Remembering Stolen Lives

By Margot Harry

Revolutionary Worker #1012, June 27, 1999

"We pledge that the life and humanity of these Stolen Lives will not be forgotten. We pledge that their highest hopes and aspirations will live on in us, and that we will seek justice for these and all the Stolen Lives. In this way we pledge that their memory will stay alive in us and will inspire us to fight for justice and a better world."

The Stolen Lives pledge

"Those cops are not going to rest in peace. They are not going to be walking these streets as if they have not killed my son. I pledge to you right now, they are going to have to take me out too before this is all over because I am not afraid to die." Andrea Smith swallowed hard to let these words come out instead of tears. Her son, Justin Smith, was killed last August by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the first time Andrea spoke about Justin's case in public. She had waited until another son was out the clutches of the Oklahoma prisons before exposing how Justin, a young Black man, was killed after he defiantly spit in the face of cops who were beating him.

In April the Stolen Lives Project held induction ceremonies in Riverside, CA, New York City and Greenville, South Carolina. A project of the Anthony Baez Foundation, the National Lawyers Guild and the Oct. 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, Stolen Lives documents the names and circumstances of people killed by law enforcement since 1990. At the ceremonies recent victims of police violence were added to the list: Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times by the NYPD; Brennan King, who was killed by Chicago police at the Cabrini Green housing project; Tyisha Miller, whose murderers were exonerated of any wrongdoing by authorities in Riverside, CA.; and Oscar de Velez, who was shot through the heart by the U.S. border patrol at the Mexico border. Each city where a ceremony was held also added names of people killed in their local area.

I participated in the New York ceremony on April 19 with families of victims of police murder who I have come to know, love and respect for their courage and determination. We gathered at Washington Square Methodist Church in Greenwich Village. Strung across the front of the room was a 15-foot long Stolen Lives banner with more than 1,000 names (including over a dozen "unknowns") of people from across the country killed by law enforcement. Everywhere the banner is taken it has an impact: it was unfurled at the Bronx courthouse rally on the day the cops who killed Amadou Diallo were indicted; it marched at the Washington D.C. protest organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights on April 3; it was carried across the Brooklyn Bridge at the April 15 protest against police brutality in NYC; it was in Philadelphia for the Millions for Mumia protest on April 24. Some people are shocked by all the names. One man in Philly shouted to me that many more people have been killed, and he's right. A new edition of the Stolen Lives book is scheduled to be published this summer. It will contain 2,000 known cases of people killed by law enforcement.

Now these names stared at the 45 of us gathered to remember. Who were they? Why were they killed? The stories of what happened to Amadou Diallo, Brennan King, Tyisha Miller and Oscar de Velez were told and their names placed on the Stolen Lives banner. Families of people whose names are already in the list were presented with Stolen Lives certificates and their stories retold. As each name was added to the list people shouted, "Presente!"

Nicholas Heyward, who recently appeared on the Ricki Lake TV show with Iris Baez to discuss the Stolen Lives project, told us about his 13-year-old son--shot dead by a housing authority cop who is still on the force and was never indicted. Young Nicholas--who had been threatened by police from the time he was 11 years old--was shot while in the projects while playing a game of cops and robbers with a yellow plastic toy gun.

The cousin of Reginald Bannerman performed a dance as a tribute to Reginald--capturing the movements of someone struggling for life. The family believes Reginald, who worked at a bar, was chased to his death on the subway tracks by police who were angered by Reginald telling them to quiet down in the bar.

"When that young man was performing here and he was gasping for air, I thought of [my son] Anthony," said Margarita Rosario, founder of Parents Against Police Brutality and mother of Anthony Rosario and aunt of Hilton Vega, two Puerto Rican youths shot dead by Bronx police as they lay face down on the floor.

