La’Shadion Shemwell removed his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes. As McKinney’s District 1 council member, the 32-year-old Los Angeles native seemed deeply moved by the abrasive words he prepared to read at a Tuesday night council meeting in mid October. His supporters had helped him write the words of a proclamation he called, “A Black State of Emergency.” They were inspired by the deaths of Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, both black and killed in their own homes by white police officers. Both were mistaken as intruders but now seen as martyrs, and the reason for the proclamation Shemwell was about to read.
“Who do I tell my children to call if 911 is killing my people?” he asked the packed city council chamber. “Who?”
Earlier that morning, Shemwell called McKinney Mayor George Fuller, according to the mayor’s phone records, and asked him to join him in issuing a proclamation for the Black State of Emergency he’d partially written. The mayor was the only one who could actually do so. He’d issued several at the beginning of the Tuesday night council meeting, acknowledging an afterschool program, breast cancer awareness month, and a star coach.
“La’Shadion, not in a million years can I read it,” Fuller recalls telling him.
Shemwell replied, “Why? It’s 100 percent fact.”
“It isn’t fact,” Fuller told him. “You and I are government. We’re not conspiring to kill black people.”
A licensed realtor who slings blades as a barber, Shemwell is the only black council member on a seven-member city council in McKinney. He also moonlights as an activist and often makes appearances with a fellow Dallas activist, Dominique Alexander, and the NextGeneration Action Network, a nonprofit that focuses on black issues such as police brutality and lack of representation. Shortly before that October council meeting, he was with them when they disrupted the inaugural meeting of Dallas police’s community oversight board and got into a shoving match with officers, the Dallas Observer reported in early October. It’s unclear who shoved first.
He’s also probably the only council member with a rap sheet. He’s been arrested for felony sexual assault in Collin County and felony burglary of a habitation and aggravated kidnapping in Dallas. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to the charges as part of plea deals, including a lesser charge of sexual assault and assault causing family violence. He claims it didn’t play out exactly like the police were told, and he had to take a plea deal because he couldn’t afford a good defense. He was also a black man and possibly facing a mostly white jury. He received a deferred adjudication for aggravated kidnapping and burglary of habitation.
Shortly thereafter, he violated probation when he was caught with a firearm. A few years passed, and he was posting a $25,000 bond for an assault family violence/impeding breath and circulation charge. In January 2016, a year before he took office, Jane Doe #2 filed a protective order against him, claiming he assaulted her and their children “on many occasions. … I was choked and had bruises. My child (redacted) was seen for trauma to his chest caused by his father,” she wrote in the affidavit for the protective order.
A year later, Shemwell was campaigning on the fact that he was a changed man and now a mentor to the youth of the community. He appeared in Facebook Live videos with some kids from Citychurch, a youth outreach nonprofit, eating pizza and discussing ways to be a better person. District 1’s progressive Democrat supporters flocked to Shemwell’s “give voice to the voiceless” cause, but some say they were simply trying to keep a Tea Party Trump supporter from gaining another seat of power in Collin County. Securing thousands of dollars in donations from small business, they pulled off Shemwell’s election in the height of the #MeToo movement.
“What do we do here?” a former supporter who helped him on the campaign trail asked in a March phone call. “We got La’Shadion or this right winger. La’Shadion talks a good game. [It] took a lot of sessions to get in front of the criminal charges and a lot of coordination with other progressives to get this message out that he now mentors children…” He trailed off, paused as if he were shaking his head. “He paraded the children around. It was smoke and mirrors.”
Shemwell’s change also didn’t keep him from earning return trips to jail after he became the District 1 council member. In May 2018, he refused to sign a traffic ticket, and was arrested. Seven months later, he was arrested on a felony charge for continuous violence against a family member. The grand jury eventually decided not to indict him. Fuller claims it’s because the charges were dropped, as happens far too many times in domestic abuse cases.
Prior to his arrest, Shemwell posted on Facebook about a plea deal he’d taken when he was 19 years old for a crime he still says he didn’t commit. “There will be some things about me in the next few days,” he wrote. “I challenge you to consider the sources.”
