After each fatal or near-fatal encounter, there has been a person from a newly shattered family who is willing to put forth a consistent, coherent demand for justice — and deliver the message without bawling his or her eyes out.
This time it is Justin Blake, Jacob’s 50-year-old uncle. He emerged as the family’s spokesman in tearful network television interviews and protest speeches, dreads waving in a ponytail, eyes quivering behind sunglasses.
While Jacob has been recuperating, it’s been his father’s brother who reads Black America’s list of grievances — discrimination in housing, health care, lending, criminal justice and law enforcement — the last of which Justin believes led to the shooting of his nephew by a White officer whose actions are being investigated at the state and federal levels.
Stephon Clark’s brother told Jacob Blake’s uncle how to start a family fund, and later, a foundation, and how to sustain community involvement in the cause and make that cause inclusive to all. Clark rented a van and drove activists coordinating with Justin Blake around Kenosha.
He told Justin Blake that he will have “harassment coming from five or six directions.” Clark said he has received death threats since he began speaking up, including messages telling him the wrong brother died or describing him as a “crisis actor.”
The community will also call, Clark told Justin Blake, because a family spokesperson knows how to get attention, has contacts and can “speak articulately about how we want to get things done when it comes to accountability for those who trespass against us.”
Clark told Justin Blake the two are now bonded through tragedy.
“I let him know he has a brother for life,” Clark said.
Earlier this month, America saw another family member step into the spotlight.
Joe Prude released video from March showing a hood being placed on the head of his brother, Daniel, who was handcuffed in police custody in Rochester, N.Y. Daniel Prude was naked and in the throes of a mental health crisis; the video later shows officers forcing Prude’s head and chest onto the pavement. He died a week later.
Joe Prude held a news conference in Rochester, disclosing that he called police because he was concerned about his brother’s safety. He has given many interviews, almost always wearing a shirt that reads, “Justice 4 Daniel Prude.”
“You killed a defenseless Black man, a father’s son, a brother’s brother, a nephew’s uncle,” he said at the news conference, struggling to maintain his composure.
There is one thing you have to figure out on your own, Clark said, when you find yourself on the business end of a television camera, with Don Lemon or Anderson Cooper in your earpiece and five minutes to get your message across.
“How to stop crying,” he said. “I still cry five times a day about what happened.”
Every family spokesperson eventually comes up with a different method to suppress the onslaught of tears that tightens a speaker’s throat and makes it impossible to deliver the message. Justin Blake figured it out early. He imagines Jacob as a boy, running toward him to hug him in a front yard as he gets out of a car.
“I was about to do an interview with CNN and something started hitting us, man, and I couldn’t bring it back down,” said Justin, who sometimes slips into the third person. “I said, ‘Excuse me,’ walked out the door, just took a deep breath and thought about Jake standing up, running to me. And then I just focus, fight through it and push forward.”
For Cortez Rice, George Floyd’s 30-year-old nephew, mental images of Rice’s four children steel him when thinking about Floyd’s death becomes overwhelming.
“I have to remember what I’m doing this for,” said Rice, who traveled from Minnesota to join members of the Blake family and local activists last week at a cookout for members of the Kenosha activist community.
“It’s for our youth. Our kids are going to have to grow up after this. When I’m crying, I think about my kids because it’s like, you know what, I’m not going to let this happen for y’all,” he said.
For most, the inclination to break down and cry when talking about the loved one doesn’t go away. It’s been with Cephus Johnson for more than 11 years. Johnson is the uncle of Oscar Grant, who was killed by transit police in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. In the film “Fruitvale Station,” Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan. While advocating on behalf of his late nephew, Johnson earned the nickname “The People’s Uncle.” He guesses he’s met more than 200 families of victims of police shootings, including Jacob Blake, who considers Johnson a mentor.
To keep from weeping, he uses a mechanism he developed early in the process.
Ninety minutes before Grant was killed in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, Johnson was up late thinking about his nephew.
“He was on my heart,” Johnson said. So he texted him: “Uncle love you, God love you, God love your family.”
