Atlanta, Georgia – When Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old father, was fatally shot in the back by an Atlanta police officer at a Wendy’s drive-through earlier this month, Monteria Robinson was forced once again to relive the worst moments of her life.
“I can speak for all the mothers that each time we see yet another police killing, it takes us back to when we lost our children. We feel that trauma all over again,” Robinson says. “It brings back all the pain. But most of our pain is anger because if they would have just listened to us or taken my son’s case seriously years ago, then maybe Rayshard would still be alive.”
“I wasn’t at Rayshard’s funeral, but I still cried with his family. I know their pain. I’ve been through their pain. I’m still going through that pain. I know what it’s like because my son is never coming home to me.”
In 2016, Robinson’s 26-year-old son Jamarion, a former student-athlete, was shot 59 times during a police raid in the East Point suburb of Atlanta. Despite mounting evidence that the officers had used unlawful force in the raid, not one of the 15 officers has been charged over the incident.
The death of George Floyd, who was killed last month when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, has triggered mass protests across the United States demanding an end to police violence and systemic racism. For numerous families who have lost loved ones to police violence, the protests have renewed hopes that justice may finally be obtainable.
But for grieving Black mothers in Atlanta, city authorities’ promises and speeches against police brutality have rung hollow. Following the killing of Floyd, Atlanta’s mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she was appalled by the incident. “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt,” Bottoms said at the time.
But Robinson is not buying it.
“It makes me so angry. They’re all going on the news and talking about George Floyd and how appalling his killing was,” Robinson says. “But you know what else is appalling? My son being shot 76 times [including exit wounds]. I know they’ve never seen someone shot that many times in their lives. How come that wasn’t also appalling to them?
“We all want justice for George Floyd. But why don’t they also talk about justice for Jamarion Robinson, for Jimmy Atchison, for Oscar Cain, and for so many others,” she adds, listing the names of those killed by police in Atlanta.
According to Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative, at least 1,098 people were killed by police in the US in 2019, and 509 people have been killed since the start of this year. Black people make up 28 percent of those killed by police since 2013, despite being only 13 percent of the population, and are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people.
Atlanta, often referred to as the country’s “Black Mecca,” owing to its strong Black upper and middle class and its numerous Black-owned businesses, is not immune to police violence. From 2013 until the end of 2019, Black people were killed at least 8.8 times the rate of white people by the Atlanta police department, according to Mapping Police Violence.
“I’m tired of seeing them on the news talking about how Atlanta is such a great place for Black people because it’s not,” Robinson says. “They’re killing us here, too.”
Jamarion was Robinson’s first child and the first grandchild in the family. “When I had him, he was all of our baby,” Robinson recalls, sitting at a table in her home in northern Atlanta with folders and legal documents piled beside her.
“He was such a good kid growing up,” she continues. As an adult, Jamarion “was very playful. Every time we saw him he would always pick us up and spin us around and joke with us. He was smart, loving and giving. If he had $20 and someone didn’t have any money he would give them $10. That’s just the kind of person he was.”
I'm my son's voice and no one can speak for him better than I can so I need to make sure everyone hears me loud and clear.
Robinson chokes up as she remembers her son, dabs her eyes, and apologises profusely.
She is not often seen crying, and describes herself as a “warrior, a fighter, and a queen”. She has spent every waking moment of the last four years tirelessly working to get justice for her son.
“I never cry,” she explains, still trying to regain her composure. “But for some reason I’m crying today. Usually when you see me I’m a firecracker. You won’t see me cry in front of the media. That’s not me. I’m my son’s voice and no one can speak for him better than I can so I need to make sure everyone hears me loud and clear.”
But the long journey to get justice for Jamarion has taken an emotional toll on Robinson. “I have anxiety every single day and I only have a few hours of sleep each night,” she explains, her voice breaking. “Those officers are going home to their families each day; they’re sleeping fine and resting. I haven’t been able to rest for four years.”
