and others within the sports and entertainment industry. When he called, Sefolosha already knew about Smith’s case. Spiro told Sefolosha, “I’m going to back this kid, and Thabo said so am I.”

Smith will need their help. Although he was arrested, he was never taken to the police station. Instead Smith signed a form agreeing to be banned from the mall and received a citation and court date for December.

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Smith said he is grateful to have people like Sefolosha in his corner. Prior to his own arrest, Smith, an avid NBA fan, didn’t know that Sefolosha was a victim police brutality. Confronting racial profiling head on sparked a desire to know more about the issue for Smith. And in reading about Sefolosha’s case and many others, he could see the parallels. Sefolosha can see what connects them as well.

“To me it was just racism to be honest with you,” Sefolosha said. “It’s crazy. I know different parts of the USA are a little bit different in terms of how quickly people can be profiled and I know that a place like Memphis could definitely be prejudiced to a lot of young black men. I think in this instance it’s a perfect reflection of that—black people being who they are and doing what they do and the authority not liking that too much.”

Now, the plan for Spiro is to ensure that this case ends like Sefolosha’s—with Smith being completely absolved of all charges.

“As important as a case is in the macro sense and making sure things change in our country, the most important thing is to make sure that the person who is individually affected comes out of it OK,” Spiro said. “The worst thing you could do is draw attention to something and then turn it into a quagmire in which you can’t get the person out.

“Priority No. 1 from the outset has been making sure he’s cleared of this, making sure he has no finding of any guilt, no repercussions, no plea bargains, no nothing, because obviously contact with the system has negative and collateral consequences. That is the top and sole priority.”

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