D.C.: Hundreds of Families Demand Justice for Loved Ones Killed by Police
This article was first published on September 2, and was updated on September 17, 2021 (see correction at the end).
By Francisco Picado and Argiris Malapanis
WASHINGTON, D.C., September 2, 2021—More than 500 relatives of victims slain by the police across the United States, and their supporters, participated in a powerful testimonial rally here on August 28 demanding that authorities “prosecute police who brutalize and/or kill” and “reopen and re-investigate all cases that allege police violence,” as a press release for the action stated. Members of families impacted by cop violence called for an end to what many described as the “ongoing scourge” of police brutality. The most compelling deterrent to such violence is to prosecute the cops responsible and put them behind bars, they emphasized.
“The impacted families and their supporters want immediate action from politicians and government officials with the power to enact or promote these measures,” the press release stated.
The action registered the most important leadership development to emerge from the mass protests against police brutality that erupted last year after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The voices of these impacted families sounded loud and clear at the nation’s capital, even though the big-business media ignored them. (One Boston TV station recorded the entire rally and covered the march.) The bonds developed among members of these families, and between them and their supporters, while building this protest and at the action itself, are invaluable for pushing the struggle forward.
The conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on two charges of murder and one of manslaughter in the George Floyd case was a victory in this fight and a result of last year’s mass mobilizations. But from the Biden White House on down, politicians and police agencies have cited Chauvin’s conviction as evidence that the justice system “works.” In fact, it’s the exception that proves the rule. And the rule—pointed to so clearly by the experience of hundreds of impacted family members here in D.C.—is that there is no justice or real accountability when police kill. Few police officers are ever indicted or brought to trial, and even fewer are convicted. Thus the scourge continues. Faced with this reality, the protest here was both unique and particularly important.
One of the most impactful features of the action was a photo installation of those killed by the police. Three hundred images, each placed on an empty seat—memorializing the lives of those who should still be with us today—became a centerpiece of the action throughout the day. All 300 families represented by these photos endorsed the action and about 200 of them, including some 450 individual family members, came to Washington. Scores of people walked through the rows of chairs photographing and videotaping the images of the departed, mostly young people. Impacted family members took photos of each other next to the portraits of their loved ones. Many shared them in social media posts.
After the rally, family members sat on the chairs and held up the pictures of their loved ones, while many cameras captured the moment.
“The art installation and National March on Washington hope to inspire and encourage new participation in local and national efforts everywhere to help families achieve their demands,” said the announcement organizers released to the media on August 27.
The rally was planned to coincide with the 58th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of 250,000 assembled at the Lincoln Memorial. The August 28 action took place at the Washington Monument, less than a mile from the White House. Despite an unmerciful heat that required constant hydration, people listened attentively for hours to nearly 100 speakers each telling their stories of how police stole the lives of their sons, daughters, other relatives or friends. The protest concluded with a spirited march to the U.S. Department of Justice that afternoon.
Working people of all skin colors participate
The well-organized and disciplined rally was overwhelmingly working class in composition, spanning several generations of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and people of all skin colors. A noticeable number of immigrant workers participated as impacted families and supporters as well. Organizers provided water, event marshals, legal observers, and volunteer medics throughout the day.
T-shirts with pictures of loved ones killed by the police or other images of the struggle against police violence dotted the crowd. Dozens of placards, banners, and flags added to the heart-wrenching stories. Some were hand-painted by a relative or reproduced a drawing by a loved one who was killed. Several impacted family members verbalized their tragedy and struggle using their art, including reciting original poems they have written.
More than 515 members of impacted families from across the country endorsed the action and hundreds of them were present here to participate. They came from “44 states and the District of Columbia,” Brock Satter of Mass Action Against Police Brutality in Boston, one of the organizers, announced at the end of the action. Impacted families and their supporters raised thousands of dollars to help cover the costs of travel and pay for event expenses.
