Mothers of Invention
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."
"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 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."
The death of their brother upended Joyce and Qing Lan's world. Because their parents mainly speak the Chinese dialect Toishanese, the burden of translation that immigrant kids shoulder is even weightier as Joyce and Qing Lan spread their family's story and those of other brutality victims across the city in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. This despite the fact, says Qing Lan, that "I don't like to speak in front of hundreds of people. But it happened to my brother."
The officer has never faced trial, but the city settled a civil suit, prompting the family to fund anti-police-brutality groups like the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. "Police brutality," says Joyce, "is happening to every community. It is happening to the Asian community. When Diallo was killed, I was sad, but not surprised. That's why we have to fight back together, every community together."
Abner Louima lives around the corner from Evadine Bailey in East New York. The family of William Whitfield shot by cops on Christmas Day, 1997 lives within three blocks. Kenneth Boss, who was named in the 1997 Halloween shooting death of Bailey's unarmed 22-year-old son, Patrick, is one of four cops indicted in the Amadou Diallo killing.
"The more stories I hear the more I realize it has to stop," says Bailey. "And the only way is if parents make it stop."
Barely 18 months since the death of her only son, Bailey has raised her voice at rallies around the city, including a recent protest by the newly formed Women for Justice that drew 500 to City Hall. "Sometimes it is painful," says Bailey of her new-found activism. "Sometimes it feels good. I remember Patrick going to the Abner Louima protests."
She echoes a complaint made by many parents: "I have heard it over and over, district attorneys do not like to indict cops." Her family accuses Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes of ignoring witnesses who say officers gunned down Patrick.
Boss's role in the Diallo shooting has brought attention to Patrick's killing and renewed the family's fighting spirit. Last week, Bailey's husband, Lloyd, was arrested at One Police Plaza, and their 25-year-old daughter, Lorraine, helped to prepare a civil suit against the city. Says Bailey, "When I meet so many parents and I listen to their stories I just want to cry and never stop. It keeps me going."
Milta Calderon smiles as she recounts her arrest at One Police Plaza last week. In jail, she and a group of women found themselves next to a band of male protesters. "To our surprise, the men were behaving, and the women were shouting and chanting," she says.
For Calderon, it's been a remarkable journey from grief to activism. Her son, Anibal, was killed by a cop from the Street Crime Unit on January 25, 1995, blocks from her Flatbush home. For the first few months after her son's death, she recalls, "I wasn't there." A sister's words pulled her from thoughts of suicide. "She told me, 'You can't grieve, you have to fight for your son.' " Calderon, along with her youngerson Mario, began canvassing the neighborhood, turning up contradictions in the official version. The police reported that 21-year-old Anibal was shot after assuming a "shooter's crouch." He turned out to be unarmed, and an autopsy showed he had been shot in the back.
"It was hard. Words didn't from my mouth; I didn't say the things I felt," says Calderon. But the effort kept her going. "I felt if I wasn't out there, he'd be forgotten."
The police officer who shot Anibal was not indicted. Still, Mario holds onto his lifelong dream of being a cop. "Working on the inside, we can make changes," he says. But his mother now believes "this whole system has to change." Last week in jail, a police officer asked her, "Do you plan to commit suicide?" Calderon replied, "No. We have a long way to go to get justice."
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