On a recent Tuesday morning, Angela Naggie and her daughter Cadine Williams huddled with a dozen supporters outside San Francisco City Hall. Naggie was there to file a claim for damages against the city — the first legal step in the process of trying to hold San Francisco police accountable for the death of her son, O’Shaine Evans. Activists unfurled a banner in which “No Justice, No Peace” had been scrawled boldly in green, yellow, and black — the colors of Jamaica, the country from which Naggie and her children had emigrated in 1992. Protest chants reverberated off the Civic Center’s stone facade.
Leaving the small rally outside, the family and their lawyer, Jaime Gutierrez, passed through a security checkpoint and asked where they could turn in their damage claim form. A sheriff’s deputy directed them toward a room in the cavernous building’s far northwest corner.
Squeezing past brides and grooms who were waiting to complete their marriage licenses, Naggie and her group pressed up against a crowded counter. A clerk appeared from behind a cubicle looking confused. “You do not file claims here,” he said, directing the family up several flights of stairs to a different room.
Led by Gutierrez, the group searched the corridors, climbed a winding stair case, deciphered confusing building maps, and backtracked for a minute, before entering an office in the opposite corner from where they had started. Again, a clerk appeared with a surprised expression, arching her eyebrows. “You want 1390 Market Street, seventh floor.”
O’Shaine Evans’ family walked back down the long hall and descended another winding staircase, as if trying to escape a labyrinth. The morning’s quest was symbolic: representing the maze-like criminal justice system that can bedevil families who have lost loved ones to the bullet, baton, or the choke hold of a police officer.
Outside City Hall, under a light blue March sky, Naggie and Williams seemed unperturbed by the runaround. They set off for the next office with a slightly larger group of supporters in tow. At a street corner, an open-top tour bus rolled by. “San Francisco thinks it’s a liberal bastion!” a man holding a megaphone shouted at the curious visitors. “When they take tourists around town, they shouldn’t take you to the Golden Gate Bridge! They should show you where the SFPD kills Black and brown youth!”
Homeless people stood or sat along the sidewalks near the public library. Most of them are Black, Latino, and Native American. Many are elderly and disabled. Some nodded in recognition of the cause marching by. A Google bus with tinted windows rumbled past, heading for a freeway onramp.
At 1390 Market, Naggie, Williams, Gutierrez, and a few supporters packed into an elevator. On the seventh floor, in the San Francisco Controller’s Office, Gutierrez filed the claim for damages. Minutes later, they regrouped with their supporters and marched to 850 Bryant Street — San Francisco police headquarters — where they rallied. “Let’s go shut ’em down!” Williams yelled.
O’Shaine Evans, 26, was shot and killed by a San Francisco cop on October 7, 2014 while he sat in his mother’s car with two friends near AT&T park. The police accused Evans of being involved in an auto burglary, and say he brandished a pistol at an officer. Evans’ family rejects this account and suspects the police of covering up an unjust shooting. They’ve organized several vigils and rallies and built a website for their cause. Plus, they’ve done a whole lot more.
Since Evans’ death, his mother and sister have become tireless activists for police accountability, appearing at protests and speaking at events in Oakland, Stockton, Richmond, and beyond. They’ve shown support for other families seeking answers and challenging the police narrative of why their loved one died. And in the process, they’ve become part of a bigger family.
Since last October, Naggie and Williams have embraced — and have been embraced by — the mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and other relatives of people slain by the police. None of them chose this bond, but long before Ferguson, Missouri became a flashpoint of protest against police brutality, before the killing of Eric Garner galvanized a movement, before Baltimore erupted and #BlackLivesMatter became a call to arms, Bay Area families have been fighting back by building a network of those directly affected by police violence.
Cadine Williams remembers when she first saw the video of Oscar Grant being shot in the back by a BART police officer in 2009. She felt outraged. “I kept watching it and thinking, there’s no way they’re going to let this cop off.” She witnessed firsthand the rebellion in Oakland’s streets that eventually forced the criminal trial of then-BART cop Johannes Mehserle, but she didn’t join the marches. “I’ve always thought about how corrupt this world is,” Williams said on a recent afternoon outside her Oakland home. “But I wasn’t out there protesting anything. I was just living my life.” She wasn’t an activist. “You never think something like that could happen to you,” she reflected. “But then it did.”