This magnificent action provided a remarkable opportunity for these working-class families to tell their stories, get to know and listen to each other, and express solidarity with each other’s struggle. Some participated in a protest or spoke publicly for the first time, along with others who have been fighting for justice for many years.
Tahia Bell-Sykes from Boston and Adrienne Hood from Columbus, Ohio, both of whom have lost loved ones to police violence, with Karla White Carey of Ohio Families Unite Against Police Brutality and Brian Taylor of the Anti-Police Brutality Coalition in Cincinnati, Ohio, took turns chairing the three-hour-long rally.
Each speaker told their story very briefly to allow every family the chance to speak. Many ended their remarks by asking the crowd to “Say their names.” Those gathered around the stage responded every single time by shouting the name of the loved one, in a forceful reassurance that impacted families and their supporters will not forget those killed or let authorities sweep any case under the rug. Grief, but above all anger and determination to pursue the struggle for justice, reverberated through the speeches and the response.
In planning the action, organizers made a decision to offer every family a chance to videotape their story. This work was bolstered by a crew from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, organized by Dr. Paul Ortiz, the project’s director, and Deborah Hendrix, a program coordinator. Family members had a chance to go to a nearby canopy where an interview was filmed about each case. The videos will be produced and added to the Proctor Project’s digital archive, specifically for impacted families, and will be available for scholars, journalists and the public. This will provide an invaluable resource in the struggle for justice.
‘We won’t give up ’till we get justice!’
The parents of 34-year-old Alex Flores were the first to address the rally. Speaking in Spanish, Mr. Flores told the crowd that Los Angeles police killed his son on November 19, 2019, despite knowing he was going through a mental health crisis. “They claimed that Alex attacked the cops, but our video shows the contrary,” he stated. “We will not give up until we get justice!”
Amanda Flores, Alex’s sister, told World-Outlook her brother had been struggling with mental illness. She had noticed him acting paranoid three days before the shooting. Video of the fatal incident showed her brother was pointing a knife at himself, not the officers, and he was far away from the police when they shot him, she said. “They should have approached him differently,” she stated. “Clearly this was a racist murder.”
Police should face the same consequences as anyone else committing a crime, Bernice Roundtree, told the rally. She is the adoptive mother of 18-year-old Charles Roundtree who was shot and killed on October 17, 2018, at a friend’s house by San Antonio, Texas, police officer Steve Casanova. The cop claimed to be investigating a crime. “If I had shot [the police], I would be in the electric chair right now,” she said. But “as long as his brothers and sisters and I are here, we are going to fight” for justice.
Dawn Wilson, the mother of Sarah Wilson, explained how her 19-year-old daughter died during a traffic stop in Chesapeake, Virginia, on July 25, 2018. The police and medical examiner claim that Sarah shot herself in the mouth while her hands were cuffed behind her back. Our society is “run by liars,” she stated. “Say her name!” Dawn concluded. “Sarah Wilson!” responded the crowd.
Annemarie Grant, sister of 38-year-old Thomas Purdy, explained her brother was put face down and asphyxiated to death in 2015 while being hog-tied by sheriff’s deputies in the Washoe County jail in Reno, Nevada, after being arrested for “acting erratically” because of a mental health crisis. Officers refused to call an ambulance despite Purdy’s appeal that he could not breathe, while begging for his life. “Police need to acknowledge that prone restraints kill people, that unnecessary chases kill people,” she concluded.
“My brother was Winston Smith,” said Teisha Floyd, denouncing another killing. “He was killed by the U.S. Marshals in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 3, 2021. He was sitting on the passenger seat of his car. They rolled up on him, no uniforms, unmarked cars, they got out and shot him on the back of his head with an assault rifle. My brother was a good father of three, he was a good son, a good brother. They shot him in the back and now they are trying to cover it up. Say his name!”