“When I think about that, I remembered how blessed I was to text Oscar before he was murdered,” Johnson said. “And it was from there that I knew I couldn’t act on my anger alone. I had to act on doing something constructive rather than destructive. And so many times I would say that to help clear the way for me to be able to speak about how to build so that other families don’t have to suffer this type of pain.”
In the months and years after the killing, the media requests slowed down to a pace of about two per month — but are more frequent after an unarmed Black person is killed by police.
Johnson turned his efforts to advocacy and legislation. He traveled the country much like Stevante Clark has, comforting families affected by gun violence and inviting them to join the movement.
Johnson’s group, Families United 4 Justice, is one of several that advocates for police accountability laws across the country. In California, Johnson has successfully campaigned for numerous police transparency and accountability laws. A law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in 2019 says police may only use deadly force when “necessary,” replacing “objectively reasonable.” It is known unofficially as “Stephon Clark’s Law.”
Johnson’s organization also holds conferences for families affected by police violence, with experts providing coaching on telling their stories and coping mechanisms. Members of 175 families met last September in Las Vegas, he said.
Johnson says his college experience majoring in ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, then his early career spent as a union steward at the post office — friends called Johnson “The Johnnie Cochran of the Post Office” — prepared him to fully grasp the context of what happened to his nephew and translate that anger into action. Justin is cut from similar cloth.
He had a 27-year career as a labor foreman in the concrete union in Chicago before falling from scaffolding and injuring his ankle two years ago. Today he’s a part of Black Underground Recycling, a Chicago group that collects and recycles aluminum cans and uses the proceeds to provide services to families in poverty.
Justin views the shooting of his nephew as a continuation of America’s legacy of lynchings of African Americans.
“That was an urban lynching, and it’s justifiable because he has a badge, but it’s never justifiable to shoot a man in the back,” Justin said. “It’s the struggle that our people been through for the last few hundred years in this country. We’ve been fighting for this country since its inception.”
A lawyer for the officer, Rusten Sheskey, did not respond to a request to comment.
It’s no coincidence, Johnson said, that “we’ve got uncles and aunties all over this country speaking on these issues.” Parents are often too distraught to speak publicly, consistently. About five years into his campaign, in which Johnson says he spent his entire life savings, Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, found her voice again.
“My sister is a minister; she’s a better speaker than I,” Johnson said, “but because she was so crippled by what happened to Oscar, she lost her total voice for almost five years, and when she finally got her voice back, now she’s all over the country speaking about police violence.”
But the need to disseminate an accurate narrative of the loved one’s life is immediate. So people like the uncle step sorrowfully into the spotlight.
“We know, first of all, they’re going to be criminalized,” Johnson said of victims of police brutality. “They’re going to be dehumanized, and what we’ve got to do is we got to re-create their life in the media space so that the media doesn’t walk away thinking that they were just somebody that should have been killed, but that they were somebody’s child, somebody’s son, daughter, brother, father or sister.”
Justin Blake has been referring to his nephew as “Little Jakey” in media interviews, rejecting the notion that the knife discovered on the driver’s side floorboard of Blake’s vehicle posed a threat dire enough to shoot Jacob seven times in the back.
“Are you saying he was then going to be the crazy Black man who was going to wheel round with a knife and have a knife fight with a gun and three police officers?” Justin says. “I mean, where’s the reality coming in, man?”
The desire to set the record straight is what connects them in the first place, but it’s the fight for progress that keeps spokespeople going. Some aren’t as well-equipped as others.
Clark, who was arrested on felony domestic violence charges in May, says he went through a mental health crisis after police killed his brother. He declined to comment on the recent charges but added he’d never been arrested until his brother was killed.
As Clark fights his own legal battles, he’s continued to travel from one scene of unrest to the next to meet the next Justin Blake and pass on the advice he received from the last uncle.
“He has to keep that energy up,” Stevante said of Justin Blake. “You cannot stop. It always has to be actionable items. Justin has that passion. It’s just a question of how long you can keep it going.”