Why I will march for my son, Sean Bell, and all those killed by police violence in our communities
by Valerie Bell
It’s hard for me to celebrate on Mother’s Day. I feel the absence of my 23-year-old son, Sean Elijah Bell, who was killed on Nov. 25, 2006. He was out celebrating at his own bachelor party with his friends in New York City. It was only a matter of hours before his wedding, and I was so thrilled.
Sean and his friends were enjoying their night at a club where there happened to be three undercover police officers present, conducting an investigation of the club. A confrontation between patrons erupted outside. One of the undercover officers, Isnora, said he overheard that Sean’s friend was going to get his gun and, after calling in for backup, Isnora followed my son and his friends to their car.
Isnora’s lieutenant had given him the order to proceed with further action. But Isnora never identified himself as an officer, nor did he show a badge when he pulled out his own gun and approached my son and his friends in the car. My son, not seeing the officer’s badge, but only a man confronting him with a gun, kept driving.
Suddenly Isnora began to open fire, followed by the two additional undercover officers who had arrived as backup. The officers said later they thought they heard gunfire coming from Sean’s car, but it was the other officer’s bullets ricocheting. One officer fired 31 shots – and continuously reloaded.
A total of 50 shots were fired at Sean’s car; four of them entered his body, killing him.
That was eight years ago – but not much has changed since then. Seemingly every week another unarmed Black man is in the news, having been killed by a police officer or vigilante who made another fatally false assumption. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray – the list goes on. These were all sons and daughters to someone.
This year we are taking back the original intention of Mother’s Day: a day founded for mothers to stand up together to make collective demands. After the Civil War and the economic turmoil that followed, American abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, horrified by the wars and devastation of her time, penned a proclamation to mothers everywhere:
“Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause,” she wrote. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. … From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, ‘Disarm, disarm!’”
Howe called on women to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
It’s now a century after the founding of Mother’s Day, and our sons are still being taken from us. Society has not disarmed, but instead has militarized to the teeth. Mothers’ sons everywhere are still killing and being killed. We have had enough.
It’s now a century after the founding of Mother’s Day, and our sons are still being taken from us. Society has not disarmed, but instead has militarized to the teeth. Mothers’ sons everywhere are still killing and being killed.
Police militarization has ripped apart the fabric of our communities. Armed with military-grade vehicles and weapons, warrior cops cultivate an atmosphere of tension and fear, exacerbating conflicts instead of resolving them. We all know we’re going to die one day, but it certainly shouldn’t be at the hands of a public servant who’s supposed to serve and protect us.
Last December, I joined a delegation of grieving mothers organized by Code Pink, and we brought our stories to Congress, the White House and the Department of Justice. Did our cries fall upon deaf ears? When will things change? As a mother, I feel that it is my responsibility to help others – to support other mothers whose children have also fallen victim to police violence, to be a voice for my son, Sean Bell.
This Mother’s Day, let’s come together to demand an end to this cycle of violence, this society of institutionalized racism and police militarization. We are healers, teachers, caretakers, givers of life and so much more.
Mothers are powerful; if we come together, we can be unstoppable. That’s why, on May 8, I am traveling to Washington, D.C., to stand with other grieving mothers to call for an end to the killing and to say: “Disarm, disarm!”
Valerie Bell is the mother of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed man killed on his wedding day, Nov. 25, 2006, in a barrage of 50 shots fired into his car by New York plainclothes police officers. The officers thought his friend had a gun. The detectives involved in the shooting were acquitted. She is the founder of Mothers of Never Again (MONA). This story was first published by Common Dreams.
Thinking of my son on Mother’s Day
by Rev. Wanda Johnson
Mother’s Day is always a difficult day for me. So is my birthday, because it was on my birthday in 2009 that my 23-year-old son Oscar Grant III was murdered.
In the early hours of New Year’s day in 2009, after a long night of fun, on their way home my son and his friends were stopped and searched by police officers in the Oakland subway station by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). The police were clearly harassing the boys and, in a moment of unbridled aggression, my unarmed son was fatally shot by a police officer. My heart was absolutely shattered.
Every day I think of Oscar, and I’ve pledged my life to making sure that no other mother has to feel the pain that I’ve gone through from losing a child to police violence. This Mother’s Day, dozens of grieving mothers just like me will be heading to Washington, D.C., for a march to the Justice Department to demand an end to racist and fatal police practices that are literally killing our children.
If you can’t join the moms in D.C., please show support for the grieving mothers by chipping in $5 to buy them flowers. Code Pink will use these flowers to set up an altar outside the Justice Department and weave the flowers into the fence that surrounds the building. The action will be a tribute to our children and to moms around the country who mourn – instead of celebrate – on Mother’s Day.
