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For women bereaved by deadly police force, grief is personal and political


Maria Hamilton has a single plea for God when she wakes in the morning: “I ask him to carry me from the time I roll over in bed and my eyes open.”

This has been Hamilton’s prayer since April 30, 2014, when her 31-year-old son Dontre Hamilton was shot 14 times by a police officer in a Milwaukee park.

Prior to Dontre’s death, an employee at an adjacent Starbucks noticed him asleep in the park and complained to police. Officers twice approached Dontre, who experienced schizophrenia, and did not remove him from the park.

Dontre-Hamilton-Mother

Maria Hamilton holds a photo of her son Dontre Hamilton, who was fatally shot by a Milwaukee police officer in April 2014.

Image: Carrie Antlfinger/AP/Corbis

Another officer, responding to an old message about the complaint, went to investigate and patted Dontre down without warning. A physical confrontation ensued. The officer, who said he feared for his life, shot and killed Dontre.

Hamilton, 54, knows too many women like her — women bereaved when their fathers, brothers and sons encounter a police officer and do not survive. Many of these women are African American, and their grief is not only devastating, but also political. Some of these women, including Hamilton, have become outspoken advocates for reforming police practices and ending policies that disproportionately target people of color and the poor.

Yet, transforming such grief into powerful change is a bittersweet purpose, a constant reminder that one’s loss is inexorably tied to the complicated legacy of race in America.

“Once this happens to you, once you get that phone call that your loved one’s life was taken, it’ll never be the same,” Hamilton tells Mashable. “It’s like learning how to walk again. I choose to take the anger and frustration that I have deep within me and turn it into love.”

Since Dontre’s death Hamilton founded an advocacy group called Mothers for Justice United and has organized marches in Milwaukee. She regularly gathers with other women at Red Arrow Park. Some are afraid their sons will meet the same fate as Dontre; others have already lost a child. Hamilton embraces these women because they share a kindred pain.

This agony grips Hamilton every time she learns another black man or boy, like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner or Walter Scott, has died in a confrontation with police.

There are no comprehensive, definitive statistics on fatal police shootings or violence. A USA Today review of FBI data conducted in 2014 found that a white police officer killed a black person almost two times per week within a seven-year period ending in 2012.

“I relive my child’s death. Every time they take a life, it’s April 30th,” she says. “I have that same ache and same pain and loss.”

Dontre-Hamilton-Mother-Protest

Dontre Hamilton's mother, Maria Hamilton, raises her fist while chanting with protestors at Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Image: Abe Van Dyke/Demotix/Corbis

At some point in the past year, Hamilton’s plaintive cries became political demands. On the anniversary of Dontre's burial in May, Hamilton will march against “police brutality and racial injustice” in Washington, D.C., in a Million Moms March she organized.

Jameca Woody Falconer, a psychologist and director of counseling and psychological services at Logan University in Chesterfield, Missouri, says women and family members bereaved by deadly police confrontations experience what’s known as complicated grief.

The overwhelming, unexpected loss creates intense longing for the deceased, but also bitterness and distrustfulness, and those feelings can worsen over time.

In the wake of Michael’s Brown’s death, Falconer spent time counseling traumatized residents of Ferguson and now has a close relationship with the family of Michael Brown Sr. Falconer says losing a loved one to police violence can be particularly hard for African-American women, many of whom already feel pressure to fulfill the role of a “superwoman.”

As a family’s matriarch, a mother, wife, daughter or sister plays an essential psychological and emotional role, which becomes profound and perhaps impossible to fulfill after a loved one’s brutal, public death. These women may experience depression and not know how to discuss it or seek treatment, Falconer says, because depression and long-term grief are commonly stigmatized in African-American communities.

“They can’t do it all,” she says. “There has to be some breaking going on, too.”

For grieving women, such emotions are often fueled by frustration over the public debate about deadly police force and how victims are portrayed in the press and social media.

“In this case, not only is it out of the blue,” says Falconer, “but it involves your child being dehumanized, being treated as an animal, and everything you [hear] about them is not in their character.”

In a memo [PDF] to the Milwaukee police department, Officer Christopher Manney said Dontre Hamilton had a “very muscular build” and “black eyes with no blinking.”

“The subject was fixated on me with a stare that made me feel as if he was looking through me and wanted to hurt me...,” he wrote.

