Last week, Yolanda Carr, the mother of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson, died in the same Fort Worth, Texas, house where her daughter was shot and killed by Police Officer Aaron Dean on the early morning of October 12, 2019. While Carr had already been ill, it is hard to deny that the loss of her daughter took a heavy toll on her mental and physical health. Carr would not be the first family member of an unjustly killed person to lose their own life in the aftermath. Indeed, Jefferson’s father, Marquis Jefferson, died of a heart attack less than a month after Atatiana’s passing. Unable to cope with the tragic loss of his daughter, Marquis was overwhelmed with grief. Friends and family say he was not himself weeks prior to his death. “He ultimately just succumbed to, I don’t know, I can only say a broken heart,” his spokesperson said.
This is a sadly familiar story. The past decade has seen continued disregard for Black and brown lives by law enforcement and others, leaving surviving family members to pick up the pieces and take up the fight against injustice. In 2013, we watched a jury return a “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman, saw the six officers responsible for Freddie Gray’s death continue to “protect and serve” in 2017, and waited five years for the NYPD to fire the police officer who put Eric Garner into a fatal chokehold. In each case, their family members protested and organized with activists to call for justice to be served. Their once private lives quickly became public as they advocated on behalf of their slain relatives.
As time goes on, hashtags are often forgotten and the media moves on to the next news story. The families of these victims however, continue their fight and journey towards justice. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, announced last year that she would run for the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners in Florida—the same state where her son was murdered. In a campaign video, Sybrina said that at first she did not want to be the voice for Trayvon after his passing, but she feels now that she has no choice. Her plans include focusing on many issues such as economic development, affordable housing, and curbing gun violence. Sybrina is one of many who have felt they have been left with no other option but to lend their voice to advocate for change in response to the injustices their families have endured.
Family members in particular feel they must still defend the character of their loved ones who have endured brutality or death at the hands of our justice system. These traumatic experiences can be excruciating, eliciting more negative emotions. The grieving process is rushed, and they quickly become public figures as they work to remind the public of their loss and story. What we have seen this past decade is how the pressure of speaking up while processing trauma can take a terrible toll.
Take the case of Kalief Browder. After spending three years on Rikers Island, he took his own life in 2015, unable to endure the pain of the trauma he had experienced. After Browder’s death, his mother, Venida, and his siblings tirelessly spent their time sharing his story and calling for the system to be held accountable. This included his siblings and mother working alongside the producers of “TIME: A Kalief Browder Story,” a documentary focused on Kalief’s life and experiences. One year after his death, his mother died. While she officially passed due to complications of a heart attack, it’s fair to say that her broken heart didn’t make things easier.
Erica Garner took to the frontline of the protest against a grand jury that decided they would not indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo—the man who killed her father, Eric Garner. Erica unfortunately passed away at the young age of 27 in December of 2017. Her cause of death? A heart attack.
“Her heart was broken when she didn’t get justice … the [heart] attack just dealt with the pieces that were left,” said the Reverend Al Sharpton after news of Erica’s passing broke.
Finally, Andrew Casciano was brutally assaulted by New Jersey police officers while in a hospital bed. Andrew dialed 911 for assistance after attempting suicide and failing. Instead of compassion, he received harsh treatment from the officers who responded to his call, leaving him in an even more fragile state than before. Although justice was served when both officers were stripped of their badge and sentencing them to prison, Casciano was vocal about the effect the assault had on him, and he took his own life months after.
This isn’t just by chance. There is no coincidence. This is the aftermath of injustice. These stories showcase how when our justice system fails, entire families and communities are impacted. There is trauma and pressure placed on the family of victims to answer the call to fix a system that robbed them of their loved ones. Many of these individuals did not ask for this call, but decided to answer when it came, raising their voices on behalf of loved ones who suffered at the hands of this broken system. They did so at their own risk. It is the responsibility of the justice system to assist families with their fight for justice and advocate on behalf of victims of brutality. Achieving this will allow not only family members but also communities the space to properly grieve, confident that justice will be served.
Tamar Montuma is a current Higher Education Administrator and Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice with a love for writing, all things music, criminal justice, and Black Culture. Her writing has been featured in the Huffington Post. Explore her mind and follow her on Twitter and/or tammywrites.com.