On the morning of October 8 last year, Williams awoke to a missed call and message from her mother. The message was terrifying. “Cadine, the police killed your brother.”
Williams prayed it was a bad dream, or a mistake. O’Shaine was her baby brother. She remembers when he was born: When he came home from the hospital, he was small enough to hold in one hand. Although Williams has memories of her childhood in Jamaica, O’Shaine grew up mostly in the United States. In the Bay Area, the family settled in the Golden Gate neighborhood of North Oakland.
In the days after O’Shaine’s death, Williams and her mother felt lost and heartbroken. They mistrusted the police from the start, but didn’t know where they could turn. “We didn’t know anyone,” said Williams. “We were investigating what happened ourselves, but we had no idea really what we were doing.” One day, while handing out fliers about her brother, Williams ran into a stranger who gave her an invaluable clue — the name of a person: Mesha Irizarry.
In 2001, Irizarry’s son, Idriss Stelley, and Stelley’s girlfriend had gone to the movies at San Francisco’s Sony Metreon theater. Stelley, 23 years old at the time, was gregarious, but also suffered from mental-health issues, and suffered a breakdown in the theater. Witnesses said he brandished a knife and shouted warnings. The police responded, but not as if he were having a mental-health crisis. Rather, officers rushed in as if Stelley were in commission of a violent crime. Within moments, several SFPD officers shot and killed him.
From that day forward, Irizarry dedicated her life to challenging the police. She became a prominent advocate for mandatory mental-health training for officers. She also opposed numerous requests by SFPD to obtain new weapons, including Tasers. In her search for answers as to why the police had killed her son, Irizarry even enrolled in SFPD’s civilian police academy. When she signed up, the officer in charge initially rejected her, but she persisted, urgently wanting to study what she called the “internal police culture,” which she believes breeds indifference toward life, especially the lives of Blacks and immigrants. She made it through the academy, refusing only to take part in the firearms training. Her historical knowledge of Bay Area police agencies, especially of officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, is encyclopedic. But for all the ways she has poked and prodded the police over the years, Irizarry’s most lasting contribution to the movement against police violence has been reaching out to families when they’re first struck by tragedy.
“I call myself a grassroots matchmaker,” Irizarry said when I visited her last month at her apartment in San Francisco’s Bayview district. “We reach out to families when the police kill a loved one, and we plug them into resources,” she added, referring to herself, and to the Idriss Stelley Foundation, the organization she created after San Francisco paid her $500,000 to settle the wrongful death lawsuit she brought against the city.
The money didn’t last long. With every new killing, with each new family brought tragically into the movement, Irizarry spent funds to help them organize. For example, once Irizarry mailed $2,000 across the country to Juanita Young to help her pay rent and avoid eviction. Like Stelley, Juanita Young’s son, Malcolm Ferguson, was killed at age 23. He ran from a New York City police officer and was shot in the head in a Bronx apartment building stairway. Several days before, Ferguson had been arrested by NYPD during the tense protests against the acquittal of the officers who killed Amadou Diallo.
A few years ago, Irizarry lost her Bayview house to foreclosure. “I had put so much into that place,” she said. “I was going to give that house to my son, so he could raise his kids there.”
When I asked her why she didn’t use the settlement money to save her home, she replied, “I’m not going to use it on me. That’s blood money. We used it on court cases.”
For a while, the Idriss Stelley Foundation had an office in the Redstone Labor Temple building in San Francisco’s Mission District, but when the settlement money ran out, the foundation couldn’t pay the rent. Even now, without an endowment, the Idriss Stelley Foundation continues its work.
“We help family members contact their city councilmember or supervisor to get a meeting,” Irizarry explained. “We help families get a pro bono attorney. We educate them about the statutes of limitation and the steps they must take in order to hold the police legally accountable.”
Cadine Williams described Irizarry as being “heaven-sent.”
