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Protesters were demanding justice in a northern New Jersey city after a plainclothes police officer killed a young Black man who a witness said was shot while he was holding his hands up.

Activists and family and friends of Thelonious “RaRa” McKnight, who died on Dec. 29 after an officer with the Paterson Police Department shot him, said the official law enforcement narrative surrounding the shooting is incorrect and described the killing as murder.

According to reports attributed to the New Jersey attorney general’s office and the mayor of Paterson, McKnight, 25, was armed with a gun before police shot him. However, the mayor and attorney general’s office differ on whether McKnight fired the alleged gun. Mayor Andre Sayegh said with certainty — but no proof — that McKnight shot a gun before being killed. But the New Jersey attorney general’s office would not confirm if McKnight fired a gun and has only said that a gun was found near McKnight’s body.

If the fact that the mayor and attorney general’s office are contradicting each other wasn’t enough to prompt scrutiny, the first-person account from an eyewitness and friend of McKnight’s definitely should.

Duke Snider was quoted as saying McKnight didn’t do anything that merited being shot.

“A cop car drove by and then came back and stopped,” Snider told the Bergen Record the day after the shooting. “One of the cops came up and went straight for Thelonius. Then two other cops joined him. They marched Thelonius toward the backyard and made him take his hands out of his pockets.”

The Bergen Record reported: “Snider said that he followed and that McKnight was facing police with his hands up when they shot him.”

Activists and local officials at a protest on Monday night said that McKnight did not have a gun when he was shot and that the police simply had homicide on their minds that fateful night.

“They were determined they were going to kill a [expletive] that night,” local school board member and city council candidate Corey Teague said during the protest.

“Thelonious McKnight was not a thug,” Joe Moore, of the Paterson Black Lives Matter group, told protesters. “Thelonious McKnight was not a gang member. Thelonious McKnight was a kid. He was a human being just like the rest of us.”

The officers involved were not wearing body cams, so it’s effectively their word against everybody else’s. The officer who shot McKnight was not immediately publicly identified. He was allegedly working as part of the city’s street crimes unit.

Mayor Andre Sayegh was also vilified, in particular, because of what protesters described as his rush to judgment that criminalized McKnight in death before all the facts were known.

“We need to get this mayor out of office and make sure he never opens his mouth about Black people again,” Zellie Thomas, another member of Black Lives Matter Paterson, said.

A website called Justice for RaRa that is devoted to McKnight’s cause invited people to report tips to help identify the officer involved, call the attorney general’s office, sign a petition demanding justice and/or make a donation to assist the grieving family.

McKnight’s older sister, Janet Rodriguez, started a GoFundMe account to help pay for his funeral.

“RaRa meant so much to so many people and Paterson’s finest took him away from us all,” Rodriguez wrote in part on the GoFundMe page. “I don’t know what to do. How am I supposed to fix this for him? What am I supposed to do for my baby brother?”

As of Wednesday evening, the GoFundMe had raised nearly $4,000 of its $7,000 goal.


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