Who has felt the pain of police killings more acutely, more intimately than the mothers of the victims of police violence? Armed with their pain and a will to change the system, some of these mothers met in Washington earlier this month to find ways to work together.
Phaedra Parks, left, comforts Desuirea Harris, the grandmother of Michael Brown, during a news conference Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Jennings, Mo. Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed in a confrontation with police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo, on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (AP/Jeff Roberson)
WASHINGTON — On Dec. 9, a group of black mothers who have lost children to police violence gathered at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Washington to share their stories, discuss their individual efforts to fight oppressive environments in their cities and towns, and find ways to band together to demand justice for victims of police violence across the country.
The women came from all over the U.S. They included Valerie Bell, mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by a team of plainclothes and undercover New York Police Department officers in 2006; Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by an Oakland, California, police officer in 2009; and Collette Flanagan, mother of Clinton Allen, 25, who was unarmed and shot seven times by police in Dallas, Texas, in 2013.
The event, “Voices Of Grief And Struggle: Mothers Demand Police Accountability,” was organized by Mothers Against Police Brutality, CODEPINK, the National Congress of Black Women, and the Hands Up Coalition DC.
Widespread violence by systems of authority against people of color in the U.S., particularly young black males, has come to the forefront in recent years because of the outrage expressed by citizens over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
The United Nations has expressed “legitimate concerns” over the decisions not to have trials for the killers of Brown and Garner. Mutuma Ruteere, U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, explained that evidence continues to surface of discrimination by U.S. police against black Americans.
“There are numerous complaints stating that African Americans are disproportionally affected by such practices of racial profiling and the use of disproportionate and often lethal force,” Ruteere said. “African-Americans are 10 times more likely to be pulled over by police officers for minor traffic offences than white persons. Such practices must be eradicated.”
In November, the U.N. Committee Against Torture also expressed concern over police violence targeting black and Latino youth in Chicago. In the committee’s report, part of a regular review of the United States’ compliance with the U.N. Convention Against Torture, it states:
“The Committee is particularly concerned at the reported current police violence in Chicago, especially against African American and Latino young people who are allegedly being consistently profiled, harassed and subjected to excessive force by Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers. It also expresses its deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals. In this regard, the Committee notes the alleged difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses.”
In November, the Malcolm X Grassroots Committee updated “Operation Ghetto Storm,” a 2012 report that exposed that “every 28 hours someone inside the United States, employed or protected by the U.S. government kills a Black child, woman or man.” The report concludes that there is a continual assault on black communities similar to American imperial initiatives abroad, which aim to occupy and subdue communities.
The mothers speak
Patterns of extrajudicial killings of black youth started long before the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, said Verna Avery Brown, a facilitator of this month’s forum and the host of “What’s At Stake,” a radio program on Washington’s WPFW.
She reminded the audience, which included many activists and organizers, about Amadou Diallo, 23, who was killed by plainclothes NYPD police officers in February 1999; Orlando Barlow, who was shot and killed with an assault rifle by police while on his knees in Las Vegas in 2003; Timothy Stansbury, 19, who was unarmed when he was killed by the NYPD in 2004; Victor Steen, who was unarmed when police used a Taser on him and he was run over with a police car in Pensacola, Florida, in 2009; Kendrec McDade, 19, who was unarmed when he was shot by police in Pasadena, California, in 2012; Ervin Jefferson, 18, who was trying to protect his sister from a crowd when he was shot and killed by two private security guards in Atlanta in 2012; and Tamir Rice, 12, who was shot to death while playing with a fake gun in a Cleveland park in November.
Brown said that these killings are “just the tip of the iceberg,” adding: “As a journalist I’ve noticed a pattern of people who don’t believe it’s racism.”
After explaining that mainstream media has not connected the dots, and police refuse to keep records, she posed a question to the audience: “If it’s not racism, where are the stories every other day of unarmed white people being shot down by police?
Collette Flanagan was the first mother to speak at the event. Her son, Clinton Allen, was killed in March of last year in Dallas. The killer, Clark Staller, of the Dallas Police Department, is currently on administrative leave.
Flanagan said the system will not indict police officers no matter how egregious a violation is. This has become even more apparent in killings that have been filmed, such as Eric Garner’s.
“The system isn’t broken, it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do. What we’re experiencing now is just lynching repackaged!” Flanagan said.
