Small step toward Justice for Joshua

On Oct. 13, 2021, Gastonia City Police responding to a call of reported panhandling, approached Joshua Rohner, a homeless veteran struggling with PTSD. What happened during that encounter is under dispute. What is known for certain is that the police tased Sunshine, Joshua’s registered service dog, and arrested Joshua. They separated him from Sunshine, who was killed by a car while Joshua was still in custody. When Joshua got out, he wanted only to find Sunshine, and put whatever energy he had left into doing so. When he learned she'd been killed, he attempted to take his own life.  

Since the incident, Joshua has been trying to get the police bodycam footage released. A superior court judge initially denied a request, but on July 27 another judge ordered its release.

"The Libertarian Party of North Carolina is pleased that the City of Gastonia has finally released the body camera footage from the October 13, 2021, arrest of homeless Iraq war veteran Joshua Rohrer," said Joe Garcia, party chair. "This most basic level of transparency will allow public scrutiny to hold the police accountable for their treatment of the most defenseless among us. We look forward to supporting Joshua in whatever action he chooses to take next."

"While we applaud the release of the body camera footage as a positive step, we are painfully cognizant of the fact that the release of these videos required nearly 10 months of public pressure and legal wrangling," Garcia added. "We will continue to push for police accountability and broader criminal justice reform, and we look forward to working with all liberty-minded people in our relentless defense of basic human rights.  

Continue reading for background on the incident and the months-long effort to obtain justice for Joshua.

A cause worth the fight, and hope for the future

by Rob Yates

In this “America – The Reality Show” season, we learned that when the United States is thrown collectively into an existential crisis, we the people respond by essentially throwing a national temper tantrum. We are somehow surprised repeatedly as promised *solutions* collapse under the weight of their own clumsy administration. Yet we continue to crawl back to the politicians who promise everything and deliver only greater division. 

While the violation of our liberties comes from elected officials and the machine that drives them, we are just as guilty of joining in the charade. The adolescent cacophony of public pearl-clutching that we call political discourse serves as camouflage for politicians to drive successful ballot box returns while we keep yelling at each other more loudly. “Democrat” and “Republican” are two words that mean nothing more than the blue or the red side of the same highly-devalued coin. 

Polling everywhere shows that the only thing about which most people agree is that the country is going in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, we continue to fortify ourselves more deeply into the algorithmically-enhanced bunker of our “blame each other and hope for a savior” paradigm that helps the people in power with no regard to the consequences for the rest of us. Given this rigid dedication to a broken system, optimism seems foolhardy. 

I’m not so naïve as to pimp optimism, but last week I saw something that gave me real hope, if tiny, that there is a practical way to eliminate the influence of politicians and the interests of their massive donors and begin to re-establish some trust in each other again. I am writing this to share the story of Joshua Rohrer and his battle with the City of Gastonia, North Carolina, in hopes that more people will rally around a cause that defies political narratives and runs deeper than party affiliation.

Joshua’s story

On Tuesday, July 19, I attended the Gastonia City Council meeting with the North Carolina Libertarian party’s 5th Rally for Justice and Compassion. I am a late joiner; Libertarians here have been part of a broader fight for justice since October 13, 2021, when Joshua Rohrer, a homeless veteran who struggles with PTSD, was arrested. Police were responding to a call to report panhandling when they approached Joshua. 

What happened during that encounter is under dispute. What is known for certain is that the police tased Sunshine, Joshua’s registered service dog, and arrested Joshua. They separated him from Sunshine, who was killed by a car while Joshua was still in custody. When Joshua got out, he wanted only to find Sunshine, and put whatever energy he had left into doing so. Upon learning she had been killed, he attempted to take his own life.  

MSN News: Gastonia police respond after homeless veteran’s service dog found dead following his arrest

Joshua claims serious lies, abuse, harassment, and cruelty by the police during the encounter. Bystander accounts support his claims, and the witnesses allege threats and intimidation tactics by the officers. The police dispute his account, and one of them says Sunshine bit him. Much has been written on this already, so I won’t go into more detail here. A remedy for the dispute is available, via the body camera footage from the officers involved. Unfortunately, in North Carolina body cam footage requires a court order, and a judge denied the petition for release.

While the city council lacks the authority to release the footage, they are not without levers. Yet the situation has remained for months in a state of contested stasis. Led by doggedly persistent people seeking justice, the pushback has continued, leading to charges against Joshua finally being dropped, and putting us at the fifth consecutive protest at the monthly city council meeting. 

Turnout was good, and spirits were high, even as we braced for bad news. We were bolstered by a report from Joshua’s attorney, who was able to view the footage and gave a chilling description of what he saw, describing police behavior even more heinous than Joshua originally claimed. As we entered that council meeting room, the whole thing was fluid and strangely powerful with this disparate group coming together in pursuit of justice for the sake of justice, knowing deep down that history suggests our outcome was uncertain at best.

