Mothers of the Movement: Out of Grief, Unity and Hope

Terrance Heath

The Mothers of the Movement brought the audience at the Democratic National Convention to its feet, and hushed it with the staggering losses that brought them there. It was one of the most powerful moments of the convention, that should never have been necessary.

Nothing in the lives of Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton, Maria Hamilton, Lucia McBath, Lezley McSpadden, Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, and Geneva Reed-Veal should have led them any closer to the stage of the Democratic National Convention than their living rooms. And it was clear that’s where they’d rather have been, at home close enough to see, reach out and touch, or at least hear the voices of the children they have lost to gun violence, and to police violence. Those losses compelled each of them to be on that stage last night, to speak for their children, and represent the countless parents, many of whom live not only with the same grief, but also with a lack of justice for their children.

Their journey to Philadelphia began at a meeting with Hillary Clinton last November. It was a 30-minute meeting that turned into a two-hour meeting, as Clinton listened to their stories — as a candidate and a mother — and urged them to speak in united voices for their children, and many others.

Geneva Reed-Veal spoke almost one year to the day after her daughter Sandra Bland’s burial. “One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine, Reed-Veal said. ”I watched as my daughter, Sandra Bland, was lowered into the ground in a coffin.“ She told the audience how Bland was, ”found hanging in a jail cell after an unlawful traffic stop and an unlawful arrest.” Bland was not alone, Reed-Veal pointed out, as six other women died in police custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell.

Bland’s death was ruled a suicide, but in the past year doubts have surfaced about the official version of her death. This week, a former Waller County Jail guard admitted that he falsified records, recording a false check-in for Bland one hour before she died. A report commissioned after Bland’s death found serious deficiencies and systemic abuse of inmates at the Waller County Jail.

An officer involved with Bland’s arrest has described an alleged cover-up. Prairie View police officer Michael Kelley said portions of his report that were critical of the state trooper who arrested Bland were removed, reducing his two-page rough draft to less than a page in the official record. Kelly said that State Trooper Brian Encinia had no probable cause to arrest Bland, and that he heard Encinia tell his supervisor, “I have no idea what I’m going to arrest her for, but we’ll figure it out when we get to the county jail.” Kelley also said he was threatened into staying silent about what he knew. Encinia was indicted on perjury charges in January regarding the reason he told the grand jury he removed Bland from her vehicle, and was formally fired in March.

Lucia McBath is one of the few mothers to see her son’s murder convicted and sent to prison. Larry Dunn received a sentence of life without parole for shooting and killing Jordan Davis outside a Jacksonville gas station, for playing loud music and arguing with Dunn about it. McBath related how she had to warn her son about people like Larry Dunn. “I lived in fear my son would die like this. I even warned him that because he was a young, black man, he would meet people who didn’t value his life,” McBath said. “This is a conversation no parent should ever have to have.” Letters Dunn wrote after his arrest revealed his deep-seated hatred for African-Americans.

Sybrina Fulton reminded the audience that the women on that stage were drafted into a club no one wants to join. “I am an unwilling participant in this movement. I would not have signed up for this.” she said. “None of us would have.” Unlike McBath, Fulton lives not only with the pain of losing her son, but also seeing his killer walk free, to continue making headlines, and cruelly taunting her and Martin’s father, Tracy. Yet, they were driven by the need to be a voice for children both dead and living. “But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven,” Fulton said. “And for my other son, Jahvaris, who is still here on earth.”

This morning brought news that Maryland prosecutors are dropping all remaining charges against Baltimore police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death, after a judge acquitted three other officers, and the trial of a fourth ended in a mistrial. Gray died last April, of a spine injury after being hand-cuffed and left unsecured in the back of a police van during a 45-minute “rough ride.” Yet no one is deemed responsible, another family will now live not only with the loss of a loved one, but with a lack of justice.

Sheriff David Clarke, who spoke at last week’s Republican convention, accused Democrats of “embracing criminality” by having Mothers of the Movement at the convention — as though sleeping on a park bench, committing a minor traffic violation, or selling loose cigarettes warrants the death penalty, and without the luxury of due process.

Instead, the Mothers of the Movement brought unity to the Democratic Convention with a flesh-and-blood reminder of just what’s at stake in this election, and hope that, as McBath said, “this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.”

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