As Catherine Walker stepped out from a crowd gathered Wednesday, May 2, at the Spring Street entrance of the Hall of Justice in downtown L.A., she clutched a clear plastic bag containing a lock of braided hair. “This is what’s left of my baby,” the mother of Grechario Mack said in a quaking voice.
Her son was killed by police at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall just three weeks earlier. Mack was the 309th of 364 people killed by police nationally in 2018 as of May 2, according to a Washington Post database. Killedbypolice.net puts Mack at 359 of 418 through April 30.
Police reported Mack was brandishing a knife, and that he was shot when he ran toward a group of shoppers. Mack’s relatives say he suffered from mental illness but was not violent, and lethal force was not necessary. “They shot my son in the back. They murdered him,” said Mack’s father, Quintus Moore.
A day before Mack’s death, Kenneth Ross was shot and killed in Gardena following a foot pursuit with police after a report of shots being fired. “They took my baby’s father away,” said Jaymisha Jones, Ross’ partner of eight years and mother to the couple’s son.
These were just two of the stories shared with a group of 50 protesters and families of victims of fatal police shootings, who have gathered weekly at the Hall of Justice to call for the resignation of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
The testimonials of family members were staged in front of a banner held by protesters that read “Prosecute Killer Cops”; it contained the names of more than 100 people allegedly killed by police. “We’re in it for the long haul,” said Melina Abdullah, a founding member of Black Lives Matter L.A., on the group’s 30th weekly meeting at the Hall of Justice. “The struggle is long and we haven’t won yet. I want to underscore — yet.”
She added that victims are more than just a hashtag, referring to the way Twitter users put the # sign before names of the purported victims.
Wednesday’s gathering, on a bleak 60-degree day, was about more than just telling victims’ stories, however. Volunteers also circulated through the crowd to collect signatures for an effort to get a measure on the November ballot to strengthen the oversight committee for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The groups on hand, including Black Lives Matter, Reform L.A. Jails, Centro Community Service Organization and others, also announced they were launching a statewide coalition called the Justice Teams Network.
According to organizers, the network will send members to areas across the state where police violence occurs, in order to mobilize communities, provide aid to affected families to help them “navigate the system,” interview witnesses to counter police versions of events and “respond radically to state violence.” “We can’t focus on these as individual and isolated incidents,” said Cat Brooks, executive director of the Justice Teams Network. “We want to link teams at the statewide level.”
The network also will focus on legislation and public information and outreach, organizers say. According to Brooks, three areas are of particular interest to her group: Assembly Bill 931, which would prohibit the use of deadly force in a number of instances; Senate Bill 1421, which would require police to be more forthcoming with officers’ personnel records and histories; and an effort to repeal or amend the so-called Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which affords officers certain protections from prosecution and investigation.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, called the officers’ Bill of Rights “a huge obstacle” to police accountability. “Police officers have the licence to kill with impunity. The added layer of rights granted under the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights makes it practically impossible to investigate officers and hold them accountable,” Cullors said in a statement.
Brooks admitted that it was a large task to simultaneously help families at a grassroots level and push for major statewide legislation, adding she didn’t have the “luxury” of working on just one front. “You can’t do one without both or nothing will happen,” she said.
Wednesday’s Los Angeles rally was the first of three similar events in the state this week. Gatherings are scheduled in Oakland on Friday and in Sacramento on Saturday.
In addition to the talks, signatures were collected for a local effort called the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative. The ballot measure, which requires 150,000 signatures to be placed on the November ballot, seeks to give “teeth” to the Sheriff’s Department’s Civilian Oversight Commission, by providing it with subpoena power, according to campaign director Jasmyne Cannick.
Although the county Board of Supervisors voted to implement the oversight commission in 2016, Cannick says the body has no power, rendering it ineffective if not useless and unable to provide the transparency residents seek. “If the mandate is to be a link with the community, how can they do that if they don’t have access to information?” Cannick said.
Another aim of the initiative is to ensure supervisors invest some of the $3.5 billion she said is planned for building new jails into providing alternatives to incarceration, such as youth programs, bail reform and mental health and homelessness programs. “The current path is unsustainable,” Cannick said. “We need to figure out alternatives and we need to be bold.”
Cannick said she did not have an updated count of collected signatures but believed her group was “on track” to get the initiative on the ballot. “We want to make transparency and responsibility a real thing,” she said. “We don’t just want to take all our money and build more jails.”
While larger issues and legislation were on the minds of some Wednesday, for the families and friends of those killed, goals were more personal. Before family members gave their personal testimonies, the event began with a pouring-of-libations ceremony to pray for and invoke ancestors and the dead.
As Abdullah shook water onto the ground, the names of victims of police violence were called out. Attendees then repeated the names in unison, adding the word ase, pronounced ashay, derived from a Yoruba concept of the power to make things happen and produce change.
Lisa Hines held a picture of her daughter, Wakiesha Wilson, who died in 2016 while in custody at the Metro Detention Center. “I talk to her. I ask her to give me strength,” she said. “I ask her what happened. She said, ‘You already know. They killed me.’ She’s telling me, ‘Stay woke, Mama.’ I got ya, baby. I’m gonna fight ’til I can fight no more.”
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The Los Angeles City Council voted to pay up to $298,000 in a settlement regarding Wilson's death, the Los Angeles Times reported on Dec. 13. Officials say she hanged herself, but family members dispute that she was suicidal.
Also on hand was Carlos Montes, representing Centro CSO and Boyle Heights, who called for black and brown unity.
Jesus Romero, whose 14-year-old son, Jesse, was killed in 2016, causing a loud outcry in Boyle Heights, also spoke, asking for justice for his son. In March, it was announced LAPD Officer Eden Medina, who shot the boy, would not face charges. Romero was one of six people in Eastside neighborhoods shot by officers in the Hollenbeck Division.
Asked what message he would pass to Lacey if he had the chance, Quintus Moore, said, “If you ever decide to do the right thing, this would be a good time.”