‘The only way to make change is change in us’
“Our story is much the same as a lot of your stories,” said Debbie Novak, the mother of David Novak, who was killed by Spokane, Washington, police on January 7, 2019. “David was unarmed, he committed no crime, and he was shot in the back by these police officers. It’s so painful, it is just so painful,” she said. “They did not release any information to us for nine months and they still have not released all the information. But I want to thank Mass Action and all of you for putting this together and giving a platform to be in solidarity and see what we can do to make change, because there needs to be change made. We love David and we miss him very much. Say his name!”
In describing the 2015 killing of her brother Edward Foster by Homestead, Florida, police, Crystal Foster made a similar point. “The only way to make change is change in us,” she said. Edward was simply walking home from a store when a cop killed him, she added. “I want justice. I want Anthony Green to be arrested on murder charges for executing Edward Foster,” said Crystal. “All the witnesses said the same thing. It took less than a minute—within 10-15 seconds—my brother was gunned down. My brother was shot multiple times in his back. My brother was shot in all different areas in his body for walking to the store. And this officer, instead of being handcuffed and charged with murder, he received a promotion.”
Sandy Sánchez, aunt of 18-year-old Anthony Nuñez who was killed by San Jose, California, police on July 4, 2016, also spoke. “It’s been five years and I can’t speak [about Anthony] without crying,” she said, breaking down momentarily. “Anthony had a mental breakdown and shot himself. We called for help and instead of helping they came ready for war. They shot him in the front and back in 3 minutes and 20 seconds and then gave each other a high five.” In 2019, a jury found that two police officers used excessive force in this case and recommended a $2.6 million award to Nuñez’s estate.
Elizabeth Harris described how her 28-year-old daughter DeShayla Harris was killed by a shot to the back of her head as she was trying to get to her car at the oceanfront in Virginia Beach on March 26, 2021. “The police deny it, but I know it was them,” Harris said.
“My brother Jesse Cedillo Jr. was shot 15 times and killed by Pueblo, Colorado, sheriff Jeff Alonzo,” said Jaely Cedillo. “They started shooting the second he came out with his hands up with no weapon,” she stated. “They planted evidence they could never prove, they accused him of things he never did. We are asking for justice for Jesse and for all those who have been terrorized by the biggest gang in the U.S.,” she added.
Many speakers also called out the names of other impacted families and loved ones killed by police from their areas, sometimes naming up to a dozen people, who could not make it to D.C. Most families were eager to give more details about their fight for justice beyond what they were able to describe in the short time allotted to each speaker. However, the families that organized the rally decided every impacted family deserved a chance at the microphone.
‘Her fight is my fight’
“On January 8, 2021, plain clothes officers of the Gaithersburg [Maryland] police shot my 24-year-old son, Kwamena Ocran, in the back several times,” Melody Cooper told World-Outlook. “My son was face down, and Sargent Delgado continued to shoot him in the groin area and then they left him lying there dead for 7.5 hours and they later power washed the area,” she said. “I’m here to let people know about him and to demand justice.”
María Girón’s son was killed on June 30, 2014, by a King County sheriff’s deputy in Seattle. “He was killed for not paying the $2.50 fare”, Girón told World-Outlook. “That is why I’m here, because we need a movement to ask for justice for all of these lives. We are all fighting for the same cause. I’m here representing the family of an undocumented immigrant who was born in Mexicali [Baja California, Mexico],” she explained. “They want us to be quiet, but I decided I had to learn English to speak up and demand justice.”
Some families have met and become close during the fight for justice for their loved ones. Amalia Villafane and Crystal Foster met and connected in this struggle. Villafane is a Colombian immigrant and Foster is African American. “My son Sebastian Gregory was 16 years old on May 28, 2012,” explained Amalia. Miami-Dade police officer Luis Manuel Pérez “told my son to lay on [the] ground and he shot him six times while he lay face down. On July 16, 2015, Crystal Foster’s brother, Edward, was walking home after purchasing dog food from a corner shop in Homestead,” when a cop killed him in a similarly brutal way, she said.