On that fateful August day, a joint fugitive task force made up of more than a dozen officials from various local police departments and headed by the United States Marshals Service went to Jamarion’s girlfriend’s apartment, where Jamarion was at the time, with an arrest warrant that alleged Jamarion had pointed a firearm at two Atlanta police officers a week prior, which Robinson believes was a case of mistaken identity.
According to Robinson, on August 3, two days before Jamarion was killed, Steve O’Hare, an officer from the Atlanta police department who was assigned to apprehend Jamarion, called Robinson, asked to get in touch with her son and claimed that he was following up about a July incident when Robinson had called the police after Jamarion had poured gas in her home.
Robinson says she provided O’Hare with Jamarion’s girlfriend’s number and informed him of Jamarion’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and that he had gone off his medication, which O’Hare has also admitted to in a statement.
“I told him that he was a good kid, but he was suffering from a mental illness,” Robinson explains. “I was making plans to meet with the police and solve the issue because Jamarion was planning to return to school.”
But despite being informed of Jamarion’s struggle with mental illness, the officers arrived at the apartment, some of them armed with submachine guns, forced entry and fired approximately 99 shots, according to an expert disclosure report that has accompanied the family’s civil suit against five of the officers. They then proceeded to throw a flashbang at Jamarion, as he lay bloodied on the ground, and dragged his body down a flight of stairs and handcuffed him.
The police alleged that Jamarion had a gun and had shot at the officers. But there was no evidence found to support this claim, according to the report. A gun was found at the scene, but it was inoperable and did not have Jamarion’s fingerprints on it, says Mario Williams, a prominent civil rights lawyer working on the family’s civil case.
A forensic examination, carried out by a private investigator hired by Robinson, uncovered that someone had stood directly over Jamarion’s body and fired two bullets into him. According to Williams, there is an allegation that a photo has surfaced of officers posing beside Jamarion’s lifeless body after the incident.
Al Jazeera reached out to Paul Howard, the Fulton County District Attorney, who is responsible for handling the criminal case, about the photo. He would neither confirm nor deny its existence, but told Al Jazeera “there are many pieces of evidence that we’re going to present to the grand jury.”
Howard noted that he had planned to take the criminal case to a grand jury, which would decide whether or not to indict the officers, in March, but those plans were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that he does not have plans to bring charges against the officers, although Williams says such a move would help convince a jury to indict the officers.
We shouldn't have to build a whole social movement to get these people to do their jobs.
Robinson, however, is weary of Howard’s promises, telling Al Jazeera that Howard has told her on several occasions that he would be bringing the case to a grand jury, but has continuously “dragged his feet”.
According to Howard, the case has been drawn out partly due to limitations in the initial investigation into the shooting which has forced him to employ eight different experts to piece together what happened.
“This case has been going on for four years and all the evidence is there,” Robinson says. “Why would these officers still be patrolling our communities when they executed my son? And look, they’re still killing people. We shouldn’t have to build a whole social movement to get these people to do their jobs.”
Following the killing of Rayshard Brooks, it took less than a week for Howard to bring felony charges against the officer who shot him; the other officer involved is also facing criminal charges, including aggravated assault.
“Paul Howard is running around TV and putting charges on officers while there’s still families in Atlanta that haven’t gotten justice for many years,” Williams says, adding that Howard has also actively “undermined” Robinson’s civil case, including refusing to share evidence with Williams.
Al Jazeera asked Howard about this. He did not directly respond but said that the civil case had already been “dismissed” by a federal court. Williams disputes this.
While a court ordered that the city of Atlanta, the city of East Point, and Fulton and Clayton counties be dismissed as defendants, the suit has continued against the five officers involved in shooting Jamarion inside the apartment.
“The civil suit is still very much ongoing,” Williams insists.
Howard added that he was able to swiftly charge the officers involved in killing Brooks because of the bodycam footage that documented the shooting. But “the reason we have not been able to go forward [with Jamarion’s case] is because we just didn’t have the testimony or video that would allow us to recreate the scene.”
“When we go before a grand jury we have to make sure we are as prepared as possible […] so we are very careful about that,” he added.
