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Activist Moms Seize Historic Moment

In her eighth month without the physical presence of her only son, Roxane Johnson has watched along with the rest of the world as protesters of various ethnicities have taken to the streets in opposition to racialized police violence and abuse of power much like what she said the late Jamaal Byrd experienced.

For Johnson, not even the presence of Black Lives Matter Plaza — a stretch of 16th Street between K Street and Lafayette Plaza that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) designated as a safe haven for protests — could relieve what she recounted as the painful memory of learning that Byrd, perhaps after not having a chance to make at least one phone call, died while in police custody for marijuana possession.

As she explores the possibility of joining a class-action lawsuit with others whose family members also died while detained at the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) headquarters, Johnson continues to express her desire that Bowser pushes policy changes that not only curb police departments’ power, but further solidify the message the mayor conveyed with the unveiling of a large Black Lives Matter mural.

“There needs to be accountability because Mayor Bowser is contributing to the oppression and killing of Black people,” Johnson told The Informer. “The mural was a good first step. It’s good to claim your territory but let’s do the more meaningful work to make sure no more Black bodies are victimized by MPD. Definitely don’t build another jail. It doesn’t make sense [that] they’re not responsible for you in their custody.”

The D.C. Council voted on emergency legislation this week that would ban officers’ use of chokeholds, ease the release of body camera footage, reveal the names of those involved in officer-related shootings, and reform the District’s police oversight agency.

Kenithia Alston, mother of Marqueese Alston, a young man shot and killed by D.C. police officers in 2018, counted among those who expressed support for the bill, authored by Council member Charles Allen (D). She spent last weekend downtown with protesters and go-go revelers speaking about the difficulty she faced over the past two years attempting to access MPD body camera footage from the night of her son’s death.

On Friday, Bowser didn’t respond to an inquiry about the late Alston. Days later, she declined to say whether the District would remove the latest addition to the mural — “Defund the Police” written at the very end of “Black Lives Matter” with an equal sign between both phrases. This act, done the previous night, followed a flurry of frustration expressed over the weekend by activists and residents perturbed by police-community relations, economic inequity, and housing insecurity during Bowser’s tenure.

However, some people, like Bridzette Lane, might argue that Black people, in D.C. and elsewhere, had been dealing with these issues long before Bowser took office. Lane, a D.C. resident and mother of the late Ralphael Briscoe, said she rarely gets through the entirety of social media videos without thinking about the circumstances of her son’s death.

In 2011, MPD officers shot Briscoe, 18, in the back during a chase on Elvans Street in Southeast that was caught on a street camera. A jury acquitted the police officers four years later after a trial centered on whether Briscoe had a weapon or if officers confused his finger and cellphone for one. Lane has since lent her voice to causes involving victims of police brutality.

“You relive what happened to your child over and over again,” Lane said.

She too disregarded the Black Lives Matter mural as a show of power against President Donald Trump (R), but remained hopeful about the eventual passage of laws that ensured the transparency of police shooting investigations and the prosecution of police officers who shoot and kill Black people during encounters.

To that point, Lane expressed solidarity with the Alston family in their fight for body camera footage from the night of June 12, 2018.

“The mayor is still not answering questions,” Lane said. “She makes it seem like the MPD has their act together and hasn’t done anything wrong regarding police brutality against Black citizens.

“It hurts my heart that someone else’s family is going through that,” she continued. “[Bowser] should answer the questions honestly and openly to the families as well as to the public. If she believes that Black lives matter, then she should answer the questions and give the parents what they’re asking for.”

Stop-and-frisk data released by MPD in September showed that Black people, who account for less than half of the District’s population, represented 70 percent of police stops, on foot and otherwise, within a four-week period. When it came to traffic stops, Black people counted among nearly 90 percent of motorists stopped by police in situations ending with the driver avoiding a ticket.

Whether out in the streets or in the confines of their apartment complex, Black people in District have anxiety about crossing paths with law enforcement. The 2015 death of Alonzo Smith, for instance, shed light on how special police officers — privately commissioned officers with domain over the area they’ve been hired to guard — at Marbury Plaza in Southeast and other apartment complexes and housing communities perpetuate violence against tenants and visitors.

Beverly Smith, the late Smith’s mother and founding member of Pan-African Community Action, a grassroots group formed in the aftermath of his death, said that, amid the calls to defund MPD, she has aimed through her online campaign to remind people that, four years ago as of June 9, Bowser proposed changes to special police officer training protocol that haven’t since been implemented.

A petition currently in circulation aims to actualize that goal and, as Smith told The Informer, make sure that Bowser’s platitudes to Black people — including her statements against Trump and the painting of the “Black Lives Matter” mural — are followed by tangible policy changes of great benefit to people like her son.

“Bowser and [MPD Chief Peter] Newsham made a public statement against the Minneapolis Police Department and the way they murdered George Floyd, but I look at that and think about the audacity of them to speak out against that police department,” Smith said. “[In 2015], Bowser said my son’s murder was justified [and] there wasn’t even an investigation. That’s hypocrisy.”

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