Shemwell didn’t indicate if he was talking about the kidnapping or the sexual assault.
Nearly a year later, Shemwell began reading what he called a proclamation for a Black State of Emergency:
“Whereas, the State of Texas and its local governments have demonstrated a pattern and practice of discriminatory and biased conduct by and through its law enforcement officers and officials which deprives black and brown citizens of rights protected under the Constitution and laws of the United States.
“Whereas, the state of Texas and its local governments have declared war on black and brown citizens by conspiring to kill, injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate, and to willfully deprive citizens of their constitutional rights while acting under color of law.
“Whereas, the state of Texas and its local governments harass and prosecute its minority citizens both in daily interactions and as punishment for speaking out against said institutions…”
He continued reading, delving into specific cases of black people who had been recently killed by white police officers and outlining steps for change. His fellow council members looked as if he’d strapped grenades to their foreheads and pulled the pins.
Shemwell’s inspiring comeback story had turned into a horror story for council members, the progressive Democrat supporters who helped him win the election, and many McKinney voters. Nearly 3,200 of them—300 from his district—signed a recall petition to have him removed from office, according to the recall petitioners.
Shemwell calls the recall election, which is now taking place in November, another form of oppression. He points to two recent amendments to the city charter, which decreased the number of previous voters needed to initiate a recall petition and extended the timeframe to submit a recall petition. He filed a federal lawsuit to stop the recall, calling it unconstitutional because voters in District 1 elected him, so they should be the ones recalling him.
Fuller disagrees. “Every action from the council affects everyone and not just his district,” he says. “When he brings national attention, companies that are considering McKinney don’t just move to District 1.”
It isn’t the first time Shemwell’s integrity as a council member has been questioned. The mayor has also questioned Shemwell’s story about the night his stepfather, Michael Greer, died in a house fire and McKinney police, Shemwell claims, held him at gunpoint.
Michael Greer was sitting on the edge of his bed when McKinney firefighters found him. Smoke covered him, but he appeared otherwise unharmed on that early mid-October morning in 2014. At 44 years old, he’d been known around the neighborhood as an imperfect man who struggled with addiction, got abusive, and stole to support his habit. Two of his neighbors had filed Class C assault charges on him several hours earlier. One woman had been holding a 4-year-old boy when Greer allegedly slugged her.
The McKinney Fire Department received the 911 fire call shortly before 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2014, a two-alarm fire blazing through a couple of homes on the 1000 block of Scenic Hills Drive in the Brookview neighborhood on the west side of Hwy 75. Upon arrival, firefighters noticed smoke and flames coming from the roof and covering nearly 50 percent of Greer’s home. The neighbors Greer had been accused of assaulting earlier were standing across the street, yelling his name.
Also on the scene, the McKinney police established a perimeter to the north and south of the fire, and began crowd control as news crews and more people from the Brookview neighborhood began appearing from their homes. A short time later, Greer’s 16-year-old daughter showed up, told officers she lived there and that she wasn’t sure where her father was, investigators wrote in the Oct. 22, 2014 incident report. She claimed her mother, Rolanda Greer, was on her way home from Dallas. Rolanda showed up shortly after 2 a.m. Other family members had also begun arriving. Later identified as Greer’s stepdaughter and her husband, “they were moved to a safe location north of the scene,” the investigator wrote.
The fire prevented firefighters from reaching the second floor where Greer was later found, according to the Oct. 22, 2014 fire investigation report. They eventually located him at 2:41 a.m. He had died from smoke inhalation. In the report, the fire investigator claims Greer had lit a wick on a tiki torch left over from a Hawaiian-themed party. “In the investigation, we believe that the victim shut off the breakers due to the domestic disturbance earlier that day,” the fire investigator wrote. “Probably so the family would not come back since he told them all to leave. It appears the victim used the tiki lamp for light in the kitchen area.”
A neighbor later told NBC 5 News, “Mike was a good man at heart. He had a lot of problems he was trying to overcome. He was trying to be a better person. He was a real nice guy. He had his problems like everybody else. He had his past. He was trying to leave his past alone and become a better person.”