“She told us to keep fighting,” Williams said. “And it was really good for me to see my mother sitting with another mother, and just knowing that we’re not alone.”
Irizarry has reached out to hundreds of people, mainly mothers and fathers of those killed by police. “One of our first families we helped was the family of Julio Ayala,” she recalled. Ayala was arrested after a long struggle with several South San Francisco police officers on April 3, 2005. Ayala stopped breathing after the officers wrapped him in a restraint device similar to a straitjacket. According to Irizarry, Ayala’s family, who are immigrants from El Salvador, showed up at her house. “I saw people crying in front of the altar I had built in my yard,” Irizarry remembered. “They lived nearby. They said they always were too shy to say hello to me — that they appreciated my altar. They said, ‘Now it has happened to us.'”
Today, Irizarry spends a lot of time connecting with people over social media, especially on Facebook. She’ll sometimes moderate posts for hours, creating new groups and events, and corresponding with activists. The day police killed Evans, Irizarry created a Facebook page, “Justice for O’Shaine Evans,” and when Irizarry connected with Williams and Naggie, she invited them to her home, he helped them organize a candlelight vigil, and put them in contact with a lawyer. “Cadine calls me like two or three times a day now,” Irizarry said. “It’s not like a client-provider relationship. We’re like family.”
Irizarry is like a lot of the mothers and fathers who have become key activists in the movement against police brutality in that she’s not a bitter person. She has a wicked sense of humor, and conversations with her are playful and intellectual. Most of her organizing isn’t directed against police. Rather, she pursues a positive agenda of caring for communities most affected by poverty and structural violence. Irizarry carries a sadness with her, but hasn’t been destroyed by it. At the same time, she doesn’t try to hide her sorrow, or shy away from the violence that Black Americans like her son face.
“There is this saying you might hear if you talk to enough people in the movement,” Irizarry said. “It goes like this: ‘They thought they could bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.'”
Irizarry told me the story of Mary Turner, a 33-year-old Black woman who was lynched in 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia. Turner had spoken out against the lynch mob’s killing of her husband days before. For this transgression of naming the racist oppression that her people endured, Turner — despite being, or perhaps because she was eight months pregnant —was seized by the same lynch mob, hung upside down by her ankles, and set on fire. Then, while Turner writhed in pain and was nearing death, the white mob cut her unborn child from her womb. They let the infant fall to the ground, and then stomped it to death.
It’s a horrific, true story of terrorism against African Americans. Irizarry sees in it partly a metaphor and partly a literal story of the origins of the Black struggle to survive against all odds. To Irizarry, it represents a seed of a movement that, after abolishing slavery, resisted lynching and then toppled Jim Crow. Now that same movement, having come through lynch mob fire, is tweeting #BlackLivesMatter and tossing tear gas canisters back at National Guardsmen in Missouri and Maryland.
An activist is someone that stands up and fights for their beliefs,” Jeralynn Blueford said over lunch in downtown Oakland a few weeks ago. “But I don’t know if I really call myself an activist, because what I fight for isn’t just beliefs. I’m fighting for our children. This is about survival, so … I call myself ‘a momtivist,’ because I feel like what I’m doing is what any mom would do.”
Blueford is a kind, soft-spoken woman with a gentle smile and slightly sad eyes. She will probably carry that sorrow forever. Her son, eighteen-year-old Alan Blueford, was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer on May 6, 2012 after a foot chase. According to police, Alan was carrying a gun and had pointed it at the officer who shot him. The Blueford family has never believed the officer’s account, and the officer never activated his body camera. Alan’s death sparked a series of tense confrontations between the Blueford family and city officials and the police department. In the end, the officer’s actions were ruled justified, but the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the Bluefords.
One seed planted by this tragedy and defeat in the criminal justice system was Jeralynn Blueford’s activism. Today, she marches and organizes with other families and has her sights on national reforms to undo the rules that she believes provide impunity for the police when they unjustly maim and kill.
“I remember Alan talking to his dad about Oscar Grant, the injustice of this young man who had done nothing wrong,” Blueford recalled. “Fast forward three years later and it happens to me, to my son.”
