The Community of Mothers Who Lost Sons to Police Killings

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by Brett Murphy

This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

On Wednesday, RowVaughn Wells joined the grim sorority of Black mothers who have buried their children after deadly police encounters and then pleaded for those deaths to spur reform. Parents of other victims were in attendance at the funeral — along with Vice President Kamala Harris and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Tyre Nichols, 29, was blocks away from Wells’ home when five Memphis, Tennessee, police officers pummeled him after a short foot chase in early January. He died three days later in the hospital, his face a mash of swollen flesh. The officers have been fired and charged with second-degree murder.

The scene, captured on body camera and security video, was similar in many ways to the other encounters that Americans have seen for years — from Rodney King to George Floyd — before taking to the streets in protest. The situation had escalated from a traffic stop. The responding officers shouted conflicting commands that Nichols, an unarmed Black man, tried to obey. They tased and pepper sprayed him repeatedly before laying into him with their fists, feet and a metal baton. Most of this wasn’t mentioned in the initial report.

As he lay on the ground, trying to shield his face from the blows, Nichols called out for his mom. Floyd had begged for his mom too.

“No mother, no mother, no mother, should go through what I’m going through right now,” Wells told reporters during a press conference the day after Nichols died. She said she believed her son was sent from God to marshal police reform. Her attorney called on lawmakers to once again try to pass sweeping police reform laws like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which stalled in the Senate two years ago.

Wells now finds herself addressing the country in a gantlet of interviews and public appearances that could go on for months or even years. In other cases, parents in her position have learned, their time with the microphone can be fleeting.

Mona Hardin, whose son Ronald Greene died after a police chase outside Monroe, Louisiana, in 2019, is a veteran in the ranks of mothers who have calcified themselves and turned to activism, lobbying and media appearances.

For two years, Louisiana State Police leaders told Hardin that her son had died in a car crash. Then, in 2021, The Associated Press published videos showing troopers beating and dragging Greene across the ground. “I’m sorry,” he pleaded, blood splashed on his skin and clothes. “I beat the ever-living fuck out of him,” one officer said. Greene stopped breathing soon after.

I first met Hardin, a diminutive woman with a nonetheless commanding presence, while reporting on whistleblower retaliation in Louisiana law enforcement. Hardin was marching alongside another mother, whose son had also died in police custody, during a protest in downtown Baton Rouge. Hardin refers to their families as casualties in a “national genocide.”

On Tuesday, Hardin and I spoke on the phone about what’s happened since then, the ethics of watching police brutality videos and why some cases garner breathless media coverage while others — including Greene’s — seem to fade from the public eye. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the meetings you’ve been having after you heard about the Nichols case. Who are you talking to?

These are the other families, and their kids were also killed by police. We call and check on each other. These meetings are for all the families to get together and we talk about individual cases. It’s basically how we help each other heal. There are a lot of families still looking for help. They have yet to have anyone looking at their situations. People are pissed and everyone’s trying to keep it under control.

We let each other know there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Each family has been thrown into this. We give each other suggestions for emotional healing, where to go to — programs that help. We help them dig for help, wherever they’re at.

This sounds like a full-time job. Do you think you have a responsibility to be in these conversations?

It’s a must. I went back and forth with my own therapist. A lot of times you come out of these situations shallow on the other end. With the families, we all know: There’s no describing the pain. We can finish each other’s sentences. The connection is there because of the grief that we share identically, the sorrow, the heartaches, the sleepless nights. Our families, what our families go through. It’s not just the mothers and fathers. It’s the sisters and brothers too.

Did you watch the videos from Memphis?

Yes I did. I had to stop at one point. But out of respect for him — and for what they did to him — I had to go back and see it and finish it. I’m still struggling with a lot of others.

It’s just like with Ronnie: The lawyers told us we don’t have to see the video. While we were there, down the hallway, we could hear Ronnie’s screams on the tape. We were just in the other room. After more than an hour, a lawyer came in and said, “Do you want to?” I told my daughter that we have to. And I’m glad I did.

Why are you glad you did?

I had to see him take his final breaths. I was literally in a trance, when I think of it. My eyes get wide. I’m staring at the walls right now just to focus. It was horrific. He didn’t stand a chance. He did not stand a chance.

On the video in Memphis, one of the officers can be heard saying something like, “He was going for your gun.” That kind of thing seems common. The initial press release was also very similar to the one after George Floyd was killed. [At the funeral, Nichols’ stepfather called it “lies, deceit, trying to cover it up.”]

That stands out. They’re all repetitive. When you look at all the cases, you just skim over the press releases and police statements because you already know what you’re going to read. Instantly you know if this is a cover-up. They’re trying to justify what they have done and what they’re about to do.

I can say for Ronnie it would have just stayed that way. [Louisiana State Police initially said he had died in a car crash.] If it wasn’t for the videos and the whistleblowers, my God, I would have gone to my grave grief-stricken thinking that Ronnie crashed into a tree and died. That’s what I would have thought if they were successful.

Nichols’ family has invoked Emmett Till, a case that became infamous because of the open casket picture. What do you think of the idea that there is a responsibility — The New York Times called it a civic duty — to watch these videos?

It’s suggested that those who are emotionally drained should not burden themselves more. Do what your body tells you. We have families that have to heal.