Williams, however, believes the decision to charge the officers over Brooks’s killing was “politically motivated” and meant only to appease the Black Lives Matter movement as Howard faces an upcoming runoff election in August and the biggest challenge to his position since he took office in 1997.
“He has been telling this family for years that he’s going to prosecute these officers and try to indict them. And he hasn’t done a thing,” Williams says. “There’s nothing stopping him from moving forward with either charges or an indictment.”
One of the officers involved in Jamarion’s death and named in the family’s civil suit, Willie Sauls, was also complicit in the violent arrest and tasing of two Black students in Atlanta last month who were on their way home from a protest and began filming an arrest police were making from their car. Earlier this month, Howard also announced criminal charges against the six officers, including Sauls. Four of the officers have been fired, while Sauls and one other officer were put on desk duty.
Sauls was also involved in at least two other fatal shootings in Atlanta.
Robinson’s anger boiled over when she saw Howard speedily bringing charges against police officers amid public pressure.
“How dare he fire and put charges on the officers who tased those students when he hasn’t even arrested the officers who murdered my son?” Robinson asks, her voice rising sharply.
“Y’all killed my baby and I’ve had to carry this burden around for four years. I feel like I can’t take it anymore. I want their immediate arrests and I’m not stopping until that happens. My son will not die in vain.”
Jacqueline Sanders is shy and soft-spoken. “I never thought I’d ever be going to protests or speaking to journalists,” Sanders says, sitting on a couch in her living room, clenching a pillow with her slain son’s image imprinted on it.
“I don’t like any kind of attention. But Oscar is forcing me to use my voice for the first time,” she adds.
Sanders’s son Oscar Cain, a well-known community activist in Atlanta, was shot and killed by a police officer in March of last year. Marquee Kelley, the officer who shot Cain, wrote just three sentences in his police report on the incident.
Kelley’s recounting of Cain’s killing is echoed in countless police reports across the US when a Black man is killed: Kelley attempted to arrest Cain after a citizen alerted Kelley that there was an armed man near the northbound ramp of Atlanta’s I-85 highway. Cain ran away from Kelley and during the chase Cain allegedly showed a gun. Kelley fired one shot that fatally wounded the 32-year-old.
Just like that, described in three sentences, Cain’s two children, 10-year-old Sky and 14-year-old Malicah, were left without a father.
“Man Man was full of joy,” Sanders says, using Cain’s nickname. “He was always the life of the party. He attracted the spotlight and would always put a smile on your face. He wanted to see people happy and brought a lot of joy. He had the biggest smile and laugh.”
Cain had dedicated years of his life to organising Black communities across the US and in his hometown of Atlanta. One of the most important issues for Cain was fighting police brutality and he had actively worked with mothers whose children had been killed or brutalised by the police.
He fought for people who didn't have many standing up for them and he tried to be their voice.
Sanders’s eyes fill with tears. “I knew he was an activist, but I didn’t know to what extent,” she explains. “I didn’t know he was actually out there with a bullhorn doing it in such a big way. I found out all about his activism during a protest we had for him. I couldn’t imagine being out there like he was. I’m always so uncomfortable at the protests.”
Sanders wipes away tears and a wide smile forms on her face. “I’m so proud of him,” she says. “He fought for people who didn’t have many standing up for them and he tried to be their voice.”
Carey Jenkins, 43, an Atlanta-based organiser for the Working Families Party, met Cain more than a decade ago at an organising and non-violent conflict resolution training in Atlanta. “Back then Oscar didn’t know anything about politics or activism and had never been on a plane; he had never really left his block,” Jenkins recalls. “But when I met him I saw something in him. He was a leader and it was his voice that could go and touch other young Black males around the country and they would listen to him.”
— AJ+ (@ajplus) October 11, 2014
Cain was soon travelling to numerous US cities to organise communities around various issues, including police brutality, mass incarceration, and voting rights. He had also supported activists in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown there in 2014.
Cain was a strong advocate for police bodycams and policies to ensure stronger police accountability. Ironically, Kelley was wearing a bodycam when he fatally shot Cain, but did not activate it.