The Blueford family was distraught and confused at first. But Cephus Johnson and Jack Bryson reached out to them. Johnson, who goes by Uncle Bobby, is Oscar Grant’s uncle. He took on a leadership role in the movement in 2009 and 2010 as Oakland was rocked by street rebellions while the district attorney, police, and city officials dawdled about whether to arrest and charge Mehserle. During the past five years, Uncle Bobby has continued to organize against police violence, and also Black-on-Black violence through the Love Not Blood campaign. Jack Bryson, the father of two of Oscar Grant’s friends who were with him the night he was shot, has also worked steadily to build the movement against police violence in Oakland. Jeralynn Blueford said their presence and advice were crucial in the weeks after police killed her son.
And then there was Mollie Costello, a nurse who quit her job to organize full-time with the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition. In December 2012, Costello secured a storefront on Telegraph Avenue, in the heart of Art Murmur, and she began programming speakers, music, and events during the popular First Friday street parties. The space includes a portrait of Alan in the window. For nearly a year, it featured “wanted” posters of the officer who pulled the trigger. Blueford and Costello have since become indivisible in their activism.
Jeralynn Blueford grew up in Oakland and always felt a sense of pride in being Black, and especially being a member of Oakland’s Black community. In 1984, when she was in high school, she helped stage a sit-down strike to protest a decision by Oakland school district officials to cut extra-curricular classes. It was an Oakland kind of response to something she felt was wrong. However, Blueford admitted that before Alan was killed, she focused on her family, church, and her immediate community. Like most people, she wasn’t campaigning for political causes. Today, Blueford travels the nation meeting the parents of other children slain by police. And she said that even though her family no longer lives in the city (they reside in Tracy), she always tells people she’s from Oakland because of the Town’s strong social movement history.
“This spring and summer are going to be busy,” said Blueford, who is trying to coordinate a trip to Washington, DC to lobby Congress on issues of police accountability. It will be her second trip to the nation’s capital in the past year. Last December, during a trip to DC, she joined Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed on his wedding day in 2006 by plainclothes New York police officers; Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, an eighteen-year-old who was killed in his home by NYPD; and Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant.
“We have an understanding with each other,” Blueford said of the mothers. “You sometimes think you’re in it alone, but when you talk to other mothers you realize there’s this bond we share, where we come together to fight.”
One of the more recent fights in which Blueford and other families took part was a protest that shut down Broadway in downtown Oakland for several hours. On February 3, Yuvette Henderson, a 38-year-old mother of two, was accused of shoplifting at Home Depot in Emeryville. Police say she pointed a pistol at security guards and fled on foot into West Oakland. Police say Henderson then attempted to carjack several vehicles. She was shot near a storage facility by several Emeryville cops who say she pointed her weapons at them. But police and the Home Depot store have refused to release surveillance tapes that recorded clips of the incident, including the shooting. The Oakland Police Department has been assigned the responsibility of investigating the shooting because it occurred in Oakland, but Costello and others don’t trust OPD to conduct an impartial investigation.
Costello and several other organizers affiliated with groups, including the Idriss Stelley Foundation, ANSWER, and a recently formed coalition called the Anti-Police Terror Project, convened a vigil on April 12 at the site where Henderson was killed. Then they rode in a caravan of 27 vehicles to OPD headquarters in downtown Oakland. A line of two-dozen Oakland cops closed Broadway a block from the police building. Exiting their vehicles, the coalition faced off against the police skirmish line.
Jeralynn Blueford, who had rendezvoused with the caravan in downtown Oakland, grabbed a megaphone and began shouting to the officers. “I implore you, as human beings, I don’t care what the law says, have a heart! Stop shooting us!” Blueford’s voice cracked as she attempted to tell Alan’s story, and the story of her family’s fight for answers. She broke down in tears and her shoulders sagged.
Someone nearby shouted, “We got you,” and a chorus of voices went “mmm-hmm!” in affirmation.
