Meet the families affected by police violence who are organizing to stop the killing

Cynthia Howell, niece of Alberta Spruill, speaks on the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. Next to her is Nicholas Heyward, Sr., father of Nicholas Heyward, Jr. and Lisha Garner Flagg, sister of Eric Garner. October 22, 2014. (Families United 4 Justice)

Cynthia Howell speaks on the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. Next to her is Nicholas Heyward, Sr. and Lisha Garner Flagg, sister of Eric Garner. October 22, 2014. (Families United 4 Justice)

New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore is packed, its pulpit flanked by a projection of the ubiquitous slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” Among the many mourners for Freddie Gray sits Cynthia Howell, Constance Malcolm, and Erica Garner, members of the police reform advocacy group Families United 4 Justice. The next morning Howell and Malcolm would travel with other members of the group for a meeting in Albany with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in support of a campaign, organized through the Justice Committee, for independent prosecutors in cases where someone dies in police custody.

Before leaving Baltimore, the group members are invited to participate in a press conference with Jesse Jackson, the reverend who delivered Gray’s eulogy, Obama administration officials and other local civic and clergy leaders. They feel their impact has been made when William Murphy Jr., the lawyer representing the Gray family, implores the necessity for the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case. But above all, they are happy to have lent support to the Gray family.

“We understand what they are going through and the support they need,” Howell explained. “I told them I will get back in touch with them in about a week, because there’s just too much going on right now [for them].”

Families United 4 Justice possesses a unique perspective on the police brutality that they are protesting: Each of its members has a family member who was killed by the police. The group seeks to bring together families from around New York State to add a personal sense of urgency that can both pressure elected officials into action and support and strengthen local coalitions opposing police brutality and profiling practices.

“We’ve been thrust into this by circumstance,” explained Cynthia Howell, who began the process of bringing the families together last summer with the help of Vanissa Chan, an activist whose Forced Trajectory Project documents many of the families’ experiences. “We used to find each other at funerals or other events. We would meet, embrace each other, and the first words out of our mouths would be, ‘not again.’ Unfortunately, it continues to happen again and again and again.”

The stories of high-profile victims like Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham (Constance Malcolm’s son) and Akai Gurley, whose families have joined the group, are well known. Most of the families involved lost relatives under similarly heartbreaking, and often confusing, circumstances.

The police killed 23-year-old Sean Bell in a 50-bullet onslaught at his bachelor party the night before his wedding. The five officers involved were at the strip club in Jamaica, Queens on an undercover operation. Claiming to have believed Bell and his two friends, who were unarmed, were about to commit a drive-by shooting, they opened fire in the parking lot on their car. One of the police officers fired 31 times.

Gregory Chavis was 19 when died in police custody, while being held after a firefight less than a block from the Bronx’s Lincoln Hospital. His friends allege the police officers would not allow them to carry him the block to the hospital.

Kenny Lazo, a 24-year-old father with a young son, was beaten to death inside the Suffolk County Police Department’s 3rd Precinct. Initially apprehended for driving eight miles above the speed limit, Lazo has been characterized by the police as a drug dealer. A grand jury chose not to indict the five cops who beat Lazo with flashlights, which — according to the medical examiner’s autopsy report — caused: “sudden cardiac death following exertion associated with prolonged physical altercation with multiple blunt impacts.” A civil case has since revealed the prosecutor did not present the grand jury with the medical examiner’s autopsy report, concluding the death was a homicide.

According to the police, 18-year-old Agabus Wordsworth jumped to his death from the roof of the Coney Island Hospital in an apparent suicide. His father, William Emboya Wordsworth, does not believe his son would have ended his own life, describing him as a hip hop artist committed to social justice, who became involved in Occupy Wall Street protests weeks before his death on Oct. 8, 2011. Since the police have closed the case as a suicide, all Wordsworth can do is push for the release of evidence, like his son’s clothes and phone, which he believes might shed light on the death.

The group traces its origins to connections made between Howell and Chan while working with the Justice for Kenny Coalition, a project Chan began with Jennifer Gonzalez, Lazo’s partner. Chan realized many of the victim’s families, especially families whose cases do not generate significant media attention, lack readily available access to basic forms of support — help with legal fees, access to affordable mental counseling, and assistance with any other difficulties that arise for a family that has lost a parent and a significant source of income. She tapped her network to connect Gonzalez with other community groups and families of victims.

Howell had felt similarly isolated within the activist community, having been involved a decade earlier, following the police killing of her aunt, Alberta Spruill. The 57-year city employee died of a heart attack after the police, executing a no-knock warrant on misinformation provided by an informant, broke down her door and threw a concussion grenade into her home. Howell decided to start Families United 4 Justice in order to extend a similar support network to the families of victims of police killings throughout the state.