"I don't want my son's name on this list. I don't want to wake up one day and they tell me, Lucy, they got your son, they killed him." Lucy Turull was speaking of her son, Jovan Gonzalez, who was severely beaten by a racist gang in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx. One of the cops who questioned Jovan the day he was beaten is the father of one of Jovan's attackers, and the district attorney's office and the cops have refused to arrest anyone. Recently Lucy appeared on TV in Mexico to expose racial violence and police brutality in the U.S. She took the Stolen Lives book with her. "This project is very important because this project can stop kids from dying. This project can stop someone's son from going through what my son is going through. My son is living dead. He doesn't have the life he used to have. I don't know if he will ever have the life he used to have."

In New York, in the wake of the cold-blooded murder of Amadou Diallo, more people from all walks of life are getting in the face of the authorities and demanding that this wave of police violence stop. The authorities are coming back with proposals designed to pacify people and demobilize the movement. Iris Baez, whose son Anthony was choked to death when his football hit a squad car, had a lot to say about this: "When we stop accepting crumbs from the table, then we might see some changes. But in the meantime we're getting crumbs from the table. They're cleaning the table and throwing the crumbs to us and we're accepting it. That's unacceptable. Every time we add a name to Stolen Lives it hurts me because it shouldn't have happened.... We have to say, no more stolen lives. We don't want to add no more names to the list that we already have. And only you people can really do a change."

The families express different sentiment about how the perpetrators of these crimes should be dealt with. But everyone wants justice. Some express a "by any means necessary" kind of sentiment. "We're going to have to go from the east and west coasts, and from Chicago, and just mash this monster in until we suffocate it. It's going to happen," said one parent.

"To know that as long as I live, Douglas will live. We will call his name. It is part of the African tradition, that as long as we remember our loved ones, they will be with us in the present." Errol Maitland was speaking of Douglas Fischer, his son, a college student in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Douglas was killed in 1995 by security guards of Best Buy Department store--accused of trying to make a purchase with a bad credit card. He walked out of the store empty-handed, but the security guards went after him anyway and choked him to death. No charges were ever brought against the security guards.

From Slave Ships to Stolen Lives

A few weeks later Errol Maitland was the keynote speaker at the Stolen lives ceremony in Greenville, South Carolina. With the tap of a hammer, draped with African-print cloth, Zami, sister of Douglas Fischer, placed the first of 18 crosses into the ground as two dozen people gathered on May 1st right in front of the Greenville "Work Detention Center" for a Stolen Lives Memorial and Installation Service.

"This is a very solemn occasion to remember the deaths of our young warrior brothers," said Leola Robinson of the Greenville County School Board. "The loss of life of our young people is a tragic event." A spring wind blew against the African clothing some people wore. The memorial was organized by Efia Nwangaza, an attorney, coordinator for the South Carolina Chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement for Self-Determination, and a USA Campaign Action Worker for Amnesty International. Representing the Stolen Lives Project, Errol read the names and told the story of how they'd been killed by police. As each name was called, the response--"Presente!"--disturbed the South Carolina air.

Efia explained that she was inspired to keep track of what is going on in Greenville when she learned of Douglas Fischer's case and the battle his father has been waging for justice. Now, through the efforts of Efia and others in Greenville, the murders of 16 other people have been brought into the light of day and added to Stolen Lives. One year ago Tyrone Napoleon Salters, "Salt," was killed by police in Greenville. His murder was ruled justified because the cop said he thought the driver of the car Salt was in was going to run him over. The names went on: Humberto Eddie Rodriguez, a 38-year-old Puerto Rican man shot 30 times by a SWAT team after he escaped from prison and barricaded himself in a house to dramatize untreated medical and emotional conditions; Brenda Faye Cooper, 23-year-old African American woman shot dead by a sheriff's deputy who said she threatened him with a knife; Dennis Mickel, 44-year-old white man who died in custody of medical neglect when he was denied heart medication; Frederick Cory Ellis, 33-year-old African American, also shot dead in a traffic stop.

"We're going to post the crosses along the street here as an act of memorialization to remind not just ourselves but the public as well that this is a death house right here." Efia's defiant voice continued, "It's as much a concentration camp and a death house as was Buchenwald and Auschwitz and any other place in Nazi Germany."