Yuvette Henderson’s sister Antoinette, buoyed by the show of support, especially from other families that have lost loved ones in altercations with the police, delivered a letter to an OPD captain that, among other things, demanded release of the tapes that filmed the shooting.
Like the officer who killed Blueford’s son, one of the Emeryville police officers who shot Henderson was wearing a body camera, but didn’t turn it on until after the killing. Blueford believes one small, but important police reform would be the mandatory use of body cameras by cops. The Oakland police now all wear body cameras, but many departments, including the Emeryville police, do not yet require them. Blueford wants every cop in America to have a body camera, and she wants strong penalties for officers who forget or refuse to turn them on.
“I want to take body cameras a step further,” Blueford said. “We need a law passed so that any cop who turns off their camera is fined or punished, and if an officer shoots or kills someone with their camera off, they need to go to jail.”
But Blueford’s work isn’t all street marches, confrontations, and fighting for police reforms. “We have to do things to focus on the happy memories, it can’t just be all about the bad stuff,” she said. “When Alan went to his prom, that was a very happy day, so we’ll donate prom dresses and tuxedos to Oakland students.” One of the beatific photos of Alan that has been painted on posters, printed on T-shirts, and posted thousands of times on social media since his death was taken on his prom night. A relaxed Alan, in a spotless snow-white tux, smiles at the camera. The sun, low in the sky, bathes a leafy suburban background in golden light. It’s a handsome portrait of a young man brimming with promise.
Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs bring pictures of their son, James Rivera, Jr., to every march and vigil they attend. But the pictures are not like the family photos that other parents show in public.
James Rivera, Jr. was killed by Stockton police officers on July 22, 2010. While driving a stolen minivan, he had crashed into a garage. Rivera was unarmed, but the police say he was revving the van’s engine and gearing it into reverse. Officers unleashed a volley of 48 rifle and pistol rounds, striking Rivera 19 times. Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs (who is Rivera’s stepfather) dispute much of the police officers’ account of how Rivera died. They say authorities desecrated his body and have never released records of the investigation. They say Rivera — who they admit was “no angel” — was made out to be a “monster” by the police and the media.
The photos of Rivera that his parents show the world were taken during his autopsy. The images are hard to look at. In one picture, Rivera is lying face down, stiff, one of his arms visibly broken and bent. His ebony skin is discolored and stretched like damaged vinyl. Dark puncture wounds in his back show where the bullets ripped through his internal organs. There is a massive bullet hole in the back of his head.
“The reason we do this,” Carey Downs told an audience at a recent forum on police violence, “is people don’t often really get a chance to see what these officers are out here doing to our kids, to our friends, to our mothers, our fathers.”
Along with Jeralynn Blueford, Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs also attended the recent vigil and caravan in memory of Yuvette Henderson. At the site of the vigil near the Emeryville-Oakland boarder, they unfurled a banner for their son. Bold red letters demanded: “STOP POLICE TERRORISM!!” As mourners continued to arrive, three Emeryville police officers cruised by slowly in an unmarked Crown Vic. Their blank expressions and wrap-around sunglasses hid their emotions. Strong gusts of wind blew over signs, flowers, and candles, but people picked up the offerings and rebuilt the makeshift altar.
“She took care of me,” said Yuvette Henderson’s younger brother Jamison, his eyes flooded with tears, at the vigil. “I’m gonna fight, if it’s the last thing I do, ’cause I don’t want this to happen to nobody in the future, to nobody’s kids.” Jamison’s voice trembled. He stepped back into the circle where arms reached out to comfort him.
Smith-Downs stepped forward. She’s done this more times than she can count, speaking at vigils for the dead, telling her son’s story. For Henderson’s vigil, she recalled the day her family took custody of Rivera’s body. The funeral home director told her not to look at the mangled corpse. She had him in an open casket anyway, and let her children see and touch their brother one last time. But she also recalled the horror of seeing her son lifeless. In the hospital where they had taken him immediately after the shooting, she was only allowed to peer at him through a small window. Smith-Downs began to break down in front of those gathered. Her own mother, who used to cook food for the protests that she and Carey Downs organized, and was a source of emotional and spiritual support for her, died in December. It was a major blow to Smith-Downs, and she briefly thought about stepping back from the movement.