The police department fired Manney for violating its pat-down policy, but the Milwaukee County district attorney did not charge him with a crime, determining instead that he acted in self-defense.

Wanda Johnson, whose 22-year-old son Oscar Grant III was shot to death by a transit officer in Oakland, California, in 2009, spends much of her time memorializing him through the foundation she started in his name. Among its efforts, the organization has donated backpacks to low-income schoolchildren, offered cash scholarships to high school graduates, provided Thanksgiving dinners to needy families and fielded the Oscar Grant Ballers, a basketball team for local young men.

“It turns into a fight,” Johnson says, “because you want your child’s legacy not to be a legacy of how sometimes our sons are portrayed, but a legacy of really who they are.”

Oscar-Grant-Funeral

Family and friends gather to pay their respects at the funeral service for Oscar Grant on Jan. 7, 2009.

Image: Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

Johnson remembers Grant as caring and attentive, helping his ailing grandfather and lending a hand to strangers when he could. Grant, whose story was the basis for the fictional film Fruitvale Station, was restrained by an officer on a subway platform, and then shot in the back. The altercation was captured on cellphone video.

The officer, Johannes Mehserle, said he intended to fire his Taser. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Johnson misses her son. She mourns the fact that he won’t be able to watch his daughter, now 10, grow up. She feels his absence in quiet, everyday moments.

"There’s always a void left, a chair empty, a laugh you don’t hear from that child anymore, or something funny [he] won’t do anymore,” Johnson says. “You’re left with a bunch of memories.”

Johnson prays with other bereft women. They pray for peace, but also not to fall into depression. They ask God to ease their anger so that fury doesn’t overcome their quest for justice.

She plans to attend the Million Moms March because she knows there must be purpose in her son’s death. “Lives matter,” she says. “I don’t just want to say black lives, but lives matter. To see your child lost puts you in a hopeless situation.”

Wanda-Johnson-Oscar-Grant

Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, speaks at a news conference outside the Los Angeles Courthouse during the trial of officer Johannes Mehserle on June 10, 2010.

Image: AP Photo/Nick Ut/Associated Press

There is a legacy of African-American women channeling their grief from sexual and racial violence into political activism, says Joy James, a professor at Williams College where she teaches political theory and social justice. One of the most prominent examples is Ida B. Wells, who became an anti-lynching activist in 1892 after her daughter’s godfather was lynched in Memphis.

The collective grieving that happens in the wake of tragic deaths, James says, persists unless a movement emerges to fight for justice. The activism of bereaved mothers, and those who express maternal love, resonates in ways that rational, stoic messages from elected leaders, bureaucrats and academics cannot.

Indeed, the outrage over fatal encounters between police and civilians, and particularly black men, has drawn scrutiny to practices like the pat-down or chokehold as well as policies that some argue unfairly target people of color and the poor, including minor traffic violations.

"What you need is people who grieve to actually be shaping our political campaigns and setting demands that exceed the capacity of the norm,” she says, “because the norm is not going to deliver.”

Erica Garner now travels the country talking to communities about her father’s death. In a scene captured last summer by a cellphone camera, a New York City police officer put Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold. A grand jury decided not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in December 2014.

Eric-Garner-Family

Erica Garner, left, with her younger brother, daughter and father, Eric Garner.

Image: Courtesy Erica Garner

“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Pantaleo said in a statement following the grand jury’s decision. “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

Speaking at a recent event in Oakland, California, in the week following the fatal shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Garner described the horror of watching her father’s death — and that of other men — unfold on camera.

“It broke my heart to see someone die so inhumanely,” she said of the Scott shooting, which was recorded on a cell phone camera. “It’s very, very devastating to have your father, your husband, your son be taken away in such senseless violence, and for you to actually see him die on national TV.”

While the case against the officer who shot Scott looks damning, Garner insists the movement for justice cannot stake its hopes on a single conviction: “I say very passionately justice for all, not justice for one.”

Many of these women will not have the opportunity of a courtroom trial, so they focus on informing the public about police practices, talking with community members about their civil rights, and speaking out on behalf of the deceased.

“Me and my family decided to come out and be [Dontre’s] voice, because they demonized him, made it look like he deserved to die,” Hamilton says. “I couldn’t live with that. My spirit wouldn’t rest. That’s why my family is out here advocating for these voices, these lost lives.”

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