Mothers of victims of police killings pose outside of the White House following a refusal by Obama to meet with them. (Photo: Code Pink)
Flanagan co-founded Mothers Against Police Brutality, an organization which aims to unify mothers and families from around the country that have suffered injustice at the hands of local police. Specifically, the organization is lobbying to force law enforcement to submit to random drug testing, have officers involved in police shootings submit to blood tests within one hour of a shooting, and wear body cameras. The organization is also pushing for district attorneys to include police officers’ job performance histories in investigations and trials when officers are charged with killing an unarmed citizen, and report the their findings to the FBI.
She explained that part of the problem with police violence also lies in a public that is enchanted by having a first black district attorney or president of the U.S. Yet when she lost her son, she said she realized that nobody was there to help. In response, she organized people in Dallas this year to unseat and vote out of office Craig Watkins. As the state’s first black district attorney, Watkins presided over the cases 44 black and brown people who were killed by police officers that were never indicted.
She said that it is up to mothers across the country and people of conscience to unseat district attorneys who fail to bring police officers to justice.
“Their badges and guns belong to us, and if they want to keep them, they better learn how to play by our rules!” she exclaimed.
Another mother who spoke at the gathering was Dorothy Copp Elliott. Her son, Archie Elliott III, 24, was shot and killed by police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, while sitting handcuffed inside a police vehicle in 1994.
Elliott told the audience that while there are demands for police officers to start wearing body cameras, it doesn’t matter if there is documentation of what happened. She said that the “closeness of prosecutors with police officers needs to change.”
The first step to making this a reality, she explained, is demanding that police serve time in jail. This means that citizens across the country need to unite, demand justice, and continue to protest. She also said that elected officials like district attorneys who do not indict officers need to be voted out of office.
Darlene Cain, a mother from Baltimore and president and founder of Mothers on the Move, described the horrifying situation she encountered when she came home one day after dropping her grandchildren off from school in 2008. She said that men in trench coats came to her home and waved the driver’s license of her son, Dale Graham, 29, in front of her face. When she asked why they had her son’s license, the men said that she had just identified her son. They then explained that he had been killed by police and she could pick him up from the morgue in four hours.
Graham was unarmed at the time of the shooting, according to Cain. He is survived by two children, who are currently 10 and 13 years old.
“What is justice?”
Mariane Hopkins, mother of Gary Hopkins, 19, who was shot and killed by Prince George’s County police in 1999, did get an indictment of the officer who killed her son. Brian C. Catlett was the first police officer in the history of the county to be indicted for killing somebody while in uniform. He was ultimately found not guilty in the death of Gary Hopkins.
Wanda Johnson is the mother of Oscar Grant, 22, whose death at a subway station in Oakland, California, in 2008, inspired the award-winning 2013 film “Fruitvale Station.” She asked those at the forum: “What is justice?”
She spoke about her experiences seeking justice for her son. After Grant’s death, Johnson said, it was the “first time in California history, the officer was charged, at first with 2nd degree murder, and the jury found and convicted him of involuntary manslaughter with a gun enhancement charge, which would have given him an additional 10 years.”
Yet the story doesn’t stop there.
“The judge said, ‘Oh, I made a mistake by giving instructions to the jury. So I’m gonna throw out the gun enhancement charge… and I’m gonna also give the officer time-served for being a good officer… while he was incarcerated in county jail,’ and the judge winded up giving him 11 months in county jail for the killing of my son,” Johnson explained.
With convictions like that, which do not seem to serve justice, people need to push harder to demand real justice, Johnson urged.
“The only way we can do this is when the economy feels what we feel,” she said. “Make sure that when we’re protesting that the nation can feel it!”
Family members of Emmett Till also attended the gathering. Till was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1995 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was 14.
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, a cousin of Till, recently wrote an op-ed for the GlobalGrind linking Till’s murder with the deaths of black Americans across the country since.
She wrote that there is “a steady beat of judicial injustice that plagues the black community almost sixty years after Emmett Till’s murder, not just in Mississippi, but the entire United States justice system remains upturned as a continuum of ‘not guilty’ verdicts are rendered when white people murder blacks.”
“Officer Darren Wilson,” she continued, “joins the ranks with Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam [Till’s killers], George Zimmerman [Trayvon Martin’s killer] and countless other unpunished guilty murderers acquitted for gunning down black youth…black boys.”