These feelings suddenly welled up in her all at once. She cried out: “I don’t have nobody now!”
“You got us!” her husband shouted back.
Smith-Downs lifted up her head, a steely look in her eyes. “We need ya’ll. We need a plan,” she said in a tone beyond serious.
Smith-Downs and her husband already have a blueprint for how to attack the problem of police violence. “When we hear someone has been killed by the police,” Downs said in an interview, “the first thing is: What can we do to help them? A lot of families are confused and afraid, so we tell them our story. We make an effort to go and stand with them.”
They distribute booklets instructing people on their rights, and pamphlets on how to film the police safely. “The police are not to be feared,” Downs said. “They’re to be challenged.”
The couple has also become adept at communicating through social media and raising money on crowdfunding platforms to pay for food, transportation, signs, posters, and other protest materials. Unlike the environmental or civil liberties movements, the movement against police violence has no significant support from major foundations or wealthy people. Families spend their own money and solicit a few dollars here and there to pay for funerals and lawyers.
A big part of Smith-Downs and her husband’s strategy is to persevere and, as they say, “never let the story die.” On Smith-Downs’ car, they’ve pasted a giant sticker with the dates of Rivera’s birth and death. But they also put the names of the officers who killed their son on the vehicle. “We’re not going to ever forget this,” Downs said. “And so they’re not going to either.”
When Ferguson erupted in protest last year, Smith-Downs flew there and marched in the streets. “I went there the day after Mike Brown was killed,” she said. “You know that picture of the guy with the dreadlocks throwing the tear gas canister back at the police?” she said, referring to one of the iconic photos that have come to symbolize the Black Lives Matter movement. “I was right behind that guy.
“They had the spirit to protest, but not a lot of experience,” she continued, referring to the people in Ferguson. “We showed them how to use milk to flush their eyes of pepper spray, and how to protect themselves from teargas with a damp bandana.”
Smith-Downs learned those and other techniques of self-defense and first-aid from Sharena Thomas and Lesley Phillips of the Oakland People’s Community Medics. “I love Oakland because they always have supported me,” she said. “The only reason I know how to make things happen in Stockton is because I came out here to Oakland and learned.”
Smith-Downs credits Cephus Johnson, his partner Beatrice X Dale, activists such as Anita Wills, Sharena Thomas, and Mesha Irizarry, among many other people with deep ties to Oakland, with helping her make it through the pain, and for showing her how to fight back.
On April 14, she and her husband rented a bus and brought a few allies from Oakland to Stockton where they marched on the Sherwood Mall on Stockton’s north, more affluent side. “We didn’t stop business as usual, but we slowed it down,” she said.
Then they gathered in a park to share a meal together. “Every time we do a protest we do a community feed,” explained Carey Downs, referring to the practice of inviting anyone, especially the poor, the homeless, and the vulnerable to eat with them.
Denika Chatman also organizes community meals as part of her campaign against police violence. For several years now, she and a small but dedicated circle of friends have prepared sandwiches and passed out hygiene kits filled with toothbrushes, socks, vitamins, sanitary napkins, and other necessities to anyone who needs them in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood.
I met up with Chatman and half a dozen other activists on a recent Sunday at the corner of 3rd Street and Oakdale Avenue in Bayview. As they pulled supplies from the trunk of a car and set up folding tables facing a busy plaza, a young man from a nearby church arrived to unload bottles of water from a minivan. He gave Chatman a gift — a white orchid in full bloom — from a local pastor. About half an hour into the event, three SFPD officers in a patrol car rolled up and pulled into the small plaza across the street. The cops parked in the middle of a pedestrian walkway, and without exiting their vehicle, looked over the virtually all-Black group of men and women sitting on the benches and walking by on the sidewalk. This spot is the public epicenter of Bayview, San Francisco’s last neighborhood with a prominent Black presence. The city’s overall Black population plummeted by 20 percent between 2000 and 2013, as many African-American households were pushed out because of rising rents and home prices, relocating to cities like Vallejo, where Chatman now lives.
