Natasha Witherspoon called the justice system “biased and broken.”
The York native, Rock Hill resident and leader of the nonprofit Moms Against Racism was joined by less than a dozen other activists at a press conference Thursday in front of the Rock Hill Police Department to share a message: The acquittal of Jonathan Moreno — an ex-Rock Hill cop who physically confronted and arrested a Black man named Travis Price in June — is unacceptable.
“Last summer, Rock Hill police officer Jonathan Moreno assaulted, traumatized and falsely arrested local citizen Travis Price,” Witherspoon said. “Though the charges against Price were dropped, the issue of Moreno’s inexcusable and criminal behavior remains, as does the issue of character defamation and trauma Price has suffered.”
Witherspoon’s comments come a day after Moreno was found not guilty by a York County jury. The jury deliberated all day Wednesday before coming to a decision after 7 p.m.
Moreno wrestled Price to the ground on June 23 in an incident that went viral on Facebook live and afterward sparked three days of protests in Rock Hill’s downtown.
Price was in a parking lot to collect jewelry from his brother, who was being arrested. Price had been given permission by other police officers to get his brother’s belongings, The Herald previously reported. However, following an altercation with Moreno, Price was arrested. Soon after, charges against Price were dropped.
Two weeks later, Moreno was fired from the police force and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery. He issued a public apology to Price the same day, too.
But Moreno pleaded not guilty when his trial date arrived earlier this month. And after days of testimony, Moreno was acquitted by a six-person jury on the grounds that he acted properly and without excessive force in an intense situation.
The purpose of the press conference, Witherspoon said, is to express a list of demands addressed to “the city of Rock Hill, the Rock Hill police department and the Rock Hill citizen’s review board.”
Among the demands: to initiate and carry out an “independent and transparent investigation into the Moreno trial” and to have the police department disclose its current use of force policy and “explain how they intend to revise it to make sure our citizens can see that the Rock Hill PD will no longer tolerate police brutality.”
“The Rock Hill PD and the city of Rock Hill must do better,” Witherspoon said.
The contentious trial was held in York County Magistrate Court. The jury was made up of one man and five women, one of whom was African-American, The Herald previously reported. York County is approximately 20% African-American, and Rock Hill is approximately 40% African-American, according to the 2021 census.
Justin Hunt, a leader with the South Carolina Black Activist Coalition who was at the three nights of protests in June, said this incident is traumatizing not only to Price but also the community members in Rock Hill and York County who look like him.
“It is completely insulting for them to issue an apology, for them to charge officer Moreno, and then for them to have a jury with only one person who looks like Travis Price, and to tell this city that saw (the arrest) on video that this man is innocent,” Hunt said.
Hunt added, “If Travis Price had not looked like me, I guarantee you that the results would have been different. And that’s why we need to alert our community — Black, white, purple, brown — that everyone matters.”
The groups also planned a protest later Thursday in Rock Hill.
“We are not OK with what happened with Travis Price,” Hunt said. “We are not OK that officer Moreno gets no consequences. … We will not stop until this city realizes that our lives matter, too.”