Video - WCNC interviews Joshua: Gastonia homeless veteran describes bodycam video of his arrest

The council moved through the meeting agenda until the open floor item, when several of us who had signed up to speak took the podium, each reading from the petition to release the footage, filed a few days earlier, for the allotted three minutes, with the next person picking up where the last one left off. The speakers were poised, the transitions were smooth, and the words were poignant, if difficult to hear.

The emotional gut punch, and the spark that never caught…

Then Joshua’s turn came to read. Tall, with long red hair, scattered arm tattoos, and a yellow shirt that covered his slender frame, he led his new service dog (a Belgian Malinois appropriately named Justice) to the podium and began to read his section of the petition. He made it through roughly 20 seconds when he got to the part of the story where he recaps begging the arresting officers for his dog’s life. He struggled, valiantly and ultimately in futility, to read from the petition the play-by-play of the video footage describing himself in a desperate ball on the ground pleading for the life of the only creature who showed him unconditional love. Bursting into tears, he sobbed at the podium, uncontrollably, for a brief but intense 15 seconds.

Resolute, Joshua pulled himself together to continue reading for another two-and-a-half-ish minute, until the chair announced that his time was up. Before Joshua could finish saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” Thomas Hill, a sympathetic attendee, bellowed, “You let him finish!” Mr. Hill told Josh, “You finish reading. You deserve to finish reading.” And Joshua paused for a breath and then continued reading.

The next few moments were surreal. Time felt suspended, as each action and reaction was a foray deeper into unpredictability. I have watched the video several times since, and I can’t believe how fast it all actually went down. 

Joshua continued reading, and we all stood up. The chair was banging his gavel, and people were calling for order. Someone on the council asked for the police chief to help restore order, ostensibly by having Joshua physically removed from the podium. The chief, from his chair in the back, looked up with wide eyes that screamed he had absolutely not considered the possibility that he would have to initiate a physical encounter between Joshua and the police at that meeting. Then, slowly, the chief’s shoulders drooped, he lowered his head and sighed, and then he looked to two cops by the door and nodded. 

As the cops took maybe three steps toward Joshua at the podium, the tension peaked like a rubber band stretched to its limits. I don’t know if anyone would’ve intervened physically. I do know that, had one person done so, that place would’ve exploded. We didn’t have to test it. Joshua finished his section, said thank you, and went back to his seat. The place erupted in applause, and the cops went back to the door. 

Video - Libertarian speakers at the meeting: Justice For Joshua and Sunshine - 7/19/22

In the end, several council members, while acknowledging they might not be able to effect change immediately, expressed sympathy to Joshua for what he experienced, Several requested to view the body cam footage. One of the council members even told Joshua, nine months late, but far better than never, he was sorry for what happened to him.

We have so much left to do

Our fight is from the ground up, refusing to accept injustice or tyranny, ever, one local issue at a time. To succeed, ultimately, we need to put aside unconditional fealty to party and ignore snap judgments molded by all our favorite words like “woke” and “white supremacist,” which ultimately serve to further division. Instead, if someone stands next to me in fighting for justice in Joshua’s case, then we are on the same side at that moment, unconditionally. We can figure out sorting through differences later, when it works for us and not at the whim of the dark money donors to the national political action committees. 

The only true consensus in our country is that the current situation must change. So change. Change everything. Change yourself, your outlook, your assumptions, and then change the world, one little piece at a time. As they say, though, think globally, act locally. Those things we are willing to accept in our own backyard become the things we accept everywhere. I can’t tell you that justice for Joshua will lead to systemic reform, but I can promise you that there is no justice anywhere if there is none here. 

I got to meet Joshua, and I saw a person broken by the commitment he made to this country to defend freedom. Instead of the hero’s welcome our combat veterans deserve, Joshua has received a message very clearly that his usefulness is passed, and he is no longer worth any effort. We refuse to accept that message. Basic human decency is always worth the fight.

And this fight is moving forward. Since the city council meeting, there have been several developments. The police filed for the release of specific and limited body camera footage from the arrest, as well as certain footage from October 9, four days earlier. Then, on July 27, a judge ordered all body camera footage to be released. This is a positive step for transparency and accountability, but a small step, and one that shouldn’t have required 10 months of protest and legal wrangling. 

If you are in North Carolina, follow the story, join us next time, and get other people involved as well. And if you are somewhere else, find your own issue, refuse to accept tyranny and injustice, and let the world know. We hold the power, and we can take it back. Instead of yelling at each other about those things we refused to fix, we have a chance to be a part of the solution, one human being at a time.

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