Families of African Americans killed by police talk of trauma
On the 5th anniversary of Tamir Rice’s shooting, victims’ families share the trauma that follows police brutality.
The video is short – 30 minutes – the final half-hour of Tamir Rice’s life, captured by a surveillance camera on November 22, 2014.
It is grainy, so grainy that it is hard to even make out the toy gun that a 911 caller claimed Tamir was pointing at passersby. The 12-year-old paces on the pavement, then sits in the gazebo.
A police cruiser speeds onto the grass beside the gazebo.
Two seconds later, Officer Timothy Loehmann has fatally shot Tamir.
Not two minutes after that, Tamir’s 14-year-old sister, Tajai, can be seen running across the snow to reach her wounded brother. She is tackled to the ground by the police.
It takes eight minutes for paramedics to arrive.
Many of us have seen at least part of the video, and know that afterwards, a grand jury declined to indict either Loehmann or Frank Garmback, the other officer on the scene. Many of us know that Tamir’s family filed a wrongful death suit against Loehmann, Garmback, and the City of Cleveland, which was settled to the amount of $6m.
What few of us can possibly know, however, is the extent of the grief and post-traumatic stress Tamir’s family have faced in the wake of his death.
Tamir Rice’s mother – ‘I’m learning how to breathe’
“We are very angry, very sad and very depressed,” says his mother, Samaria Rice. “We are still experiencing it to this day.”
Three of Samaria’s children, Tajai, Tabon and Tasheona, were only teenagers when their younger brother was killed: the oldest among them, Tasheona, was just 18.
Tajai, who was handcuffed and detained by police as her brother lay dying nearby, developed an eating disorder after the shooting.
“PTSD causes negative behaviour, and not getting that addressed, you make bad decisions,” says Samaria. “My older daughter was planning to be a paediatrician; now, she has two babies. My son was looking to get into carpentry, because he likes to build things. Now, he has a record. My younger daughter Tajai is also now a mother.”
Becoming a grandmother of four children in four years was not in my plan.”
Like many mothers of police brutality victims, Samaria Rice has filled her grieving process with activism.
“I never got a chance to grieve Tamir because I had to get active right away, but working with the community, and with other families surviving police brutality, I feel like part of a team. I’m trying to pace myself these days. I’m learning how to breathe.”
Marshall Miles’s sister – ‘The police are supposed to protect us, not kill us’
Maureen Miles, whose brother Marshall died in 2018 in the custody of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s office, sets her alarm for six o’clock every morning.
“I never make it,” she says. “I’m always up before then.”
Her brother died of cardiac arrest after being hogtied, with his wrists and ankles behind his back. On the video released by the sheriff’s office, Miles can be heard telling officers he cannot breathe. Seconds after being placed on the floor of a jail cell, he stops breathing altogether.
After being comatose in a hospital for four days, Marshall died.
“At first, it was shocking, just unbelievable. It still is,” she says. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since my brother died, and it’s been over a year. I toss and turn all night, and wake up with my brother on my mind. My entire family is just stressed, sad and confused – if it’s not me, it’s my mom, or it’s my sister.”
Maureen Miles speaks about a special kind of grief faced by the surviving families of police brutality victims.
“I don’t get to grieve in private,” she says. “I have to hold it together in public, or else people will stereotype me. I’m also afraid to advocate for my brother, because if I speak out, the police might harm me. The police know me – they killed my brother – they know where I live. The police are supposed to protect us, not kill us,” she says. “I don’t feel safe anymore.”
Anka Vujanovic, director of the Trauma and Stress Studies Center at the University of Houston, says that this type of grief response is not unusual among families of police brutality victims.
“Often, people are grappling with how the trauma changed their belief systems – not only their beliefs about themselves, but about the world around them. PTSD affects notions of trust, safety, esteem, intimacy, and power and control. Conceptualising this kind of trauma might cause a survivor to mistrust authority figures and the legal system.”
With good reason: Vujanovic points to the very special intersections involved in the particular PTSD encountered by surviving families. “There was the death of the family member, but also the racial trauma, and the trauma that has been inflicted by an entity that should be there to protect everyone. If they weren’t already questioning the legal system, they are now. These are complex intersections of trauma that these families are navigating.”
Sherita Jackson – ‘Who do we call when the police are the ones harassing us?’
Sherita Jackson, whose October 19 arrest went viral after her 12-year-old son filmed it at her request, says police have harassed her since the incident, with one officer driving by and parking his squad car in front of her house. “Who do we call when the police are the ones harassing us?” she asks.
Sherita was arrested when a Family Dollar employee called the police on her for trespassing. She was a former employee of the store and says the call arose out of a work-related dispute. When the sheriff’s deputy arrived, she refused to show him identification and he tripped her, pushed her into the dirt, and sat on her while putting on handcuffs. Jackson’s five-year-old, Leilani, can be heard on the video, screaming, as her brother Tyreesce films the arrest.
“I could see tears running down Tyreesce’s face,” Sherita says. “I teach him to cooperate with the law, but how do I also teach him that he has a right to stand up? I don’t know. I’m so lost.”
During the arrest, she says, her daughter’s school counsellor drove by, and within minutes, the entire school community was standing on the side of the road.
“The teacher grabbed her off the street and put her in her van,” Sherita explains, but not before Leilani witnessed the most brutal parts of the arrest. On the video, as the officer cuffs her mother and someone beckons her from somewhere off-camera, Leilani can be heard asking, “Are you going to be OK without us?”