But for me, oh hell yeah. The outside public needs to see this; what’s happening with state-condoned killings; how people vote; how they see the officers; how everything unfolds. Without the videos, testimony from whistleblowers, it will stay buried.

When we first met, you chose your words carefully. Now, I’ve noticed, a little less so. Is there a person that you feel like you’re supposed to be? How do you navigate that role as it’s changing?

They told us we had checks and balances with the law firms that represent us. But with all this public relations, my question is, where’s Ronnie’s case? I saw slowly that the PR was not really for him — the one who was beat up and killed. I think the corruption is all over with a lot of other entities I never saw coming.

What do you mean by that?

They keep saying, “We’re right here.” Then another year passes. Then it’s, “Now’s not the time.” Another year passes. “Now’s not the time.” And another year passes. All I can tell you is that the anger and the anxiety when you last saw me, I’m 1,000 times beyond that now.

Yesterday I had a call with Troy Carter [Democratic congressman from Louisiana] and he invited me to the White House to meet with Biden.

What do you think about that invitation?

It’s another photo-op. But you have to take every opportunity that comes up. Biden called Tyre’s family and invited them. I’m not impressed with anybody until changes are made. I’m not impressed by the suits you wear or positions you hold. I’m pretty beat up and sickened by it. Everybody has a job but nobody takes their job seriously. Other than the reporters and whistleblowers and families and activists. Those are the only minds of determination I see. The resistance is from all those above.

Have you grown kind of cynical? I was with you in Washington when you met with the congressional committee right after the original Floyd bill failed. What’s happened since then?

I wouldn’t use the word cynical. I have to grab every grain I can. At the indictments, they were acting like it was a big deal. [In December, a grand jury indicted five officers involved in Greene’s death, with charges ranging from negligent homicide to malfeasance in office and obstruction of justice.] This shouldn’t be a big deal. This should have been done a while ago. I was so pissed I couldn’t even talk when the indictments came. It’s a murder and you end up with these piss-poor charges.

We still can’t trust no one. We’re not represented. Nobody is taking the death of my son seriously. This May will be four years since his death. And to still not know what will happen. The FBI investigations? Will they bring out all these top brass that were allowed to retire or promoted?

You mentioned that you watched RowVaughn Wells speak at the press conference the other day. What did you make of her statements?

When you see that mom up there, that’s us. Over and damn over again. She’s repeating what all of us have said. It’s so hurtful and heartbreaking. It’s another family that’s been added to the list. I’m glad that it got national attention — I am so glad — like they all should have been.

One thing she said that I identified with was: The only way I can move forward is knowing that God taking Tyre might make a difference in the world. That’s how she has to accept it. I feel that because the only way I can get past my anger was to know that God has Ronnie. God had to take you for a reason and maybe changes will happen behind this.

I had to put myself there, in that way of thinking, in order not to focus on the fact that my family has become a statistic. I can’t even think of my son as my son. Mentally I’ll shut down. It’s the same reason I cannot put his name in the past tense.

There is a sense of numbness in the communities to where this is what’s expected. It’s sickening that it takes another killing of a young black man to push the hands of fairness across the board and say OK this needs to stop. This mass genocide in communites of color. It takes another killing. How many more before we actually move the needle and make those changes?

Are you worried about becoming desensitized by going through the motions so often with these other families?

I don’t think desensitized is the word. In order to be focused, the numbness sets in. As me and the kids talk, we say, “Damn, I can’t believe we got through this.” We have to literally lean on each other. When one shuts down the other picks up. Desensitized might be a good word actually. But we always resurface.

I have to say, where are the officials at the White House? They’re the ones desensitized. Why doesn’t this bear enough meaning to make legislative changes. How can you uphold any part of the Constitution when this is going on? How can you address what’s wrong in other countries when this is happening here?

We’re waiting for change but change doesn’t come. I pray that Tyre Nichols will be the last and change comes from that.

Do you believe that it will?

I have to. I was hoping that the minute Ronnie hit the news. But it dropped to silence. Every time it was on the news and then not, my heart sank. There was no assistance. Absolutely nothing. And you know what, we still have absolutely nothing. We have a legal team but we are still left alone. We have absolutely nothing. No guidance. No reassurance. I hate that.

I’m just happy the Nichols family does. This is how it should happen; how she’s been received; how it went public immediately. Nothing should be under secrecy. If only we could have had that recognition.

So you see how the Memphis case was handed as a step forward for transparency?

Oh my gosh, yes. When people gather and stage protests, if that’s what you have to do, then do it, damn it. I agree with Tyre’s mom, though. We don’t want craziness. That’s not how we do things. Hell yeah we’re mad. We’re mad as hell.

When you meet Tyre’s mother in Washington, have you thought about what you might say to her?

I’m glad you brought that up. In the past, when we met each other, we just hug and hold and sort of just melt into each other. That’s how it was when I met with Katrina Mateen. [Mateen’s 15-year-old son was shot and killed by police in Gulfport, Mississippi, last October.] There are no words other than “I love you. I’m so sorry.”

How can you take it past that when it’s so indescribable, the pain? We identify. There’s a lot of hurt in that young mother to where you have to be careful. You have to be very, very gentle with that. I know I’ll hug her. I know I have to. That’s what we all do.

Image: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash