Families who lost loved ones following interactions with police have often done some of their grieving in public and called for peaceful protests of law enforcement activity in black communities. Here’s a closer look at how some relatives reacted in notable cases involving black and biracial men and boys.
Michael Brown’s grandmother, mother and stepfather were among those who gathered shortly after the unarmed 18-year-old was shot and killed by a white officer Aug. 9. Nightly protests followed, some marked by looting and tear gas.
Mother Lesley McSpadden and father Michael Brown Sr. called for calm. In a September interview, Brown Sr. said: “They say that this is America, but we’re not being treated like Americans. Our fight here is to just open other eyes.”
When a grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in late November, McSpadden burst into tears and began screaming. Stepfather Louis Head yelled “Burn this b—- down” to the large, angry crowd outside of the Ferguson Police Department.
The protests turned violent, despite the family pleas for the public to “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change.”
NEW YORK CITY
Eric Garner died July 17 on Staten Island after an officer placed him in a chokehold. His family joined in with protests, where the phrase “I can’t breathe” — uttered by Garner on a video of the arrest — became a chant. His sister, Ellisha Flagg, spoke to a crowd a week after. “If somebody is telling you something, listen to them,” she said.
New York City officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, was cleared by a grand jury in Garner’s death. Garner’s stepfather said the family did not want violence. “It’s not going to help nothing.”
Esaw Garner, Garner’s widow, told a crowd at a December march in Washington, D.C., that “we are fighting not just for him but for everybody’s future, for everybody’s past, for everybody’s present, and we need to make it strong.”
The 14-year-old sister of Tamir Rice was in the backseat of a police car when her mother arrived at the park where her 12-year-old son had been holding a toy gun when he was shot and killed by Cleveland police on Nov. 22. The two siblings had been told to stick together that day, but the sister had gone to the bathroom. She rushed to help Tamir but was put in handcuffs.
Tamir’s uncle told mourners at a memorial service that they must be advocates for change through peaceful protests and civil disobedience. And in March, mother Samaria Rice spoke about the family’s lawsuit against the city.
“I have not yet received an apology from the police department or the city of Cleveland in regards to the killing of my son,” she said. “And it hurts.”
The family of Tony Robinson immediately called for “nondestructive” protests on March 6, the day the 19-year-old biracial man was shot and killed by a white officer who responded to a call that Robinson had assaulted someone in Wisconsin’s capital city.
Days later, his mother, Andrea Irwin, told hundreds of marchers that her son wasn’t violent and “I don’t want to see violence in his name.”
Robinson’s uncle, Turin Carter, spoke for the family in response to a report about court documents that showed Robinson had been convicted in an armed robbery and diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, anxiety and depression.
“We don’t think Terrell’s a saint,” Carter said, using Robinson’s middle name. He also asked that people respect the police in their protests.
NORTH CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
The tone of the community’s response to the death of Walter Scott was a marked contrast to other deaths. There were no violent demonstrations or slow responses from city officials, but rather small rallies and quick action taken by the mayor and police chief, spurred by a video taken by a witness.
The same went for the family’s visibility. Relatives said they thought the 50-year-old Scott had fled out of fear of being jailed over missed child support payments, but they did not take to the streets in protest.
Scott was shot at eight times by a white officer and killed while fleeing a traffic stop on April 4.
“The epidemic of powerless people being taken advantage of no matter what color, no matter what gender, no matter what belief system you have, needs to stop,” family attorney Chris Stewart said later that day. “We’re not going to let this case boil down to just racial issues because it’s bigger than that.”
The family of Eric Harris, a 44-year-old who was shot and killed on April 2 by a volunteer sheriff’s deputy who says he mistook his gun for a stun gun, raised many questions. Chief among them was whether Robert Bates, 73, was qualified to conduct police work with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.
Harris’ relatives also criticized Bates’ decision to vacation in the Bahamas after being charged with second-degree manslaughter in Harris’ death, which was caught on video.
“At a time when we are still mourning the death of a loved one that he shot down in the street, Mr. Bates will be relaxing and enjoying his wealth and privilege,” the family said in a statement.
Harris’ brother, Andre Harris, has said he does not believe race played a factor in the shooting. Harris was black. Bates is white.
Dontre Hamilton’s relatives participated in a vigil days after his April 30, 2014, death at the hands of a white Milwaukee police officer, but said little publicly as they waited out an investigation.
They became frustrated, though, especially watching the protests in Ferguson. After that, they began to help organize protests, criticized the pace of the investigation and advocated for changes.
The 31-year-old Hamilton, who was black and had schizophrenia, was shot 14 times in a downtown park. Officer Christopher Manney was not fired until Oct. 15.
“They messed with the wrong family … I’m not going to back down,” Hamilton’s brother, Nate, told a large rally on Oct. 16. He and another brother wrote a song expressing their grief and frustration. Hamilton’s mother organized a support group for women whose sons died in police shootings or custody.
In December, a county district attorney said Manney acted in self-defense. The U.S. Department of Justice said it would conduct a civil rights investigation.
The family of Freddie Gray, who succumbed to injuries suffered while in police custody, did not hesitate to criticize Monday’s rioting and looting in West Baltimore.
“I think the violence is wrong,” Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka, said hours after Freddie Gray’s funeral. “I don’t like it at all.” She added that she thought her brother would have disapproved.
Gray, 25, was held down, handcuffed and loaded into a van on April 12 after running away at the sight of police. He died of a spinal cord injury a week later, and authorities are investigating how and when he suffered the injury.
The Gray family attorney has said the family wants to organize a peaceful march later in the week.
“They don’t want this movement nationally to be marred by violence,” attorney Billy Murphy said. “It makes no sense.”
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