We have had enough of police militarization and violence, which only perpetuates fear in our communities. We deserve to live in peace and we deserve justice for the crimes committed against our children. On a day when mothers are supposed to be honored and appreciated, let’s show some love for the moms who are hurting the most.
Rev. Wanda Johnson is the mother of Oscar Grant, murdered by a BART police officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 2009. Years of protest in Oakland succeeded in convicting the officer but only of manslaughter, and he served just a few months in county jail. This story was first published by Code Pink.
Echoes of the original Mother’s Day Proclamation at home and abroad
“From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, ‘Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’”
Julia Ward Howe wrote these words 145 years ago, just after the end of the U.S. Civil War. Her proclamation calling for mothers of all nations to come together to settle wars has morphed into the flower and greeting card fest that we will celebrate this weekend.
Let us honor our mothers (and Julia Ward Howe) by listening to the voices of mothers from some of the world’s 28 active war zones. Women are still calling for an end to bloodshed in every corner of the globe.
The war in the Central African Republic pits brother against brother, Christian against Muslim. Madame Kamouss raised her sons in Saidou, a poor community of cinderblock homes, and found herself mediating between her two sons, who had chosen different sides in the conflict.
She hid one and reminded the other of how he had been raised to respect people of all faiths. “Do you want to hurt your brother?” she asked, before her other son came out of hiding. They reunited warily, but did not fight any longer, as a long article in Slate magazine last August reported.
Over 100,000 people died in a decades-long war in the Philippines before negotiations ended the conflict in 2013. The work of repairing, healing and restoring goes on even as violence continues to mar the peace.
Froilyn Mendoza grew up in a small Mindanao village as a member of the Teduray tribe. Her parents pushed for her to be educated, even though many women from her tribal group remained illiterate. The Teduray nominated Mendoza to represent indigenous voices in peace negotiations between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and she became part of the Transition Committee.
“When I hear my children praying that my meetings will end soon, I explain to them that I am serving our people,” she said. “We’ve had 40 years of war, we’ve not developed because we’ve always been confronted with the conflict. I now want my children to live without fear.”
Shereen named her youngest daughter Ayenda, which means future. She and her two daughters live in a refugee camp in Kawergosk, Iraqi Kurdistan. They fled Syria in the early days of the violence, which has now killed upwards of 300,000 people.
More than 2 million children are displaced like Ayenda and her sister Yasmine. Their mother’s wish and plea for the future is simply peace and to go home. Resistance continues inside Syria too, and women are at the forefront of trying to resist the regime through nonviolent means.
It is not just in far flung war zones, however, that mothers are calling for peace and justice. In our own cities and towns, grieving women demand that violence and bloodshed cease. For Gloria Darden, the pain is almost too much for words. “I got a hole in my heart,” the mother of Freddie Gray tells NBC News.
It is not just in far flung war zones that mothers are calling for peace and justice. For Gloria Darden, the pain is almost too much for words. “I got a hole in my heart,” said the mother of Freddie Gray.
Gray died on April 19, after being beaten and brutalized by Baltimore police officers on April 12. The six officers involved in death have been criminally charged, but this is just the beginning of the change that is needed.
Gwen Carr is the mother of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was choked to death by police officers in July 2014. The man responsible for her son’s death, Daniel Pantaleo, has not been held accountable. Carr spoke to the thousands who took to the streets to protest her son’s death, calling on them to “keep on doing it, but do it in peace.”
Valerie Bell is asking us for more. Her son, Sean Bell, was killed by New York City police officers on the eve of his wedding in 2006. She weeps with Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Carr and so many – too many – more mothers. She says, “No more.”
As the founder Mothers of Never Again, Bell is helping to organize a demonstration at the U.S. Department of Justice on Saturday, May 9, demanding justice and racial equality in the names of their slain children.
“This Mother’s Day,” Bell pleaded, “let’s come together to demand an end to this cycle of violence, this society of institutionalized racism and police militarization. We are healers, teachers, caretakers, givers of life, and so much more. Mothers are powerful; if we come together, we can be unstoppable.”
You can hear the echoes of Julia Ward Howe in her words. So, in the spirit of the original Mother’s Day Proclamation, and on behalf of our mothers, in the names of the victims of war, let us join Valerie Bell and so many others in working for true and lasting peace, which is built on justice.
Frida Berrigan, a columnist for WagingNonviolence.org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture. This story first appeared on Waging Nonviolence.