Both cases were featured in an article in the August 27 Miami New Times, headlined, “Families of Miamians Shot by Police Join National March on Washington.”
“Amalia is going through the same pain and processes as I am after a family member is shot by police,” Crystal Foster told World-Outlook. “There is no grieving process, the pain never goes away, and you’ll never understand it until it happens to you. Her fight is my fight, and my fight is her fight. We support each other, and it’s not just about my brother or her son, but all the other families out there experiencing the same injustice.”
Sebastian Gregory’s cousin Daniella Marin came to the action from Elizabeth, New Jersey, after meeting her aunt Amalia Villafane who flew from Miami. Marin, who is starting college soon, was one of many young people at the protest. The march and rally were “life changing for me,” she told World-Outlook. “So many families telling their stories, so similar stories, and the clear demands show young people like me what we need to do,” she said.
“The stories were so heartbreaking,” Scott Rushing, who lost his son Tyler to police violence in Chico, California, in 2017, told World-Outlook. “Please get the word out that police must change their ways to become ‘peace officers’ not a para-military force wanting to see ‘action.’”
A number of impacted families pointed to what they described as partial victories in their struggle for justice. Oscar Urbina, and his wife Rosaura, said one such example is the Marcus-David Peters Act, enacted by the state of Virginia last year, that mandates directing 911 calls during mental health crises to health-care professionals rather than police.
The law is named after a 24-year-old high school teacher who, while experiencing a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by a Richmond police officer on May 14, 2018. Authorities exonerated the cop involved. Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, organized protests, which grew last summer in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Protesters in Richmond unofficially renamed the grassy area around the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, “Marcus-David Peters Circle.”
Blanding and the Urbinas joined forces to press for passage of the law. “I also lost my youngest son to police violence,” Oscar Urbina noted. 15-year-old Ruben Urbina, “a tiny kid,” was shot dead by cops who responded to a 911 call on September 14, 2017, also during a mental health crisis in Gainsville, Virginia. “I know this law won’t bring my son back or mete out justice to these guilty cops,” Oscar Urbina said. “But as inadequate as it is, I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
Another victory was registered on September 1, when Colorado’s statewide grand jury returned a 32-count indictment against three Aurora police officers and two paramedics who stopped 23-year-old Elijah McClain two years ago in an encounter that preceded his death, according to the Colorado Sun.
McClain was stopped by police on August 24, 2019, as he was walking home from a convenience store. He was carrying cans of iced tea in a plastic grocery bag and listening to music using earbuds connected to his phone. McClain, who was frequently cold, was also wearing a black mask despite it being a warm night.
Officers approached him after they received a report from a 17-year-old in the area that McClain looked suspicious.
McClain had committed no crime, yet officers placed him into a neck hold. The unarmed Black man was then injected with ketamine, a powerful sedative. He suffered cardiac arrest and died in the hospital six days later.
Most participants in the D.C. action were members of families impacted by police violence. Some of the largest contingents hailed from California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Texas, and Washington state. Others joined the action to support the struggle for justice. These included a group of 15 people from Charleston, South Carolina, who belonged to the National Action Network (NAN) associated with the Rev. Al Sharpton. A number of members of the Black Lives Matter group in Washington, D.C., also participated in the rally and march.
A boisterous march
Around 3 p.m., undeterred by the hours already spent in the heat, people holding posters, pictures, postcards, placards, leaflets, banners, and bullhorns lined up behind a pickup truck with loudspeakers on Constitution Ave. Music rang out and the mood became lively and boisterous.
“No justice, no peace…prosecute the police,” chanted Brock Satter as syncopated rhythms played over the loudspeaker. Participants responded loudly as they addressed passers-by distributing leaflets and postcards, and inviting them to join in.
“The whole damned system is guilty as hell,” demonstrators chanted, as they marched toward the Justice Department, swinging to the music in the background. “Reopen the cases and prosecute the police!”