"I want to thank you for inviting me to be here in the slave state of South Carolina," began Errol Maitland, "a state where the confederate, or more appropriately, conservative flag still flies proudly atop the state capitol. Therefore, they say, and they recognize, that we are still at war. They remind us everyday that they are at war with us. When you are at war it is difficult to cry, `No Justice, No Peace' in a society that was built on violence, a society that was built on stolen lives, stolen land and stolen labor."

Errol recalled how when he first went to South Carolina after his son had been killed that people would speak in whispers and quiet hushes about how people of color have been murdered in South Carolina. "The hushes and the whispers told me that there are two sets of laws in South Carolina. There is a white law and there is a Black law and the Black law still applies to our people....

"It is profit, I'm reminded, that brought us here to this country," Errol continued. "And it is profit that has kept us in chains. We worked in the rice fields of South Carolina and the cane fields of Georgia and Florida and the Caribbean. We labored in the ports of Boston and New York. When our labor became unprofitable for them, they took us out of chattel slavery and gave us wage slavery. When the jobs dried up in this country they built prisons to incarcerate us. Today in places where there is no longer any industry, where agriculture has died, the new crop that they're growing today is young Black men, men of color. Whether they are Latinos, whether they're Asians or whether they're Africans, they are the new crop they're growing and supplying to penitentiaries and to the jails....We're no longer in the bowels of the slave ships. We're in the bowels of the prisons... We're being traded again on the Stock Exchange where they first traded us in the 1600s when they brought us here to this land."

Remembering Tyisha Miller

"These victims, gathered together in death, shout out from their graves for justice. Their stories and faces gathered in the Stolen Lives book, demand of the living that there be no more stolen lives. In this way, though gone from us, Tyisha becomes part of the fight for a better world, and her death is not in vain."

from the Stolen Lives certificate for Tyisha Miller

"It's an ongoing thing with this brutality. It goes way, way back." The voice was Rodney King's, speaking in Riverside, California at the Tyisha Miller Stolen Lives Induction Ceremony & Rally. On the evening of Saturday, April 17, 250 people gathered at the Life Church of God in Christ in Rubidoux, the west Riverside suburb where Tyisha Miller lived most of her life.

Sponsored by the Riverside Clergy Association, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the United States Pastors Association, the October 22nd Coalition and the Tyisha Miller Steering Committee, the Riverside ceremony brought together families who have continued to speak out for sons and daughters, cousins, husbands, sisters and brothers who have been killed by the police. They were joined by representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International, as well as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (F.A.C.T.S.), and the Watts Committee Against Police Brutality. Rev. Al Sharpton came from New York to speak at the ceremony. And Dick Gregory, a long-time activist for peace, justice and equality, also gave a short talk. Gregory recalled that whenever people went to jail in New York--where over 1000 were arrested for protesting the murder of Amadou Diallo--Tyisha's name was mentioned.

Since the December 28 killing of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller--who was shot by police 12 times in the back while she was unconscious in a disabled car--Riverside authorities have tried to cover up the murder. According to family members and others who witnessed the killing, the cops made racist comments before, during and after the shooting. "Do you want to sic the dogs on her?" they asked a police dog handler while her body was still in the car. They cursed at her and laughed at her grieving relatives, describing the cries of Tyisha's family as "Watts death wails" and a "Negro Kwanzaa festival." These kinds of remarks were made by supervising officers as well as lower-level cops, and were reported by family members and sources within the police department. Immediately after the shooting, during which four cops fired dozens of bullets, Tyisha's car was dismantled and the parking lot where she was killed was paved over.

Meanwhile, the Tyisha Miller Steering Committee was under heavy pressure to back off their demands for justice. Racist mailings were sent to some Black churches. The church of a Steering Committee member in nearby Moreno Valley was shot up and several stained glass windows were shattered. After this incident, the husband of one Steering Committee member died of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by stress.

But on April 17, everybody spoke of their determination to continue the fight. Rev. Bernell Butler, Tyisha's uncle and family spokesperson, said "Today we come to enter Tyisha in the Stolen Lives Project. Good God Almighty. I never thought this would happen. But I thank God that this is happening, because there are too many lives being stolen."

