McKinley Walker and Gwendolyn Omeyse sat together in the Penn North Recovery Center in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. This is the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up. It’s also where he died three weeks ago while in police custody. The center is a gathering space as well as a resource for community members during tense times.
“We are the ones that lost our children on the street.”
Walker’s 30-year-old son was killed in 2007 while waiting for a bus. “He wasn’t bothering nobody, he wasn’t drug dealing, he wasn’t gang-related,” Walker said. “He was a hardworking man.”
Walker said that for weeks, people have been flooding to Baltimore in the wake of Gray’s death. But around here, parents have been losing children for years and are growing frustrated with what they say is negligence on the part of law enforcement when it comes to investigating their children’s murders.
“Because we are the ones that lost our children on the street,” added Gwendolyn Omeyse, whose 20-year-old son, Levern, was shot and killed in September 2010.
The recent deaths of African-American men in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities have brought mothers and fathers to the frontlines of protests and conversations about police violence.
“The voice of mothers is an important voice in creating policy because moms know how those policies play out all the way down to the kitchen table,” says Monifa Bandele of MomsRising, an organization that helps improve community safety and create economic security for mothers. MomsRising is one of many groups led by mothers working toward solutions.
A million moms march
Maria Hamilton is from Milwaukee, but shares many experiences with the mothers and fathers of Baltimore. On May 9, she and her organization, Mothers for Justice United, will be leading an expected 1,000 people in the Million Moms March to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. There, they will present a list of demands, like reforming the way racially charged homicides are investigated, as well as cases of police misconduct. A group of mothers also met with White House staff on Friday.
At 31 years old, Hamilton’s son Dontre, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was killed in Red Arrow Park by a Milwaukee police officer on April 30 last year. Workers in the area had called the police to make a complaint about him. Two teams of officers responded to the call and determined Dontre was not a threat.
A third officer, Christopher Manney, responded alone and conducted a pat-down that quickly escalated to beating Dontre with a baton. When Dontre tried to grab the baton, Officer Manney shot him 14 times.
Manney has not been charged with any crime. He was, however, fired for conducting a wrongful pat-down. An investigation into whether or not Dontre’s civil rights were violated is in progress.
“I decided that I would take them to Washington, D.C., myself …”
Two months after Dontre’s death, Hamilton started Mothers for Justice United, which supports moms who have lost children to violence and who have been overlooked by police departments due to race and economic status.
After attending a protest following Mike Brown’s shooting in Ferguson last summer, Hamilton went to St. Louis to speak with other mothers who had lost their children but had not seen any police response.
“I decided that I would take them to Washington, D.C., myself to get the DOJ to open up these cases and start an investigation into the police departments,” she said.
“I feel as though there’s a genocide going on.”
Not all of the mothers Hamilton spoke with had children who were victims of police violence. Some were killed by others in their communities, or as a result of gang violence. What they all shared, she said, was local authorities who lacked the interest and will to investigate.
“I feel as though there’s a genocide going on,” she said. “The system that we live in wasn’t meant for us to actually survive in.”
When Marion Gray-Hopkins heard about the Million Moms March, she immediately knew she had to be there. Her son, Gary Hopkins Jr., was murdered in 1999 at the age of 19. He was unarmed, and the coroner determined that he had his arms up when he was shot.
“We could not let another generation grow up in that type of system.”
While charges were brought against the officer who killed Gary, the case was dismissed and the officer acquitted.
Because of the difficulty in holding police accountable, some see the charging of six Baltimore officers in Freddie Gray’s death as only a small victory. In the 2006 case against officers in the murder of Sean Bell in New York City, Bandele said, “We saw the police officers charged, we saw them indicted—and then we saw them acquitted.”
Bandele said she fears the same may happen in Baltimore: “That was very painful and it made people very determined—we could not let another generation grow up in that type of system.”
That’s why Million Moms March is calling for stronger measures for holding officers accountable and nationwide guidelines to control the use of police force. Currently each state makes their own guidelines.
MomsRising is also demanding that the White House and Department of Justice address the implementation of federal laws for the use of force by police, better training for officers, and an external investigator for cases of police misconduct.
Hamilton hopes this weekend’s march and meeting with the White House will make public officials take notice.
“I can’t live like this no more,” she said. “I refuse to live in fear… There’s a lot of laws that need to be changed, and it starts with Congress.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this story said Freddie Gray was murdered while in police custody. While six police officers have been charged for his death—one of them for murder—the case has not yet gone to trial.
Mary Hansen is a reporter for NPR Illinois and a former contributing writer for YES!
Araz Hachadourian is a former online editorial intern at YES!