“What do we want?” those leading the chants from the pickup truck asked. “Justice!” the crowd responded. “When do we want it? When do we need it? When do we got to get it? Next week? Tomorrow? Next four years? Next administration? Next civilization?” Satter called out. “Now!” responded the crowd. Some Spanish speakers started their own chants matching the music beat. “You got my back? I’m under attack!” asked one chant in another popular call and response. “I got your back!” folks responded in unison.
After the march reached the Justice Department, protesters held a short rally. “This is just the beginning,” Brock Satter told the crowd. “We will continue this struggle.” In publicizing the demonstration families often used the hashtag: #tilwewin.
Example set by Emmett Till’s mother
Satter introduced Deborah Watts, cousin of Emmett Till, as the featured speaker at the concluding rally. Watts was a toddler in 1955 when Till, her 14-year-old cousin, was kidnapped, viciously beaten and murdered in Money, Mississippi, after a white woman accused him of whistling and making advances toward her. The brutal murder became a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. “It is important that she is here to join us today, the angel-versary of Emmett Till and of the famous civil rights march that followed,” Satter said.
“I want to look at all of you and say what you are fighting for is the same struggle we have been involved in for more than 60 years,” Watts told the crowd.
“Emmett’s mother, my cousin, Mamie, made the famous decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son, showcasing the brutal violence of white supremacy to the rest of the world. The injustice of Emmett Till’s death — two white men acquitted of his murder — became a powerful testimony for the Civil Rights Movement,” she explained.
“Those in power who decided to acquit the murderers of my cousin thought they could sweep this heinous crime under the rug,” Watts said. “But we have now succeeded in forcing the Department of Justice to re-open Emmett Till’s case. The two white men originally prosecuted for Emmett’s murder, and acquitted, have died. But appropriate charges—murder—should be brought with the full extent of the law against surviving accomplices,” she continued.
“Justice in some others’ mind may mean an apology. But I want to see the law work, I want to see the blind justice work the way it should work. Carolyn Bryant [the woman who accused Till of the inappropriate behavior] is one of the last living people involved in the case and she holds the key to understanding what really happened the evening of Emmett’s murder. She should be held accountable. The state of Mississippi is trying to delay things, to let the clock run out, until Carolyn Bryant passes away too. But we will not let that happen,” she said.
Need for unity
“In the same way, all your cases need to be reopened where no justice has been served,” Watts told those assembled.
“There are others protesting in Washington D.C. today, for voting rights, for D.C. statehood,” she said, referring to two other actions. “We have an opportunity to stand in solidarity together. We need unity like those who came before us who forged unity in 1963,” she said.
“We are here to redeem the soul of the nation.
“Justice for Emmett Till! Say his name!”
“Emmett Till!” the crowd responded loudly.
“Justice for all! Say their names!” Watts concluded.
Each in the crowd, in unison, shouted the names of their loved ones killed by police. It was a fitting end to another historic day.
Later that evening a dinner for the impacted families was held at the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church. In addition to sustenance and relaxation after a long day, the event provided an opportunity to exchange notes and discuss the significance of what had transpired.
“I thought it was a good thing,” Dalphine Robinson, told World-Outlook. Robinson is a co-founder of Georgia Moms United, an organization of women who have lost family members to police violence. She is also the mother of Jabril Robinson, who was killed on May 16, 2016, by police officers Charley McDaniel and Dwayne Parkin. She came to D.C. to publicize her fight to reopen the case for justice for her son and to learn from others.
“We were here last year,” for a similar protest on August 28, Robinson said. “I like that this time we heard the families. Who can tell their stories better? It’s more impactful. We have our ups and downs in this journey. With this action today we know we are not alone and we are renewed.”
Correction, Sept. 17, 2021: An earlier version of this article misquoted Deborah Watts saying that Mamie Till Mobley was her aunt, instead of her cousin.