As the names of people from the area who were killed by police were entered into the Stolen Lives list, Rev. Meri Ka Ra Byrd of the Christ Unity Center in Los Angeles said, "Our ancestors have taught us, as long as we continue to call their names, they continue to live as an aspect of good in our lives." Irvin Landrum, Jr. was killed during a traffic stop by Claremont City police 14 days after Tyisha Miller's death. He was represented by his mother, Tracie Lee. Frances Islas spoke out on the murder of her husband, Hector Islas, who was brutally beaten by Riverside police January 28, 1997. One of the cops who clubbed and kicked Hector to death also participated in the choking death of Derek Hayward over four years ago. Derek's mother, Moira Hayward, received a certificate in his name. "Presente," "presente," "presente." The list continued: Julio Castillo and Joe Joshua, killed in the past year by L.A. cops; the many immigrant sisters and brothers who have lost their lives at the hands of the Border Patrol; Marc Fitzsimmons, shot in the back by the LAPD July 2, 1998 and Danny Smith, choked to death while handcuffed in the central L.A. jail in August; James Martinez, gunned down by Riverside County Sheriffs last July; Angry Bear Nieto, a Native American who was killed in Folsom Prison June 2, 1988. Angry Bear's father, Tony Nieto, has been part of the protests against Tyisha Miller's killing since the first march in January.

Outside the church, three young Black men from Riverside talked to a reporter. This was their first political protest, and they were proud of how people were uniting, but they were quick to make a point about the deep reservoir of anger among the basic people in the Black community: "What you get here, you get the side of the community that's like the church side of the community," one commented, "But you have the people that's out there in the streets that have a big eye on this thing, too--about what's going to happen with these police." "It takes a revolution." His friend added, "You can't have a solution without revolution."


I was struck by how these ceremonies revealed that the police murder of each person is part of a nationwide epidemic. We are not supposed to know about all these murders by police. We are not supposed to care. We are supposed to conclude that there must be some justification for the killings we do hear about, that the cops are protecting people when they kill somebody. Stolen Lives reveals what a lie this is, and by remembering the victims, the Stolen Lives induction ceremonies restored dignity and humanity to those whose lives have been so unjustly ripped away from us. When someone is killed, I think it is especially important to hold these ceremonies immediately. Because Stolen Lives makes clear the depth and scope of the problem and can galvanize people right away for the battle ahead. The police and the rulers they serve are deadly serious about keeping people in their place. It is going to take a fierce fight to force them to back off their relentless infliction of police control.

On Monday, June 14, the Stolen Lives Project in Los Angeles held a ceremony to add Margaret Mitchell's name to the list. The ceremony took place right at the street corner where Mrs. Mitchell, a homeless Black woman, was shot down by the LAPD on May 21. She was 54 years old when she was killed, walking away from the police with her shopping cart.

As I learn about yet another life that has been violently ended, stolen, by police, I think about the truth of what's been written in this newspaper: the problem in the world today isn't that there's too much violence, the problem in the world today is that there isn't enough revolutionary violence to end all the reactionary violence. These cold-blooded murders by police, one after another, make you confront what this system is doing to people and what people need to do to this system if we're ever going to live in a different kind of world. I agree with the brother in Riverside: revolution is the hope of the hopeless.

In Struggle, Margot Harry

P.S. One thing people can do right now to push Stolen Lives out even more broadly in society is to financially support the project. Tens of thousands of dollars are needed right now for Stolen Lives: to get new books printed, to get public service announcements about Stolen Lives aired on tv, to continue research for more names of people killed by cops. I hope readers of the Revolutionary Worker will be generous contributors to Stolen Lives' fund raising efforts. Readers can write checks (tax deductible) to Oct. 22/IFCO/Stolen Lives and send them to Oct. 22 Coalition c/o KHL Inc., 160 First Ave., Box 124, New York, New York 10009, or call 1-888-NO BRUTALITY.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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