Every Black male in America knows that the penalty for pulling out a gun in front of a police officer is going to be death.
“There’s no bodycam footage, so without that we only have one side of the story and that’s the officer saying Oscar brandished a weapon,” explains Mawuli Davis, a civil rights lawyer and Atlanta-based organiser who has taken up Cain’s case. The lack of footage or eyewitnesses has posed serious challenges to the case, Davis notes.
But the Black Lives Matter protests have given him hope. “What these young protesters have done is elevated Black lives and the struggle of Black people. So I’m more hopeful now than I ever have been that we can get justice for Oscar.”
Jenkins dismisses the allegations that Cain had brandished a gun. “Every Black male in America knows that the penalty for pulling out a gun in front of a police officer is going to be death,” he says. “And I know Oscar was not suicidal.”
The case is still under investigation and Howard told Al Jazeera that he has obtained “additional information” about a gun found on the scene, but would not share the details. Sanders says the family has not been updated on any new developments in Cain’s case.
“Oscar was a loving father and he had a beautiful spirit and heart. He was selfless and he believed in his people and fought for them. And this crooked, evil system executed him in cold blood,” Jenkins says.
“Had it been one of us, Oscar would be fighting for us every day and he would be lifting up our names at the front lines of these protests. He was my baby brother and friend and now I have to be the voice for him because he’s no longer here.”
Robinson never thought police violence would directly affect her. She remembers having a conversation with Jamarion after the killing of Michael Brown, just two years before Jamarion met a similar fate.
“Jamarion said to me: ‘Mom, they’re killing us out here every day,'” Robinson recounts. “But I never thought my son would be one of them. My whole family is educated. I make a six-figure income. We’re middle class. I always thought these kinds of things happened to families in poor neighbourhoods. I never thought it was something that I would ever have to face in my life.”
Robinson is now friends with the parents of numerous Black people who have been victims of police violence, including the families of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland. They call themselves the “unwanted sorority” and provide emotional support to one another.
After what they did to my son we don't want to be in this country anymore. Me and all my sisters have sons and we're constantly worried about them. We don't feel safe here.
Robinson explains that once she gets closure and sees the officers who killed her son finally face consequences, she and her family are planning to move outside of the US.
“After what they did to my son we don’t want to be in this country anymore,” she says. “Me and all my sisters have sons and we’re constantly worried about them. We don’t feel safe here. So we need to get out of here because you never know who’s going to be next.”
“I haven’t even had time to properly mourn,” she continues. “I’ve been so busy fighting to get justice for my son. I just want some closure so I can move on and find peace. I want to be able to breathe again.”
But until then, Robinson is not giving up. “I know I will get justice for my son because I’m going to force them to give it to me,” she says. “And I won’t stop until I get there. I can hear Jamarion’s voice in my head, saying: ‘Get ’em, Mama. Get ’em.’ And I promise I will get them.”
Sanders is now a year and a half into the long and exhausting struggle that numerous Black mothers across the country have been embroiled in for many years – many of whom never reach the solace of justice.
“To lose a child is the most devastating thing that anyone can deal with,” Sanders says as tears run down her cheeks. “It’s like I’m stuck in this world that’s not real because I’m trying to find some sense in something that’s so senseless. But I can’t and I just feel lost.”
“Not knowing if we’ll ever get justice makes the pain so much worse. The way I see it Oscar is just another Black person off the streets. That’s how I feel because they’ve made me feel like my son’s life didn’t matter.” She pauses briefly and takes a deep breath.
“But he mattered so much to us. Our loved ones whose lives were taken away by these police officers matter to us. The police have put a huge, empty void in our lives. And none of us know how to deal with it and we probably never will.”
“We need to just keep hoping that we get justice – even something small,” Sanders says, still cradling the pillow with Cain’s smiling face, in between two doves, impressed across the blue fabric. “We just want to know that our children’s lives mattered in this country. That’s all we’re asking. We just want the police to face consequences for killing our children.”