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Remembering Kevin

Greta is a strong, smart, and powerful black woman who carries the pain and trauma of watching her youngest son gunned down. On Saturday, August 26, Jen and I joined Greta for the 10th Annual Kevin L. Cooper Foundation Youth Festival and Peace Walk to celebrate her child and raise awareness in the community about the need to work to end violence everywhere.

The occasion is festive and joyful. A marching band and sequined clad dance team led the procession of peace marchers. Greta invited Jen and me to set up a small table with literature about our work and ways to become involved. Our activist comrades sit at neighboring tables: Mothers of Murdered Sons (MOMS), Survivors of Victims Everywhere (SAVE), Mothers on the Move (MOM), Moms Demand Action. It’s always fun to see friends at these events.

I notice Kimani, Greta’s youngest granddaughter and rising fourth grader, dancing to 90’s hip hop in the shadow of The Western District Police Precinct. She wears black leggings and a white t-shirt that reads “Looking Backwards, Moving Forward, The Kevin L. Cooper Foundation”.

Life had not been easy on Kevin and he was in crisis. His sister had recently left the house to join the Navy, leaving behind her infant child in Greta’s care. And seven years earlier, Kevin’s older brother – whom he idolized – died in a car crash. Now, Kevin, Greta and her granddaughter were alone in the home and stress was mounting.

On a hot August morning in 2006, Kevin was angry. He threw his clothes out the window and tossed a television on the floor in a fit of rage. Greta needed support and called her local police precinct in a moment of desperation. Two policemen arrived and calmed Kevin. Once the situation appeared stable, one officer left and his partner remained to complete the necessary paperwork. Kevin would still be alive if the story ended at that point. It didn’t.

An argument ensued after Kevin said something under his breath directed at the officer. Greta readily admits that it was likely obnoxious: something inappropriate and offensive said by a teenager. The officer pursued Kevin up the stairs and the teenager angrily stormed off. Events escalated, Kevin threatened the officer with a broken broom handle. The officer maced Kevin. Official reports states that the officer was unable to subdue the child so he shot Kevin in his mother’s kitchen as she held her baby granddaughter.  Kevin was fourteen.

Greta worked day and night to ensure that her child’s killer was brought to justice. There was never a trial. Charges were never brought against the officer. There was no disciplinary action. Greta fought and the system failed her. The same system promoted her son’s killer to detective.

Greta will be the first to say that there are good police officers. She works with many of them in her role as president of Survivors Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE). She advocates for better training of police so they know how to handle situations where people are in crisis like Kevin.

Just because good, honest law enforcement officials exist doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand up and call a bad cop a bad cop. When a grown man maces a child and then shoots him dead because the child is threatening him with a broom, we have a problem. Kevin was murdered.  We need to have the courage to call his death what it was without fear that the police who protect us will be threatened by us telling the truth. Lies only  undermine the institutions we depend on. Attempts to rewrite the truth– whether it be President Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio or the FOP’s defense of Betty Shelby—hurt everyone. These insidious acts create an even more hostile environment where tensions and emotions become even more enflamed.

We must also recognize that if young white men were being gunned down on the streets at the rate that young black men are dying of gun homicide, this country would be up in arms. Literally. Racism is a large reason the gun violence prevention movement has been stalled. We must acknowledge that gun violence prevention is the unspoken civil rights issue of our time. Our reluctance to do this has been one of the great failures of our movement. While not related to Greta’s story, the other aspect of gun violence prevention that does not receive the attention it deserves is suicide prevention. The narrative must change and it must change now.

There is hope. I return to the image of Kimani dancing in the carefree and exuberant way only a child can move. She is embracing the delight of the day without any concern about being watched. She is the embodiment of hope, love, joy, and promise. I watch Jen’s sons and my daughter run barefoot, unencumbered by fear or self-awareness, into a large bouncy house to join Kimani. Their little bodies collide and entangle in fits of laughter. These children may not know exactly what brought them to this festival. They may have no idea that the murder of a child by a police officer is what affords them this grand time. All they know is the bliss of the moment. My daughter wraps her arm around Kimani and turns to look in awe at the four bouncy houses, free cotton candy, and snowball stands before proclaiming: “Your grandmother is awesome!”

My daughter is right. Greta is awesome. Like so many of the women I work with in Baltimore she has transformed her son’s death into a call to end police brutality, a demand to better educate police, a movement to bring all people of all colors and socio-economic classes together to work to end violence. It’s time we all follow Greta’s lead and the example of so many of the mothers who have faced the death of a child. It’s time to fight for the lives of all people at risk of gun violence be it self-inflicted or homicide.  Join us.