All of their sons were dead, shot to death by policemen, and the mothers had come to Washington wondering if Washington would care. The hearing room on Capitol Hill was already decorated for the nine women when they arrived Wednesday morning: nine easels displaying paper hearts, containing pictures of black men and the dates and years of their deaths: 2013, 2012, 2008, 2004.
“I want to introduce you to Wanda Johnson,” said a volunteer who had agreed to mediate the event, as she motioned a woman with long hair to the podium. “Her son Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed by transit police at a train station in Oakland.”
“I’d like to introduce Tressa Sherrod,” said the volunteer as she introduced a short woman with glasses. “The mother of John Crawford III, who was shot and killed by a police officer in a Wal-Mart.”
“Now we’d like to hear from Constance Malcolm,” the volunteer said of a woman with a quiet Jamaican accent. “The mother of Ramarley Graham, who was 18 when he was shot and killed in his own home.”
It was the second day of a three-day visit organized by the activist group Code Pink, which had arranged for the nine mothers to be in Washington and talk about police violence against black men and boys. They would do this Capitol Hill briefing, attended by several members of Congress, then travel to a meeting at the Department of Justice, and later there would be a vigil.
Since their sons’ deaths, the mothers had collectively been to hundreds of vigils. They’d made buttons and T-shirts with their sons’ faces. They’d formed nonprofit groups in their sons’ names: Mothers Against Police Brutality, Mothers on the Move, Mothers of Never Again. One of the cases was turned into a movie. Some of the moms had gone to an “empowerment retreat” hosted by the mother of Trayvon Martin, killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Time after time, there would be moments of attention, but then their stories got buried under different news and the mothers disappeared again.
Now they were in Washington and hopeful once again. Every day across the country, protesters were holding rallies and marches and die-ins — there was a big march scheduled for Saturday in Washington — in response to the lack of indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The mothers watched the two men’s faces appear nightly on the news and wondered if this time, policies could be introduced — mandatory body cameras, better background checks for law enforcement — and things could be different.
“The pain is still there,” Constance Malcolm had said to Valerie Bell, one of the other mothers, shortly before the briefing. “The gap never closes.”
“Sometimes, talking about it opens it even wider,” Bell agreed. Her son, Sean, was killed in 2006 when New York police fired shots into his car as he left his bachelor party. Police said they thought a different person in the car had a gun.
“We’ve been trying to change things for how long?” Malcolm asked.
“But maybe for our children,” Bell said.
“Maybe for our children’s children’s children,” said Malcolm.
“Maybe,” Bell said.
Sherrod was the newest mother. She didn’t have a nonprofit yet or know how to speak in public. Before the trip to Washington, she had never met these other mothers. “My son had just turned 22, and he was on his way to a cookout,” she told the audience at the briefing. Her son was shot a few days before Michael Brown in a Wal-Mart outside of Dayton. In the store, he’d picked a BB gun up off the shelf and was carrying it around as he shopped for other things. The police mistook the gun for a real one. He was dead a few minutes later, Sherrod said; the grand jury didn’t indict the officer who shot him. “It’s not just the police we need to do something about. It’s the prosecutors, and the attorney generals — ” Her voice wavered, and she suddenly broke off in the middle of her sentence. “I’m done. Thank you,” she said and went back to her chair.
“I didn’t know what to say,” she said afterward to Johnson. “I guess I should have written it down.”
Johnson shook her head, knowing that there was no one right way to do this, not one that she’d found in the five years and dozens of times she’d stood in front of people to ask them to remember her child. Sometimes she spoke quietly, other times she shouted. Sometimes she focused on policy change, other times she talked about how the last photo in her son’s cellphone was the one he’d taken of the officer who shot him. She often remembered to say that the reason Oscar was on public transportation that night was because he was following her instructions: She thought it would be safer, on New Year’s Eve, to take the train into the city to see the fireworks rather than drive.
“My son’s father is texting me,” Sherrod said, looking at her phone and reading about a big march that her son’s father thought she should go to — another event where she would learn how to be the kind of mother she thought her son needed now.
People kept telling Sherrod how important it was for her to tell her story. The mothers heard that often. After the briefing, a man approached a group of them. “We’ve got to get these good people to see and hear your story,” he said. “So that they can, in turn, become your voice.”
Tell your story, the mothers kept hearing, so they got in cabs and went to the Department of Justice.
In the lobby there, members of Code Pink passed each of them a thick binder full of names — 81,866 signatures in total, asking the department to bring federal charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown. The mothers carried their binders upstairs to a conference room that had a big, wooden table and told their stories, and when they left, one of the mothers turned to the Code Pink activist who had accompanied them inside.
“Did we get anywhere?” she asked.
The activist smiled. “They heard you. They felt you.”
The mothers got in cabs and returned to Capitol Hill, where some met with their congressional representatives. After, they compared notes in a basement deli. Some representatives had offered what the mothers thought were helpful suggestions.
Sherrod’s representative hadn’t been in his office, she said. Instead, she had been sent to the cafeteria to have a stand-up meeting with one of his aides. “He said we could stand and talk,” she told another mom. “He doesn’t want us to have a seat — he wants us to stand.”
“But he did give you his e-mail,” a Code Pink activist reminded her. “He did do that.”
Another mother said that her representative spent the whole time asking questions about her son, and she forgot how good that could feel — to talk about him, conversationally, with another person instead of in a speech to a roomful of strangers.
“The portal is opening,” said Collette Flanagan, whose son, Clinton Allen, was killed by police in Dallas in 2013. “It’s no longer just conjecture. It’s a very pivotal moment.”
“Okay, Moms? Moms, follow me,” one of the Code Pink staffers encouraged. “We need to leave for the vigil.” It was being held back at the Department of Justice, and the mothers folded themselves into cars to trace the same route they’d done a few hours before.
When the mothers arrived at the vigil, it was twilight. One of the organizers handed each of the mothers an electric candle and the heart-shaped poster with her son’s face, which had been transported over from the Capitol, and then the mothers stood together behind a podium and told their stories again.
“I am Darlene Cain, the mother of Dale Graham, a 29-year-old law student.”
“My name is Jeralynn Blueford. I am the mother of 18-year-old Alan Dwayne Blueford.”
After the speeches, a local activist announced that in an act of civil disobedience, the crowd would now fill the intersection and block oncoming traffic. The mothers were invited to join, but first, someone wanted them to pose together for a picture in front of the Department of Justice building. They agreed and started to arrange themselves in front of the doors.
A few feet away, the activists shut the street down and cars honked in protest. The mothers stood in a line, holding their paper hearts in their hands.