The initial group of around 10 families, many of whom were involved with Chan’s project, began meeting toward the end of the summer at Mayday, a social justice activist space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. With the space currently under renovation, the group — now comprised of more than 30 families — has been holding its monthly meetings at Bethany Baptist Church in Bedford Stuyvesant.

Describing the group’s first meeting, Howell tells a story of the group supporting the daughter of a victim.

“We went two hours overtime because we had a child there who had lost her father and we had to literally put our arms around this little girl and embrace her and let her know that this is why we’re coming together,” she said. “We know that you’re hurting, and along with other issues inside, we can help you. Nobody else knows this path that we’re on, unless you have been affected by it.”

Grief, however, has given way to resolve, as the group members have begun to focus on fighting for institutional reform.

“We don’t condone hatred against the police, but we believe in equal rights for everyone,” Howell said. “Why is there an issue, predominantly, when it comes to blacks and Latinos? Now, we have Caucasians in the group who have lost loved ones. So it’s not a black and white issue. But we have to acknowledge that this is primarily about blacks and Latinos.”

The group has participated in many local actions during the last six months. In December, they marched at the head of the Millions March that brought over 50,000 people into Manhattan’s streets. They testified in early April at the People’s Tribunal on Police Violence and Structural Racism, organized by the People’s Power Assembly, before teaming up later in the month with Caravan 43, parents and colleagues of the 43 students missing for nearly six months in Guerrero, Mexico for a panel on police violence in Queens. The group also attended the 7th annual vigil commemorating the killing of Kenny Lazo on April 12 and members spoke at the Union Square rally for solidarity with Freddie Gray and the people of Baltimore.

They have started fundraising to support their advocacy efforts. Bethany Baptist Church hosted their first fundraiser over Christmas, and the group has struck an agreement with First Unitarian Congregation in Brooklyn Heights to host future fundraisers.

Their advocacy strategies are determined democratically in group meetings. The members identify this exclusive space as essential to the process of the victims’ families developing their own collective voice.

“We need to be in a space where we can connect with one another and converse with one another, and to figure out what we want to do,” Howell said. “Everything we do is a democratic process. When we have a discussion and a proposal, we vote on it.”

Pushing for independent prosecution

Families United 4 Justice seeks reforms that can hold the police accountable to the same laws they are tasked with enforcing. Group members identify two primary areas for institutional reform: independent prosecution of cases involving police use of force, and the creation of programs that can somehow familiarize police with the communities they patrol.

“You have some black officers who are just as bad as white officers,” Howell explained. “We need to hold people accountable for their actions, no matter how small or big.”

The group signed a letter to Gov. Cuomo in February calling for an executive order that would require the appointment of independent prosecutors for cases involving police use of force.

The campaign, which has received support from state legislators like State Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, is critical of Gov. Cuomo’s reluctance to pressure the Republican-controlled legislature into including a provision for criminal justice reforms in the state budget, including the automatic appointment of special prosecutors. Families United 4 Justice member Valerie Bell, mother of Sean Bell, testified at a criminal justice hearing in March in front of the legislature in support of the criminal justice reforms.

After canceling the meeting twice, Cuomo sat down with the families for about an hour and a half on April 28, during which he promised future action.

“The governor said that if no legislative action is taken on police accountability by the end of the session, which lasts seven more weeks [until June 17], he would pass an executive order to create a special prosecutor for cases involving police killings,” said Yul-san Liem, co-director of the Justice Committee. “The families are saying that there is no reason for him to wait. He can take executive action today, and that is what he should do.”

Members of the New York City Council Progressive Caucus have written the governor in support of the prosecutorial reform, and Color Of Change, the national civil rights organization, has launched an online petition directed at Cuomo.

“He was very sympathetic, but, even with that, we came there for a specific purpose,” Howell said. “We expect him to follow through.”

The campaign to pressure Gov. Cuomo to appoint independent prosecutors for cases involving police use of force holds special significance for many in the group.

“I’m not against police,” Gonzalez said. “I do believe we need a higher power — the officers need to respect the people. I believe people are just not aware how corrupt police departments are in terms of covering up brutality. I was one of those people until my son’s father was killed.”

An independent prosecutor could have affected the outcome of the Lazo case, considering the prosecutor withheld the medical examiner’s autopsy report from the grand jury tasked with deciding whether to indict the five police.

Prosecutorial misconduct is an issue that continues to show up in cases involving police use of force. The most prominent example, perhaps, is the conduct of Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch in grand jury proceedings surrounding Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

McCulloch and his subordinates presented the grand jury with the wrong law concerning “use of force.” The law McCulloch presented states that police use of force requires only “reasonable belief” that there was a threat. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1985. Current laws require that probable cause must support such a “reasonable belief,” a standard for proof that certainly would have made it more difficult to acquit Wilson.

Members of the grand jury have also since accused McCulloch of presenting false witness testimony. One grand jury member is currently pursuing legal action to be able to speak publicly about the grand jury proceedings.

Members of Families United 4 Justice point to a 2014 Wisconsin law, requiring independent investigations into every case of a suspect dying in police custody, as an example of the prosecutorial reform they desire.

The law is the result of a decade-long campaign that Michael Bell Sr., a retired Air Force lieutenant, began after the local police department absolved itself of blame in the killing of his unarmed white 21-year-old son Michael Bell Jr.

Bell Sr. hired a private investigator, who teamed with a retired police detective, to produce an independent report, which found that the officer — who claimed his gun had been grabbed — had in fact caught his gun on a broken car mirror. The report, which they filed with the FBI and the Department of Justice, also found that in the 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in Wisconsin, not one police shooting had been ruled to be unjustified by a district attorney. While using the report to file a civil wrongful death lawsuit that would eventually pay the Bell family $1.75 million, Bell Sr. conducted a grassroots awareness campaign, reaching out to other families, to local and national media, and to state legislators. In August of 2012, eight years after Bell Jr.’s death, two state legislators began to support the reform measure. The proposal became law in April 2014.

In search of community-based policing

Many Families United 4 Justice members argue that prosecutorial misconduct — and police department cover-ups of police use of force — are only the most visible elements of policing practices that essentially profile lower income and racial minority communities. Local grassroots groups, like Communities United for Police Reform, argue that current police practices, inspired by “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” theories of policing, “turn members of our community into a way to hit quota targets.”

“No matter what you think,” Howell explained, “the point is: If you’re a person of color, you are a target.”

Howell, who lives in Harlem, recalls countless incidents of police harassment. She spoke of a recent incident, where she looked out her window and saw a police officer she knew beating a young teenager. Howell also noted instances when she’s been stopped for driving rental cars with out-of-state license plates in her community, which police officers tell her is a “drug neighborhood.”

“I am afraid to call the cops for anything,” she said. “We have no rights.”

According to “broken windows” policing advocates, the policy stops serious crimes by targeting less serious crimes. Less serious crimes — represented by the “broken windows” in the communities where they occur with frequency — create a social disorder that makes serious crime more likely. Strong police presence in these communities, the argument goes, can impose the informal social controls needed to combat disorder.

Prominent national criminal justice reform advocates — like the Advancement Project, the NAACP and the ACLU — argue that “stop-and-frisk” and “broken windows” policing policies have the effect of profiling communities based on socioeconomic factors that happen to correlate highly with race. The reform advocates, pointing to studies that question the existence of any correlation between stop-and-frisk policing and reduced crime rates, contend the policies create a social environment of fear, not order, and that they disproportionately criminalize the poor and people of color.

Since the early 1980s, when the “broken windows” theory began to be implemented nationally, the number of African Americans in prison has increased steadily. By 2000, the number was more than 26 times greater than it was in 1983, as legal professor Michelle Alexander documents in “The New Jim Crow.”

Though the prison population held steady throughout much of the 20th century, it began to explode in the 1980s despite a consistent decline in violent crime over the same period. The United States has earned the infamous distinction of world leader in incarceration — with 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prison population.

Numerous recent reports, including studies from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Vera Institute of Justice, analyze the policies and practices that have disproportionately filled our jails with poor people and people of color — including fines and fees for misdemeanors, excessive sentences for nonviolent crimes, police dispute resolution in public schools, the criminalization of homelessness, civil asset forfeiture, maintenance of employment barriers for felons.

Families United 4 Justice, like the national criminal justice reform groups, believe the best way forward must focus not on mass deployment of police resources to trouble areas, but on police responsiveness and accountability to the communities that they patrol.

Accountability will entail shifting investment from policing to community. Social order does not depend on police departments more efficiently allocating their resources, as the “broken windows” argument contends. Nor is it enhanced by federal spending on police force training and professionalization efforts and the purchase of technologies like body cameras, as reforms recently announced by the Obama administration promise to do. Social order is rooted in social investment in the institutions that provide social goods — like education, employment, arts and recreation.

Strengthening local coalitions

One of the strengths of Families United 4 Justice is its local commitment to the communities where its members live. Most of the families reside in New York City, while others live in Long Island and throughout the state.

Its concentration over a small area allows the group to focus its advocacy on the local and state levels, where a small committed group can have a disproportionate impact, as seen with the Wisconsin reform for independent prosecution in cases involving police force.

The local approach stands in contrast to the media-based approach of many groups, like Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, or NAN, that descend on localities following tragedies, seeking to leverage their media platforms to garner publicity for the case. The work is certainly important — often times, it can be the primary reason for a killing even finding its way into the news cycle. Yet, such national media-based strategies also bring limitations.

Since their success depends on media visibility, the advocacy efforts of groups like NAN run short on the development of sustainable local infrastructure needed to keep the advocacy campaigns going after the media moment has subsided. Families United 4 Justice, by supporting local groups like the Justice Committee, the Justice for Kenny Coalition and the People’s Power Assembly, seeks to lend its strength to local infrastructure capable of advocating for reform on a more permanent basis.

Additionally, messaging tends to emphasize an advocacy group’s preferred reform approach at the expense of drawing attention to larger issues and leaving room for more expansive, systemic critiques. For example, younger black activists have criticized Sharpton and NAN for promoting limited reforms — emphasizing police training and use of body cameras, rather than the need for investment in education and employment — so as to retain access to the mainstream establishment.

“We don’t want anyone coming up here, showboating and putting up their name,” Howell said. “The families who have been affected can speak for their loved ones. Instead of letting somebody stand in front of us, they could stand behind us and back us up for a change.”

Advocacy groups emphasizing themselves over victims and the policies that need to be reformed is also seen on the local level. Howell and Gonzalez recall feeling that they were being used for publicity — photo opportunities, brief speaking slots at rallies, on-stage appearances at press conferences — without being invited to participate in determining advocacy and organizing strategies.

“Activist communities are so set on pushing their own agenda — whatever their points or demands are,” Chan said. “[The family members] are kind of used as poster children.”

One of the main reasons the families have come together under the banner of Families United 4 Justice is so that they can both advocate directly for their family members and decide for themselves the strategies that will inform their advocacy. Families United 4 Justice has decided to advocate for reforms that significantly alter institutions, like prosecutorial reform, as opposed to reforms that pour more money and resources into what they consider to be failed institutions, like increasing officer training and purchasing body cameras for policemen.

Another benefit of committing to building local organizations is the potential to affect local media coverage of police brutality cases, which often establish the framework the national media then picks up. Police departments often control the narrative around victims of police force, as members of local media develop sources within police departments that they find authoritative. National organizations, like NAN, then find themselves reacting to the already established framework.

The media narrative surrounding Walter Scott, the unarmed black man recently killed by South Carolina police, demonstrates this process. Before the release of the video showing the killing, local police described Scott as the aggressor in the confrontation who stole the officer’s Taser and attempted to use it against him. The video disproved the police’s account, which the media repeated uncritically, as Scott can be seen running away when he was shot. At the end of the video the two police officers seem to be captured planting the Taser next to Scott, who had already been shot.

In the case of Kenny Lazo, he was initially described to the media as a suspect involved in a drug bust who was attempting to flee and acted violently toward police officers. Only during civil proceedings, long after the fact, did the police retract their account and explain to Lazo’s family that he had been apprehended for a minor traffic violation.

“They were creating him to be a person that he is not because they are covering it up,” Gonzalez said.

The hope is that a local group like Families United 4 Justice could develop a relationship with the media capable of acting as a countervailing force. Typically, local stories include quotes from the victim’s family members and friends attesting to his or her positive character. A new institution representing the families of past victims could add a perspective to media coverage that emphasizes the history of police departments offering uncontested self-serving accounts of their loved ones to the media.

The long road ahead

After the press conference in Baltimore, Jesse Jackson, according to Howell, made a point of directing Howell, Malcolm and Garner to his staff, so that they could take down each other’s contact information and stay connected. The group plans on staying in touch and continuing to advocate with any group that respects and highlights their unique perspectives.

For the time being, though, they are focused on building support among the family members of victims.

“We are taking it step-by-step,” Howell said. “We grow as we go. We are planning to unite more families here in New York. We are 35 families strong now, a very good number for just having started out.”

They hope to eventually build their network beyond the state. In addition to the family of Freddie Gray, the group has been in touch with the families of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Oscar Grant in Oakland and Ken Ellis in Albuquerque.

“We plan on connecting with all families [of victims of police killings] around the country,” Howell said. “We have to start with our state first. Then we will be reaching out to other families in other states, and we can do something on a larger, national level. The numbers will speak for themselves.”

Howell is adamant that their struggle for justice has only just started. “This is the beginning,” Howell said. “Because as long as the police are allowed to murder, it will never end.”

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