“She’s traumatised,” Sherita says. “She cries over everything now. Everything in her life is a trigger. Three days after the arrest, she slipped and fell, and screamed for an hour straight. I’ve never heard her cry like that before. I can’t get her out of my bed at night.”
Tyreesce has been quiet, she says, but she gave him a notebook to write down his feelings and sees him writing in it often.
As she manages her children’s PTSD, Sherita must also handle her own.
“I’m dealing with a lot of things because of this situation. I still have marks on my wrist from the handcuffs, and off and on, I have pain in my lower back. I don’t want to pop pills, but I have no insurance. Physically, I’m in a lot of pain. Emotionally and mentally, I’m truly wrecked. I lost my balance in my boyfriend’s truck, and there was sand on the floor, and it was a trigger for when I was face down in the dirt with the officer sitting on my back. I broke down crying. It was happening all over again.”
Sean Bell’s mother – ‘I get tired of hearing about young men and women of colour being killed’
Valerie Bell, whose son Sean was shot 50 times by undercover New York City police officers on his wedding day in 2006, speaks about the longer-term repercussions of state-actor violence.
“I still remember that day,” she says. “I went to the beauty parlour to get my hair done, thinking I was going to my son’s wedding. Instead, I began to prepare for his funeral. I lived each day in numbness.”
Her son was 23.
“Sean died on November 25 and was buried the following Friday,” she says, “but I went back to work after Christmas. I didn’t give myself time to grieve. I didn’t want to. I cried every day at work, and at that time I worked for Jamaica Hospital, so I went to work knowing that my son had passed through that very morgue.”
Valerie says her older son, William, and her daughter Delores were affected as well.
“Delores didn’t want to go back to school, so we homeschooled her. Neither of my kids likes to talk about it, but they’re still proud of their brother, and proud of the life he lived. He hit a home run out of the stadium at Ozone Park at the age of six, and travelled the world playing baseball.”
When Sean was killed, he had just taken the test to join the electrician’s union and had a pending job interview.
Three police officers involved in the shooting went to trial but were acquitted by a judge.
Like many surviving family members, Valerie managed her grief in part by becoming politically active.
“I kept working for social justice afterwards, because I get tired of hearing about young men and women of colour being killed for no reason. I worked on this issue until 2014. I was not going to stand by and not be a voice for Sean Elijah Bell.”
She recalls a big win she helped secure in 2015, when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order appointing the New York State attorney general as special prosecutor in cases where law enforcement officers are involved in civilian deaths.
“If I’d stayed home, I wouldn’t have made it,” Valerie says. “We just continue. We don’t stop. People need to vote, and they need to know who their people are – their senators, councilmen, assemblymen. Ancestors led the way for us. We have to keep going.”
Like many survivors, Valerie has not been to therapy, although she has written a book, Just 23, that details the spiritual journey she travelled after her son’s death.
“I live according to the word of God,” she says. “I learned through my preacher and my bishop. My bishop said Sean was a sacrificial lamb. When I meet other families, I tell them God has a purpose and a plan for our lives. We step alone on faith, and know who our children are – I didn’t say were – so we can speak for them.”
Like Valerie Bell, Maureen Miles speaks of the way community has helped her through: “There’s a community of surviving families who know what we’re going through. And the community at large is outraged. We notice, and we really appreciate the way the community has come together for us. Tanya Faison of Black Lives Matter Sacramento has been a big help.”
Philando Castile’s colleague – ‘He was someone the community loved’
When Philando Castile, a school nutrition services supervisor at JJ Hill Montessori, was shot in his car by a St Anthony, Minnesota police officer in 2016, the world took note. Philando’s death had been live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. Philando had been reaching for his wallet when he was shot.
On the video, which continues in the squad car in which Diamond is taken into custody, her four-year-old daughter can be heard comforting her. “It’s OK, mommy,” she says. She repeats. “It’s OK.”
The four-year-old has just witnessed the shooting and death of the man who was a father figure to her.
Philando’s killing, at the hands of Officer Jeronimo Yanez, ignited outrage and protest across the city and left a hole in the community at JJ Hill.
“He was known for his kindness,” says Jackie Turner, the chief operations officer of St Paul Public Schools. “He was someone who the community loved and respected for his humility, his meekness and his kindness, and especially for the way he treated children.”
Because Philando was killed in the summer, the school had a chance to decide how to welcome students and staff back.
“We moved immediately towards offering support the first few days of school, working with the community to talk about what we could do to ensure that the great things about Mr Castile’s life lived on. One thing we did was design a Good Space Mural.”
The Good Space Mural, she explains, is “community art.” As a travelling mural, it is now used in marches and other community projects. The school also planted a peace garden on school property, and the teacher’s union donated a bench. The St Paul Federation of Educators planted a tree in honour of Philando’s legacy.
“Because JJ Hill is located in an artistic district, the school chose to have an artist in residence, who can work with students and community to continue to heal through art. At the end of the day, Castile’s family is first, even though he was also part of the community. We honour their wishes at all times. His concerns touched so many lives, but his family is so beautiful, and we always work with them to celebrate his life,” says Jackie.
When we think of police brutality victims, we often think of those victims relationally – as other people’s husbands, daughters, fathers or sisters.
But we would do well to think, too, of the victims’ families; those left behind to face an intense and public grief, watching their loved ones die over and over again on courtroom video, observed in their trauma not only by the public but by the state itself.
For police brutality does not only victimise its victims, it ripples out to families, to communities and, eventually, as with any injustice, it ripples out to all of us.