Chatman and her friends continued to pack paper bags with food and medicine, unruffled by the police eyes focused on them. Mesha Irizarry, who had shown up to help, gave Chatman a hug and took a bundle of brown paper bags and a black pen over to a makeshift table: the flat top of a garbage can. She wrote, “Rest in Power, Kenny” on each bag. Jeremy Miller, who works with Irizarry through the Idriss Stelley Foundation, began to hand out fliers for a Malcolm X Day event. At about 12:30 p.m., two-dozen tired and hungry people had gathered, waiting by the table and telling stories and jokes to each other. The police eventually drove away. Chatman had the group hold hands in a giant ring and say a prayer. Then they gave away the food and kits; first come, first served. The supplies run out in fifteen minutes, as children, the elderly, mothers, and young men crowded the table, hungry and thankful.
On July 16, 2011, Chatman’s son Kenneth Harding, Jr. was riding a MUNI train when several San Francisco police officers conducting fare checks chased him off. Police say Harding exchanged gunfire with them as he fled. He died at 3rd and Palou, about a block from the spot where Chatman now sets up her table of food and goods. Chatman was living in Seattle when police killed her son. Video of his death, showing Harding writhing on the ground, blood gushing from bullet wounds, circulated on the internet. What outraged many was the apparent lack of medical care or comfort offered to him in his dying moments.
“My life was good back then,” said Chatman, in an interview, referring to the year before she lost her son. “I felt like I had made it. You couldn’t have told me that this was going to knock at my door.” After Kenneth’s death, she flew to San Francisco and has since become another key member of the Bay Area’s movement against police violence. Oscar Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson reached out to her. “Right when I got here, they were standing there with their arms open,” said Chatman about Grant’s family. “They had been there by my side with my attorneys throughout my case.”
Today, it goes without saying that anytime someone is killed in the Bay Area by a police officer, someone will make contact with the family experiencing loss. Irizarry, Smith-Downs, or Uncle Bobby will share his or her story and offer counsel, or simply show up to a rally to connect one seemingly isolated fight to another. This is exactly what Cyndi Mitchell was doing on a recent Tuesday evening outside Richmond City Hall after she had driven across the Carquinez Strait from Vallejo to stand alongside the family of Richard “Pedie” Perez.
On September 14, 2014, a Richmond police officer shot and killed Perez at a convenience store near Perez’s house. Perez’s family believed there would be an impartial investigation, but as the process unfolded, they began to feel betrayed by police, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office, and Richmond’s elected officials. They said police and the media seemed more intent on portraying Perez as a dangerous man by digging up and magnifying every problem he ever had, rather than examining the facts of how he was killed.
“We stand in solidarity with the family of Pedie Perez because we know it’s heartbreaking — trying to wrap your mind around loss,” Mitchell told rally members as she stood on the steps of City Hall, where a council meeting was soon to begin. “Your loved one is criminalized. He’s not only killed in the flesh, his character is assassinated and the police get pats on the back like they’ve done something great.”
Mitchell’s brother Mario Romero was dragged through a similar post-mortem process. In the early morning hours of September 2, 2012, Romero was sitting in his parked car with a friend outside his house in Vallejo when two police officers drove up and shined their headlights directly into his car. According to police accounts, Romero stepped out of his vehicle as the two officers approached on foot. One of the cops said a gun was visible in Romero’s waistband. Both officers fired a volley of shots at Romero who fell back into his vehicle while his friend Joseph Johnson sat in the passenger seat, stunned and with his hands up. Romero, wounded and moving his arms, was again shot by both officers, because, they said in statements after the incident, they couldn’t see his hands. The officers then fired a third round of bullets into his dying body, after which Romero ceased moving.
Romero’s family believes that the police planted a model gun, the type used in police training, in Romero’s car after the shooting in order to justify their assertion that he had reached for a weapon. One of the officers who killed Romero did, in fact, handle the fake gun without gloves. In the aftermath of the shooting, Cyndi Mitchell and her family protested outside the police headquarters and at City Hall, making good on the slogan “no justice, no peace,” by shutting down several council meetings. But, ultimately, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office deemed the killing of Romero an act of self-defense. That, however, was only the beginning for Mitchell.