An Armed Black Man
Five years later, Shemwell discussed the October 2014 fire that killed his stepfather at the McKinney City Council meeting in early November. “Last council meeting, I issued a proclamation on the black state of emergency, urging lawmakers to take action and make provisions to protect its black community,” he began, looking at a nearly packed council chamber. “I opened my heart to speak about the pain, the loss, the hurt and frustrations that I feel and that I see from the communities I serve. I pled to council to hear and see the tears that I cry because of our community. Once again, it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
“Some of you probably don’t understand the hurt and passion that I feel for our community, and that’s okay because we are made by the experiences that we have,” he continued. “And you want to understand how this affects McKinney.
“Imaginary borders for cities and counties don’t stop the feelings and experiences that I deal with or we deal with as a community. You may never understand my passion. Like my mother’s cry, you don’t know what it was like to hold my mother and baby sister when they found out that her husband and her father was killed in a house fire in McKinney, when the McKinney police department stood outside and held me down at gunpoint because we were too frustrated while her house was burning down and her husband was inside dying while we sat outside that house watching it burn. The McKinney Fire Department [had] cleared the home. Only four hours later for a chaplain to show up and say, ‘your husband of 17 years and father is dead.’ That’s my personal experience in McKinney with my mother.”
Shemwell’s fellow council members looked like they had grenades strapped to their foreheads again. Mayor Fuller claims it was the first time any of them had ever heard of the incident. None of the old news stories mentioned the police brutality that Shemwell claims he experienced at the hands of McKinney police officers. They were simple fire stories with quotes from officials and neighbors. It’s also not mentioned in any of the reports.
In fact, Shemwell isn’t mentioned, either, only his sisters and his mother. The only disturbance reported occurred about 45 minutes after first responders discovered Greer’s body. Down the street from the smoldering home, a fight had erupted between Greer’s family and the neighbors who had filed assault charges against Greer. Police reported that they had varying degrees of friendship with one another, also what’s known as a “complicated relationship.” They don’t mention pulling their guns. Instead, they wrote in the case supplemental report: “A disturbance between family of the residents of 1016, including Rolanda, and [assault victim] eventually broke out when [the assault victim] reportedly came out of her residence … and confronted the family, stating that she had filed a police report on Michael earlier in the evening. All parties were separated, with [the assault victim] being placed under arrest for Public Intoxication and was transported to [county jail].”
The mayor argues that Shemwell also never mentioned the incident on social media prior to becoming a council member, which Fuller says is unusual since Shemwell has been advocating against police brutality for several years.
Shortly after the July 7, 2016 mass shooting that left several white Dallas police officers dead, Shemwell was given a worldwide megaphone when the BBC interviewed him for a story about police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, which advocates black people arming themselves. Newton was one of the founders of the Black Panthers, and Shemwell was reportedly affiliated with his club. “My biggest threat is the police department,” Shemwell told the BBC reporter. “They are the biggest gang in our country. I can leave here right now and be pulled over for a traffic stop and never make it home to my family.”
That statement may explain his reaction when McKinney police pulled him over for speeding shortly after he took office. In the body cam video posted on YouTube, he was combative while the McKinney police officer was acting professional, explaining calmly why he pulled Shemwell over and why Shemwell would go to jail if he refused to sign the ticket. Shemwell claimed the McKinney police officer was racially profiling him because he wasn’t speeding.
His mugshot soon appeared on the evening news. Shemwell called it political retribution. The news went national, and The Next Generation Action Network rolled into town to support him and eventually showed up in front of Mayor Fuller’s house and shouted defamatory statements, terrorizing Fuller and his family.
McKinney police released the body cam video of the traffic stop, and it painted a far different picture than the one the 32-year-old Shemwell had created for news reporters. The McKinney police officer had acted calm and professional as he tried to explain why he stopped him. Shemwell later apologized for overreacting, but he says he never said the racial profiling didn’t happen.
