Families of victims of police violence held a rally in New York City on Thursday to commemorate their loved ones’ lives and denounce recent police killings of members of minorities, many of them unarmed, across the United States.
The event in Times Square, dubbed “No More Stolen Lives,” marked the beginning of three days of planned national rallies in a coordinated protest called “Rise Up October.” About 40 families across the country who have lost loved ones in encounters with police asked the crowd of about 100 to remember the lives that have been cut short.
Akai Gurley “loved life” and was a loving father to his two young children, said Hertencia Petersen, Gurley’s aunt. The unarmed 28-year-old black man was accidentally shot by a rookie New York City police officer as he patrolled Gurley’s housing project in the city's Brooklyn borough on Nov. 20, 2014.
“He was a mama’s boy,” she said, adding that he was passionate about cars and had been trying to move out of New York City. “He did not commit any crime but … my nephew is dead and my sister is broken until she leaves this world.”
Filmmaker Gina Belafonte, former Black Panther Party member Jamal Joseph and film director Quentin Tarantino were among the figures that read the names and stories of numerous victims of police violence. Tarantino brought attention to Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old unarmed black man who died under unclear circumstances after being arrested by Baltimore police on in April. His death sparked days of protests that engulfed the city.
Tarantino also highlighted the deaths of Antonio Guzmán López, a 38-year-old unarmed man shot and killed by San Jose State University Police on Feb. 21, 2014 after officers said he was “acting strange”; and Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black teenager killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014, sparking a national movement to protest police treatment of minorities. Those demonstrations evolved into a civil rights movement known as “Black Lives Matter” and resulted in attempts to form a unified legal strategy against police violence.
But despite the national spotlight, many among the families gathered in New York City on Thursday said police killings continue, along with alleged impunity for many of the officers involved.
“We fear for our lives every day,” said LaToya Howell, mother of Justus Howell — a 17-year-old black teenager shot twice in the back while fleeing a Zion, Illinois, police officer. “We’ve been shown … that your child can be killed by the way they look," Howell said.
About a dozen New York City police officers stood nearby but declined to comment on the protest.
Victims' relatives were joined by advocacy groups including Granny Peace Brigade and Stop Police Terror. About a dozen priests and one Franciscan friar held a morning prayer session before marching to Times Square to support the protest.
"I'm here to repent of the original sin of racism in the U.S.," Brother Anthony Zuba, a Capuchin Franciscan friar, told Al Jazeera.
Rev. Peter Heltzel of New York Theological Seminary and Micah Institute, a justice advocacy group, said he and about a dozen other clergy members who attended the protest aimed to make the Bible verse the group is based on “real.”
“Micah 6:8 says ‘Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly,’” Heltzel said. “In any circumstances of life, we need to treat people with love and respect,” he said, adding that the clergy’s place amid police violence is to provide moral authority in the argument for community policing.
For Friday, organizers planned a "Shut Down Rikers" protest in the New York City Borough of Queens, referring to the area’s Rikers Island jail complex. On Saturday, organizers plan a national march against police violence.
“Police terror and the killings have to stop,” said Dee, a San Francisco Bay Area activist with the group Stop Mass Incarceration who requested that her full name not be used. “It’s happening in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, because it’s the same mindset police have everywhere.”