When I heard that 18-year-old Michael Brown was “shot at least six times” in Ferguson, Mo., and saw a family-hired independent medical examiner point out areas on a diagram of how bullets may have entered and exited his body, it was a forensics lesson that tore at my heart as a black woman and the mother of two sons. It also reminded me of a brief encounter I had with another black mother who lost a son.
In 2002, I was in New York City waiting to be interviewed on BET Tonight by host Ed Gordon about what justice and healing can do in high-profile cases that involve race. I was invited onto the show because I had a new book out, Hate Crime, about the dragging death in Texas of a black man, James Byrd Jr.
Suddenly, this beautiful, regal woman entered the green room. A producer failed to introduce us, but did tell us that we were both going to participate in a panel discussion.
After a few awkward moments of silence, the other woman spoke first, “Hi, I’m Kadiatou Diallo.” She paused, and then added, “Amadou’s mother.”
In February 1999, Amadou Diallo was gunned down in the vestibule of his New York City apartment after police officers mistook his wallet for a gun. A total of 41 shots were fired. All four police officers involved in Diallo’s death were later acquitted.
Before the TV show, Mrs. Diallo and I had an unforgettable private conversation. We were two mothers talking about how we both taught our black sons survival mechanisms. I admired Mrs. Diallo for taking a stand and doing what I have seen other grieving families do in the wake of senseless tragedy. She told me that all she ever wanted was the justice that had been denied and for the culprits to be held accountable.
Because Mrs. Diallo showed so much dignity and strength of character when she marched with protestors of her son’s death, she actually helped set the tone for a peaceful inquiry. At the time, she pleaded with concerned citizens to remain calm. This is important when passionate people wish to be heard. Sadly, in case after case, there are some people who show up, not to protest peacefully, but to loot, to destroy, to enflame already high tensions.
In Ferguson, Mo., Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, has also taken the high road by asking for calm, so that no one else is injured or killed. Even through her pain, Lesley McSpadden is seeking the time necessary to follow where the facts lead. Once again, we are witnessing another mother plead for peace that might pave the way for future dialogue. Coming together to talk and build an absent trust between residents and regional law enforcement should be mediated soon.
I remember Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, also taking time to speak to protestors and release statements urging calm. Often, it is the families of victims who lead by example with their requests for a “wait-and-see” attitude. I think the families quickly realize their loved ones are a rallying cry for countless citizens who have been suspicious of police and government for years. This level of frustration produces chaos and fear on both sides. We don’t need more tear gas and Molotov cocktails in Ferguson.
A transparent and thorough investigation is only the first step toward justice and healing, especially for the mothers of the victims.