A Mother’s Cry
Rolanda Greer was blazing with anger when she faced her son’s opponents in a small crowd of mostly Democrats at the Conversation with District 1 Council Member La’Shadion Shemwell, an event hosted by the Collin County Democratic Party. A small woman, fierce like a UFC fighter, Rolanda had taken the gloves off on this Thursday evening in early March at the public library in McKinney, and wasn’t pulling any punches. She was furious with other council members, the mayor, and voters who would dare question her son’s integrity, and has been appearing before the city council to speak out in her son’s defense since he made the Black State of Emergency proclamation.
Tonight wasn’t any different. Democratic officials were hosting the event to provide more insight into Shemwell’s recall election. In late February, they had held a conversation with Mayor Fuller. He wasn’t behind the recall petition, but he did sign it and support other council members who’d voted to recommend a change to the city charter which would extend the deadline to submit a recall petition to council from 30 to 45 days. They also sought to increase the voter percentage required to submit a recall petition from 25 percent to 30 percent of previous voters from the last municipal election, abolishing what was known as the “15 percent rule.”
Under the city charter, recall petitioners needed either 25 percent of people who voted in the previous municipal election or 15 percent of qualified voters (18 and up) in McKinney to sign it, whichever is greater. Since only 11,376 people voted when Shemwell was elected in 2017, the 15-percent rule required more than 15,000 signatures on the recall petition. With its removal, Shemwell’s opponents only needed about 3,200 signatures for a recall election. Shemwell argues that the recall shouldn’t be a citywide vote but one that only involved District 1 voters who elected him, not the rest of the city who had no say so in the matter. Mayor Fuller said since recall petitioners had obtained 600 signatures from Shemwell’s district, they would only need 300 signatures if they restricted it just to District 1 voters.
Shemwell’s opponents weren’t seeking to remove him only for the Black State of Emergency proclamation. He had also embarrassed the city, they say, when he claimed at a press conference that the McKinney police officer racially profiled him when he pulled him over in early May 2018. “This case is a self-promoted and self-created lie, a lie,” Mayor Fuller says. “And he tried to spin lies to gain coverage. Why? He is fame junky. He wants to be relevant, and wasn’t acting like a council member. By God, he created the incident!”
Recall petitioners didn’t start inquiring about Shemwell’s removal until Shemwell’s arrest in early December 2018 on a suspicion of continuous family violence charge, a third degree felony. He allegedly struck and backhanded the mother of his children several times over the course of the year, according to police reports. Shemwell denied the allegations in a Facebook post and called it “bullying tactics.”
When Shemwell found out about his fellow council members’ desire to change the city charter, he claimed that what happens in someone’s personal life doesn’t affect residents or the decisions he must make as a council member, a local newspaper reported in mid December 2018.
In May 2019, McKinney voters disagreed and approved the city charter amendment. A month later, the grand jury declined to indict him.
Shemwell’s opponents submitted a signed petition to city council in January, a few months after Shemwell made his Black State of Emergency proclamation. Shemwell filed a federal lawsuit in February to stop the recall election. Shemwell’s attorney Shayan Elahi told Community Impact News in early February, “Single-member districts were formed to protect rights of minorities so that they may be allowed to have their chosen representatives. Council Member Shemwell is suing the city of McKinney for ‘voter dilution’ under the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1973.”
At the conversation event in early March, Shemwell claimed it was costing McKinney taxpayers $70,000 for him to fight the city. He said he didn’t understand why his opponents wanted to waste money and time recalling him when his seat was up for grabs in May 2021. Many of the people sitting in the crowd seemed to agree. When his mother stood up to defend him, several more were nodding in agreement as she presented her claims, as if it were a shared claim they had all experienced at one point in their lives.
“They want to say that there’s nothing going on with the police, we don’t have a problem with the police,” said Rolanda. “I saw how my son was treated that day. For four hours, our house burned. And for four hours at the end of that block, I kept telling them that my husband is not answering the phone. My husband is not answering the phone. They told me three separate times that he was not in that house. They told me that we went in and we did a check. He is not in that house. Four hours later, they came up and told me, ‘We are sorry. We found your husband upstairs. He is deceased.’
