Mothers of Invention

The families of police-brutality victims build a movement

Camped around a small table and crowded by a forest of filing cabinets, a dozen people met in the Manhattan offices of the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights last week— as they do every week— to share a similar heartbreak. Each had lost a son or a brother to police violence, but the talk was practical. One mother spoke matter-of-factly about the "three types of strangulation." Another talked lawsuits. Still another recounted a pathologist's report that her son "did have a slow death. It's been bothering me ever since."

Like a New York version of the Argentinian mothers of the disappeared, the mothers and sisters of police-brutality victims have become a ubiquitous and heart-wrenching presence at protests, rallies, and teach-ins. But while their public role has not fundamentally altered the largely male iconography of the police-brutality controversy— that macho world certainly has room for women as grieving mothers— behind the scenes these women and their families have become leaders of a citywide movement.

"We need to take advantage of this moment," said one person at the table. "But even if this fades, we'll be here. The mothers and families will be here."

Iris Baez
Andrew Lichtenstein
Iris Baez

Margarita Rosario

"When I hear of a loss, I get the address of the family, then I get some mothers together and we knock on the front door," says Margarita Rosario. The house call is for consolation,but inevitably "we talk about the fight."

It is part of what Rosario does instinctually, as often as three times a month. Family by family, Rosario has slowly built a movement, founded on the death of her son.In January 1995, 18-year-old Anthony Rosario was shot 14 times in a Bronx apartment. Her nephew, Hilton Vega, was also killed.

When the police version of their deaths was contradicted by witnesses, who said Anthony was shot lying facedown, Margarita Rosario and Vega's mother, Carmen Morales, became their own detectives. Eventually, they reached out to parents like Lilian Flores, whose son was killed by a Street Crime Unit officer exactly one year after Anthony.

"We gave ourselves a name just to have a name," says Rosario. "Then calls started. Press, families: It turned out to be something the community needed." That group, Parents Against Police Brutality, has guided almost 100 victims. "I didn't think we were starting a movement, I just felt we had to make it real."

Keeping families in the fightwhen few results have been produced is the hardest part. The two officers involved in Anthony Rosario's death have not faced criminal charges. "Parents lose faith, communities move on. Sometimes the family gets angry, sometimes they give up."

"It hurts," says Rosario, but she and her family remain defiant— her husband, Antonio, plans to attend law school."When you start a movement you have no other choice but to continue," she adds, "Because when another case happens, you feel it deep inside."

Iris Baez

Iris Baez rattles off names as if they are her own sons— Kevin (Cedeno), Nicholas (Heyward), Charles (Campbell). Sitting at the kitchen table, she points to photos of young men on her wall and recalls the details: how they died, if the cop faced charges, how the parents are coping. She has spent four years documenting police misconduct, from news reports on television to people who arrive on her doorstep because they heard she would help.

Her latest project— undertaken through the Anthony Baez Foundation, which she founded in her son's name— is tracking the careers of cops with the most notorious brutality records. In 1994, 29-year-old Anthony died after officer Francis Livoti put him in an illegal chokehold. At the time, Livoti had several civilian complaints against him and was under supervision for aggressive behavior.

"Sometimes if a cop has a complaint, NYPD transfers the cop to another precinct," says Baez. "I want communities to know their cops, the good and the bad."

Baez has become synonymous with protest of police brutality. She has lectured high school students on avoiding confrontations with police and has traveled to campuses handing out literature on the Constitution. Last week she was honored— along with Margarita Rosario— by the City Council.

The mother of 11 children— five adopted— she praises her husband, "who takes care of the children when I am at rallies." And sometimes, when a week has been particularly hectic, Baez makes an escape. She calls up Margarita Rosario, who lives just a few blocks away. "We drive to City Island. Sometimes we have lunch or we just sit on a bench and talk about the memories we have of our sons."

Joyce Huang and Qing Lan Huang

When Qing Lan Huang heard her 16-year-old brother Yong Xin had been killed, her first thought was he'd been shot by someone from the streets of her mostly black and Latino part of Bushwick. Now, four years later, she has become a constant presence at rallies for racial justice.

On March 24, 1995, Yong Xin was playing with a BB gun in a Sheepshead Bay backyard. A police officer was called; he would later claim his gun went off when Yong Xin struggled with him, but an autopsy revealed the teen had been shot in the back of the head. That the 115-pound honors student would have fought a cop is unfathomable to the boy's family. "He was so quiet, such a good kid," sighs Joyce. "And before, we all had the same opinion of the police. They protect us. We didn't know anything about police brutality."

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