“I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep since it happened,” she said in an interview. “So I stay up late, and I see other people on the web who are up, too, and I in-box them.” This is how a lot of Mitchell’s conversations with the siblings and parents of others killed by the police begin — late at night on Facebook as each person begins to feel alone and heartbroken. Mitchell writes poems about the dead, about people she’s never met, but feels connected to in order to give words to the pain she shares with other families.
“I put the names of people killed in a poem, and I send them to their family members,” she said. “On their birthdays, I do photo slideshows and send them to their parents, just to let them know that I’m thinking about them and their loved one. The important thing is to show solidarity — that somebody cares and understands their struggle and will stand with them.”
Showing up in person is perhaps the most important thing. Mitchell went to Manteca in February 2013 to join the family of Ernest Duenez, Jr., who was killed by a police officer in June 2011. They shut down the city’s main police station for an hour by blocking its entrance, and then marched through the streets to a nearby park where they shared food and stories about Duenez. Mitchell also went to Sonoma County after a sheriff’s deputy killed fourteen-year-old Andy Lopez in October 2013. She sat beside members of the Santa Rosa Latino community during meetings of the county supervisors. And she traveled to Oxnard with Uncle Bobby, Rosemary Duenez, and a few other Bay Area organizers in 2013 to meet with Southern California families from Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Mitchell also likes the idea of requiring all cops to wear body cameras. She thinks Blueford’s demand that cops who forget or refuse to activate the devices be punished, will be necessary to ensure the cameras are rolling. But Mitchell’s main priorities are ongoing mandatory drug testing and psychological evaluations for police officers. She believes the officers who killed her brother were either high or psychologically disturbed, and shouldn’t be trusted with the powers afforded to the police.
Mitchell also agrees with other activists about the need to use tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience to stop business as usual in order to force the wider public and elected officials to confront the reality of frayed police-community relations. “I think we’ve seen progress,” said Mitchell, referring to the unruly demonstrations that have roiled cities across the nation since Mike Brown was shot last year in Ferguson and the Staten Island Grand Jury declined to charge the NYPD officers who strangled Eric Garner. “It’s sad that it had to come down to cities being on fire for people to recognize that this deserves a second look,” she said, pointing most recently to the uprising in Baltimore. “It’s time for people to really buckle down and continue to fight.”
“There were precedents of fighting back,” Irizarry said, reflecting on the movement’s pre-Ferguson trajectory. “Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Oscar Grant.” Irizarry said one thing that’s encouraging about the Black Lives Matter movement is the leadership role of women and young people in it.
“We still don’t have enough demonstrations,” said Cadine Williams. “We should be marching every day, shutting stuff down.”
Blueford agrees and hopes to see the movement make deeper connections. “It’s important for people in places like Ferguson to see us support them and stand in solidarity with what they’re doing there,” she said of recent solidarity demonstrations in the Bay Area. “We have to connect up what we’re doing.”
Smith-Downs said the recent indictment of six officers in Baltimore for killing Freddie Gray is progress thanks only to the power of the movement to disrupt business as usual. “But they’re only arresting a few rookie cops,” she said. “We need to move for more than just an arrest. We have to change the whole system, educate people so they know that there’s injustice in the courts, how they pick the juries, who investigates.”
Whatever happens next, where the new spark comes from, is anyone’s guess. But Irizarry has another bit of folk wisdom to put the process of tragedy, conflict, and social change in perspective. “There’s this word. Sankofa. You’ve probably heard it before,” she said. “It’s from an African language. It’s pictured as a bird looking back over his shoulder at the past to learn from it.” Irizarry thinks the movement against police violence has had many small victories, but that people have also stumbled and made plenty of mistakes. And, of course, the tragedy of lives lost is bad enough. But for Irizarry, the bird looking back symbolizes the will to learn from the past and have hope for the future. “There is victory in defeat,” she said. “You can look back and see what went wrong.”