“The issue of black men coming into contact with law enforcement and not making it to the jail cells to be tried by a judge and jury is real,” she added. “They die. They die. And it’s not right. It is not right that we don’t have the same interaction that other people have. It’s not right that one person makes the decision that they are judge, jury, and executioner to the children of somebody. That is my son. That [UNT student] that died in Denton was Pastor Tarver’s son. It’s not okay. It’s not okay.”
A Black Panther in a Shepherd’s Cloak
Gathered in a mostly empty room on a Tuesday afternoon in late March, Shemwell was practicing social distancing with other council members on a Tuesday afternoon in late March at a special city council meeting. They were discussing Collin County Judge Chris Hill who refused to close nonessential businesses as long as they were following Gov. Abbott’s executive orders and the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines. Mayor Fuller and several other Collin County mayors had urged Hill to follow in Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ footsteps and shut down everything but essential businesses like gas stations, grocery stores, and hospitals.
Instead Judge Hill claimed Collin County’s financial health was also essential to residents, many of whom were now having to file for unemployment after Gov. Abbott closed all in-dining and drinking at bars and restaurants.
Shemwell removed his gas mask to address the nine other people in the room. He’d recently dropped his federal lawsuit, he says, to focus on residents’ needs during the COVID-19 outbreak. “Although the intentions of Judge Hill were probably in the right place, I wholeheartedly disagree with the inaction that he took today, and I wholeheartedly believe that our health is our wealth,” Shemwell replied.
Other council members agreed that Hill’s shelter-in-place order was confusing. Some disagreed with Hill’s refusal to close nonessential businesses. But not all. Mayor Pro Tem Rainey Rogers was somewhat reluctant to do so. He seemed to represent the rural uprising, a small town movement demanding the right to work. Rural folk weren’t too keen on freezing an already struggling rural economy, especially with no confirmed cases in their small towns. McKinney only had two on this Tuesday afternoon, both men, ages 40 and 65. But only 125 people had been tested in Collin County, Fuller pointed out. So no one really knew how far it had spread yet. They still don’t.
“You know, I drive around McKinney, I went and got some seed on Saturday, went to the Home Depot, and I see what’s going on,” Rogers told council members. “All restaurants are closed, there’s very little traffic. You go to the stores, and the stores have somewhat a little bit more, but everybody is social distancing, or whatever you call it.”
“Physical,” the mayor replied.
“Physical distancing, so I see a very positive from what we’re trying to create. [But what if] my wife wants to go play tennis with three of her friends, are we going to say no to that? Are we going to say that a guy and his buddy can’t go golfing? Are we going to say… I mean, all of the sudden you start doing this nanny state stuff, trying to say ‘you can do this but you can’t do this.’ That’s the difficulty in the position that we have. I don’t want to get into the nitpicking of what you do and when you do it.
“I mean, I’m going to work. I have to go to work. People depend on what I do. I have staff working from home and that’s what we’ve chosen to do. I think so many people have made good positive decisions and helping the situation and for us to come in and lower the hammer on what? How are you going to enforce it? People say that they don’t care if companies go out of business. ‘They can restart.’ Well, that’s not always the case. If we’re going to say the cure is worse than the disease, then I think there is a problem. I have a problem with that.”
Fuller didn’t. He was determined to take action and close nonessential businesses for a week with a declaration he’d issue the next day. If what’s happening in New York City is any indication of where the DFW area could possibly be in the near future, it was a declaration he would likely need to extend.
“Listen, mayor, I think that when you take that leadership roll, when you make that first move,” Shemwell said, “that you can have a domino effect. I think we see that in Dallas County. You don’t have to have the consensus of everyone to make that first move.”
“Totally agree,” Fuller said. “… I’m here stating what I’m stating. I’m saying it loud and knowing that I will take great criticism, maybe here in the room, certainly from outside this room.”
“And we’ll stand back to back with you,” Shemwell said.
It was a rare moment of agreement. They had set aside their differences and focused on the community they had sworn to serve, not the black community, or a white one, but the whole community suffering from the devastating effects of COVID-19, a virus that crosses economic and racial boundaries, striking young and old alike.
An hour later, Shemwell’s fellow council members voted to move his recall election from early May to early November.