On Thursday, November 14th, 2019, the Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University hosted the Mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement, ten black women whose sons were victims of gun violence. The mothers present on the stage were, Marion Gray-Hopkins (Gary Hopkins’ mother), Gween Carr (Eric Garner’s Mother), Lesley McSpadden (Michael Brown’s mother), Wanda Johnson (Oscar Grant’s mother), Valerie Bell (Sean Bell’s mother), Kadi Diallo (Amadou Diallo’s mother), Greta Williams (Kevin Cooper’s mother), Gwen Wesley (Cliff Wesley’s mother), Hawa Bah (Mohamed Bah’s mother) and Montye Benjamin (Jayvis Benjamin’s mother). The venue where it was held, Vorhees Chapel, seemed more than an appropriate location as these women expressed how their different religious beliefs and spiritual practices motivated them to search for ways to honor their sons through community work and activism.
Associate Dean Elizabeth Gunn, as the moderator, started the conversation by asking them to share qualities about these young black men that did not come out in the media. The mothers shared things ranging from how one of their sons was very skilled in many things but very bad at swimming (Kadi Diallo, about her son Amadou), to how their sons were mentors, peacemakers, and leaders in their communities. Gween Carr, for instance, chronicled how the media has portrayed her son Eric Garner’s murder in a way that attempts to justify the unjustifiable but that she knows, and many witnesses have attested, that Eric “was there breaking up a fight between [two of his] friends” and not selling cigarettes in the streets as has often been said.
Through different testimonies, the mothers expressed how they are not “anti-police but against brutality.” Moreover, when asked by the audience about practical things to do to support the movement they called to action in these ways:
*Ask your community leaders to hold a town meeting with the police officers in your community as a way to create a closer relationship with them. The police body should get to know the people they are policing, and “we should know who is policing us.”
*Inform yourself (do your research!) about the present laws and proposed bills coming up in congress about policing and gun laws and call your representatives to ask them to stop or push them forward.
*Go to jury duty, do not try to get out of it! “We need a group of our peers.” The mothers expressed how, in many of their cases that made it to court, the jury was not representative of their peers.
*“Get your phones out” when you see any injustice, but especially when there is any interaction with the police. They warned, “stay at a safe distance, but make sure you record it.”
*If stopped by the police, try to memorize their badge number and info, but more importantly, “try to get home safe.”
At the end of the section on the “practical recommendations” the mothers were emphatic about this last part: that in order to continue the fight and before taking any action, people need to “get home safe.” They repeated that all measures need to be taken to survive any interactions that can place one’s life at risk.
When asked another harrowing question about when it is appropriate to have “the talk” with black and brown children about police violence against people of color, the speakers shared some of the conversations that they and their families have had about the police and potential dangers. They remembered how some were having these conversations with their kids as early as seven years old. These activists also reminded the audience that even when the parents of white children should also teach them about police brutality and its effects on society, they should be aware that the parents of black and brown children are having a completely different conversation. These conversations –more often than not— rest on a question of life and death, and that this is not the case for all children.
The audience was also able to learn more about these women when they were asked about things that they do outside their activism that they enjoy. Their answers covered things like walking barefoot on the grass, dancing and spending time with their families, as well as cooking (and not cooking!), traveling, talking to youth in their communities, and “doing my nails and looking cute!”
Closer to the end of the event, the mothers were asked that if they could describe their sons in one word, what would that word be, and they said (in the order they were seated):
For Kevin Cooper-Loving
For Gary Hopkins- Humorous
For Sean Bell- Strong
For Eric Garner- Generous
For Cliff Wesley- Precious
For Amadou Diallo- Wisdom
For Mohamed Bah-Helpful
For Michael Brown- Courageous
For Oscar Grant- Leader
For Jayvis Benjamin- Loving
And thus, responding to the call of these mothers, I invite you to remember these young men as the loving, wise, humorous, and strong leaders they were, to be courageous and stand against injustice and help generously in any way we can.