The five mothers who sat on a panel last night at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim shared a common bond none of them asked for. Samaria Rice, Sheryl Bell, Donna Acevedo-Nelson, Theresa Smith and Lisa Simpson all knew the pain of burying their sons killed at the hands of law enforcement. Organized by Smith's Law Enforcement Accountability Network (L.E.A.N.) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, each mother shared stories of pain and resiliency.
The killing of Samaria Rice's 12-year-old son Tamir by Cleveland police on November 22, 2014 made national and international headlines. Tamir played with a toy gun at a park when officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback responded to a call. Garmback hadn't finished stopping his patrol car by the time Loehmann jumped out of it and shot Tamir quickly and at close range. Captured on video, the shooting further fueled the #BlackLivesMatter movement, with Tamir becoming its Emmett Till.
"As I walked up on the scene, my son was laying on the ground with ten police standing over him," Samaria told the audience. Police told her she had two choices: stay at the scene with her other children or ride in the ambulance with Tamir. Samaria chose the latter. "He was an all-American kid," she said of her son,. "He was only 12 for five months." Samaria spoke about being thrust into the spotlight despite being a private person and the constant grief counseling her family needs when the media isn't watching.
Like other mothers on the panel, Samaria has turned her plight into protest. She wants Garrity protections to be stripped from officers which allows them to right to remain silent without fear of losing their jobs. The mother further called for random drug and psychological tests. "The officer [that killed my son] was never supposed to be an officer that day," she says. It was later reported that Loehmann had been deemed unfit for duty at a previous department but resigned before being fired.
With the Vice Presidential debates happening at the same time as the panel, Samaria noted she elected not to endorse Hillary Clinton for President like the other "Mothers of the Movement" who appeared onstage at the DNC. "I sure as hell ain't voting for Trump," she said to laughter. "[Hillary] has a lot of the mothers with her [and] hopefully they'll hold her to the promises that she's made."
The panel event also marked a coming out for Julian Alexander's mother, Sheryl Bell. Back in 2008, her 20-year-old son awoke to the commotion of Anaheim police officer Kevin Flanagan giving chase after burglary suspects. Not knowing what was going on, Alexander rushed outside, broomstick in hand, to protect his home. Flanagan told the Orange County District Attorney's (OCDA) office that he shone his flashlight at Alexander and ordered him to drop the stick raised above his head. When he didn't, Flanagan said he felt threatened and shot Alexander from 10 feet away, about the same distance between Tamir Rice and Loehmann.
"Speaking about this, in this type of forum, is very new to me," Bell said. "[Back then], there was no Black Lives Matter, there was no organized group that wanted to hear my voice." Alexander was killed 10 days after his birthday and nine days after he got married. The couple expected their first child, one who has grown up without a father. "Everything just blew up," she said of life after the killing. "Immediately, I lost short-term and long-term memory."
The OCDA ruled the killing justified and Flanagan would go on to fatally shoot Monique Deckard, another black person, last year. Bell started a scholarship and a golf tournament in her son's name, describing Alexander as a "gentle giant."
Theresa Smith and Donna Acevedo-Nelson both spoke about the killings of their sons, Caesar Cruz and Joel Acevedo, by Anaheim police in 2009 and 2012 respectively. Acevedo-Nelson outlined the tapestry of police violence, sharing that she knew Cruz when he was a little boy and that Kelly Phillips, one of the five officers that shot him also killed her son. Acevedo's death marked a weekend of back-to-back police shootings in July 2012 that led to the Anaheim Riots that summer. "I lost the house I was living in," Acevedo-Nelson said. "My whole family fell apart." Smith noted that two days after her son's death, she started protesting outside the Anaheim police department. "I don't believe in justice because justice would be giving me my son's life back," she said. "But I do believe in accountability."
The mothers all echoed that there's no time for complacency in the face of police violence. They were joined by Lisa Simpson, whose 18-year-old son Richard Risher was killed by police in Watts three months ago. "If you're keeping your mouth closed, you're part of the problem," Simpson said. "It's sad to say, somebody in your family is going to be next." Acevedo-Nelson mentioned her current run for Anaheim city council that earned applause from the audience.
Samaria holds little hope that any federal charges will be coming against the officers that took Tamir's life. She called Ohio a racist state that looks like a cop badge on the map. "I am angry and I am mad to be an American," Samaria said. "As black and brown people, we have a different set of rules to live by. I see we're not free."