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Giving Death "Context"

Replaying the death of Jonny Gammage for a documentary is "pretty traumatic"

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Knoxville videographer Billy Jackson sounded understandably tired as he spoke on the morning of Dec. 13, having been up all night directing the re-enactment of Jonny Gammage's death for a documentary he's completing.

Gammage, who was black, was stopped in mostly white Brentwood while driving a Jaguar he had borrowed from his cousin, then-Steelers player Ray Seals. He died of positional asphyxiation during a confrontation with several suburban officers. No officer was convicted of a crime in the death, though three were tried.

 

There were other police on the scene that night, including some from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. One stopped by on Dec. 13, Jackson says, while the re-enactment (complete with 1995 police cars) was playing out in the parking lot of the Route 51 restaurant where the original incident took place.

 

"I'd just like to talk to him," Jackson said -- but he doubts he'll be able to. Talking about Gammage's death, which sparked local protests, still seems difficult. While Jackson has interviewed Gammage's sisters about his death, the documentarian says he did not discuss the re-enactment with them at all.

 

"When you're going to see it in the lens, it's going to be pretty traumatic," he says. "The sound is going to be pretty graphic as well." Jackson had to enlist a fight coach to help replay Gammage's death without the actors getting hurt.

The re-enactment is based on a transcript of the coroner's investigation of the death, Jackson reports. "We need to re-enact it to give people a context." Gammage's was neither the only seemingly unnecessary local death during an encounter with police officers nor the only one nationwide in the past decade. Jackson hopes his video, which also examines police reform efforts in Pittsburgh, will allow viewers here and elsewhere to see the continuing need for better police training as well as better police oversight.

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