‘Who gives you the right?’ Naomi Montaie speaks emotionally about the police beating she saw
Before Stephon Clark's fatal shooting by Sacramento police became an international story last month, Nandi Cain Jr. was punched repeatedly by a city cop for allegedly jaywalking on his way home from work in Del Paso Heights.
That egregious confrontation took place one year ago today at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Cypress Street, and was a prelude to the Clark case.
It has resulted in Cain being awarded $550,000 in damages that were approved by the Sacramento City Council last month.
Cain's case likely would not have drawn outrage from the public, or would have commanded a half million dollars, or a promise of police reforms, without a video of Cain's beat-down, captured by Naomi Montaie.
Despite being tackled and punched repeatedly when he may not even have been jaywalking, Cain at least has the satisfaction of gaining significant monetary considerations and policy concessions from the city. All Montaie has to show for her vital link to Cain's case is residual anguish that has haunted her for a year, a kind of post-traumatic stress she says she can't escape.
This is an example of what happens to people who witness cases of police brutality. The trauma is real.
"If you ask me if I'm OK today, I say I have to be OK because I have people in my life, but I'm not OK today," she said.
Montaie, 50, has been through a great deal in her life. She has survived uterine cancer, has a pacemaker after suffering congestive heart failure, was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and has been clean and sober for 20 years.
And, yet, she said she was so traumatized by witnessing Cain being punched repeatedly by Sacramento police Officer Anthony Figueroa, she moved from Del Paso Heights. That's where she grew up and lived almost all of her life. She now spends her days in a North Highlands apartment where she keeps the blinds drawn and the lights off, as if she is in hiding.
Her sense of community was ruptured on the afternoon of April 10, 2017. She and a friend and her children were driving home from a pedicure. Her fun excursion turned into an eyewitness account of the last high-profile case of police brutality before Clark was shot to death in his grandmother's backyard March 18.
She was sitting in the passenger seat of her friend's car, she said, and noticed Cain, 25, in a heated discussion with Figueroa. She said she called to Cain. She referred to him as "nephew," even though they are not related.
"I love kids and the kids in the neighborhood call me Big Auntie or Miss Naomi," she said. "(Cain) calls me 'Auntie.'"
Montaie said she realized something was wrong in mere moments. "I felt in my spirit that something was about to happen," she said. "And sure enough it did."
As The Bee's Anita Chabria reported last week, Cain and Figueroa had a verbal altercation before Figueroa threw Cain to the ground and repeatedly punched him in the face.
"That cop just kept hitting (Cain)," Montaie said. "He wouldn't stop hitting him. He just kept hitting him. (Cain) kept saying, 'What did I do? '"
"All that for jaywalking?" Montaie said. "Are you kidding me? That's absurd. Who does that?"
Montaie took video of the incident with her iPhone, even though its battery was almost drained. More officers arrived. One asked to see her phone, but she refused.
"What so you can take my phone?" she said. "I'm black but I'm not stupid."
Montaie said she went home and wept. She noticed her phone had run out of battery power, so she plugged it in and, once it was charged, uploaded her video to her Facebook page and called a local TV station to alert it about the video. "They got here just like that," she said. By then, she said her Facebook page was blowing up — as was her phone.
"All of a sudden, I had more friends than I ever have in my life," she said. The case generated national attention. Civil rights lawyer John Burris took Cain's case and filed a federal suit against the city.
But Montaie said no one was there for her. After the initial media interest in the Cain case, she felt cast adrift. Though her video was instrumental to Cain's case, she said she hasn't heard from Burris. She said her friend who had been with her said she feared police retribution. So did she. She said she relives the violence constantly.
"I didn't want to go outside," she said of living in Del Paso Heights.
Montaie said what hurt her most was the sheer callousness of what she saw. One moment she was a looking at a young man going home from work, and the next she was witnessing him being beaten by an authority figure. "My mind went blank, I felt hollow," she said. She said for a few moments, she was filled with rage. Her sense of faith was tested.
Now she views the one-year anniversary of the Cain case with dread. "I knew this day was coming but It came too soon," she said. She said she'll never move back to her the neighborhood. "I'm never moving back to Del Paso Heights," she said. "I had to move on."
She has pondered her feelings about the cop, how she would react if she spoke to him. "Am I going to hate him?" she asked. "Am going to forgive him? What should I do as a child of God?"
She said she would forgive him, tell him that Jesus loves him and so does she.
"But I would ask him," she said. "'Why?'"