In 2016, Michael Brown would have turned 20 years old.
Two years ago, however, the high school graduate was fatally shot before he had a chance to go away to college and celebrate his next birthday. Community members and families affected by state-sanctioned violence gathered at Riverside Church Tuesday, Aug. 9 for the two-year anniversary of Brown’s death. On Aug. 9, 2014, Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.
At Sakura Park in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Black Lives Matter NYC organizer Allen Kwabena read the names of more than a dozen police-slain residents. Some of their identities were known because of widespread media attention; other cases garnered less national coverage.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Akai Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Peterson, about the killing of her nephew. “They say the pain goes away in time. When you have a part of your heart, someone that you carried for nine months … it’s like a void that can’t be filled.”
The family members of Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and Nicholas Heyward Jr., a 13-year-old who was shot by cops for playing with a plastic toy gun, joined the ceremony.
In efforts of solidarity with Brown’s mother, residents signed a poster with a cut-out and pasted photo of Brown in his high school graduation outfit. “R.I.P Mike-Mike, as your mother called you. God bless,” wrote Cynthia Howell, the niece of Alberta Spruill, on the poster.
The Journey to Justice Tribunal was created in partnership with Black Lives Matter NYC and Families United for Justice, a nonprofit racial equality organization. Kwabena led two panels with police-slain families regarding “Justice and Accountability” and “Restorations and Reparations.”
Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, who is a member of Families United for Justice, urged residents to vote for politicians who will make cops accountable for brutality.
“You go into your pockets, you’re dead. They are going to shoot you,” Carr said. “We don’t see them killing and choking white children.” Carr continued, “They stay in their cars, eating donuts, drinking coffee and riding [around] seeing who they can arrest.”
The families explained that their health issues often go unnoticed because of constant organizing and petitioning the courts. Ramarley Graham’s mother, Constance Malcolm, and Peterson acquired several hospital bills because of stress-related injuries. “They [politicians] say they will help us, but they have their own agenda,” Malcolm said.
According to the families, advocates can support them with resources such as free counseling and funds for their children’s education. Many families still live in homes or neighborhoods where their loved ones were killed. Some hope for a liaison that can provide them with housing relief.
“There’s no healing, no resources for grieving families,” Peterson said. Spending birthdays and holidays at grave sites to memorialize police-slain children is a common thread for the families.
“Money can’t buy me,” Peterson continued. “At the dinner table for Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day, there will always be an empty spot.”