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Following ex-officer's acquittal, Rock Hill NAACP president steps down

Dr. Norma Gray has stepped away from her official role as Rock Hill's NAACP chapter president in order to build a social justice activism network.
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Dr. Norma Gray has stepped away from her official role as Rock Hill's NAACP chapter president in order to build a social justice activism network.

Rock Hill’s NAACP Chapter President Dr. Norma Gray has stepped down from her post to focus on social justice initiatives, following Wednesday’s acquittal of former Rock Hill police officer Jonathan Moreno.

The verdict revolves around the racially charged arrest of Travis and Ricky Price, a pair of African-American brothers, following a traffic stop at a city gas station on June 23, 2021. Viral video footage posted to Facebook shows a fast-escalating confrontation between police and the brothers, from which Ricky Price emerged with a bloodied nose and which shows Travis Price taken to the ground by officers.

Ricky Price was charged with drug-related offenses and Travis Price – who had come to the scene while it unfolded – was charged with interfering with police. (Read about the incident here).

The newly formed Rock Hill Citizens’ Review Board (RHCRB), a mix of the city’s community leaders, elected officials, and residents on which Gray serves, reviewed the incident with the Rock Hill Police Department. Charges against Travis Price were soon dropped, but his treatment by police at the scene led to the firing of Moreno, who was then charged with third-degree assault.

On Wednesday, a jury of six – comprised of one Black and five white jurors– acquitted Moreno.

Moreno had testified that he did not know Travis Price was permitted to retrieve items from his brother’s car, and so made an on-the-spot decision, which led to an arrest. Moreno’s attorney, following the verdict, said that the ex-officer was only doing his job when Travis Price showed at the scene.

African-American community leaders decried the jury selection from the outset and were quick to denounce the verdict, without denouncing the judicial process. Attorney Justin Bamberg, who represented Travis Price, said in a statement following the verdict: “While Travis Price is disappointed by this verdict, he respects the jury process. We appreciate the efforts of [Solicitor] Kevin Brackett and the Solicitor’s office but we are concerned about many things that came to light during trial.”

On Wednesday evening, Gray posted a video to Facebook in which she criticized the verdict, while also defending Brackett for his part in the case.

“I respect our judicial system,” Gray said in the video. “But this verdict is not about the law. The verdict was about black and white and blue.”

On Thursday, in a phone interview, Gray said she was disappointed and appalled by the verdict.

“I was hoping that six individuals would be able to determine the facts that were clearly, effectively laid out by … Brackett,” she said, adding that because Moreno had been fired as a police officer over the Travis Price arrest, a guilty verdict should have been obvious.

“Unfortunately, I left [the courtroom] feeling that a Black man could not get justice in Rock Hill, South Carolina,” she said.

Gray said that the incident, its review, and the subsequent trial of the former officer had already spurred her to relinquish her post as Rock Hill’s NAACP president, but that the trial confirmed for her that she can better serve the community as an individual activist than as a representative of the NAACP.

“I recognized … that I can accomplish more as Dr. Norma Gray,” she said.

Gray has launched the Get Clear Social Justice Network, which, among other advocacy, will seek to develop legislation – she’s calling it Travis’ Law – that aims to address the types of charges police officers face when prosecuted.

Gray said that the charge against Moreno – third-degree assault – would have had a better likelihood of sparking a guilty verdict if it had specified use of force, rather than assault. She said that the video of the Price incident shows that Moreno “did not follow the first rule of [the Rock Hill Police Department’s guidelines], which is to de-escalate.” The RHCRB concluded that Moreno had violated that rule, which served as a key factor in his dismissal from the department.

She said Thursday that the Get Clear Social Justice Network is an effort to serve residents regardless of race. A successor to Gray at Rock Hill’s NAACP chapter has not been named.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.