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Making Black Lives Matter

A group of Bay Area families has been fighting back by building a network of those directly affected by police violence.



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Irizarry is like a lot of the mothers and fathers who have become key activists in the movement against police brutality in that she's not a bitter person. She has a wicked sense of humor, and conversations with her are playful and intellectual. Most of her organizing isn't directed against police. Rather, she pursues a positive agenda of caring for communities most affected by poverty and structural violence. Irizarry carries a sadness with her, but hasn't been destroyed by it. At the same time, she doesn't try to hide her sorrow, or shy away from the violence that Black Americans like her son face.

"There is this saying you might hear if you talk to enough people in the movement," Irizarry said. "It goes like this: 'They thought they could bury us. They didn't know we were seeds.'"

Irizarry told me the story of Mary Turner, a 33-year-old Black woman who was lynched in 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia. Turner had spoken out against the lynch mob's killing of her husband days before. For this transgression of naming the racist oppression that her people endured, Turner — despite being, or perhaps because she was eight months pregnant —was seized by the same lynch mob, hung upside down by her ankles, and set on fire. Then, while Turner writhed in pain and was nearing death, the white mob cut her unborn child from her womb. They let the infant fall to the ground, and then stomped it to death.

It's a horrific, true story of terrorism against African Americans. Irizarry sees in it partly a metaphor and partly a literal story of the origins of the Black struggle to survive against all odds. To Irizarry, it represents a seed of a movement that, after abolishing slavery, resisted lynching and then toppled Jim Crow. Now that same movement, having come through lynch mob fire, is tweeting #BlackLivesMatter and tossing tear gas canisters back at National Guardsmen in Missouri and Maryland.

An activist is someone that stands up and fights for their beliefs," Jeralynn Blueford said over lunch in downtown Oakland a few weeks ago. "But I don't know if I really call myself an activist, because what I fight for isn't just beliefs. I'm fighting for our children. This is about survival, so ... I call myself 'a momtivist,' because I feel like what I'm doing is what any mom would do."

Blueford is a kind, soft-spoken woman with a gentle smile and slightly sad eyes. She will probably carry that sorrow forever. Her son, eighteen-year-old Alan Blueford, was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer on May 6, 2012 after a foot chase. According to police, Alan was carrying a gun and had pointed it at the officer who shot him. The Blueford family has never believed the officer's account, and the officer never activated his body camera. Alan's death sparked a series of tense confrontations between the Blueford family and city officials and the police department. In the end, the officer's actions were ruled justified, but the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the Bluefords.

One seed planted by this tragedy and defeat in the criminal justice system was Jeralynn Blueford's activism. Today, she marches and organizes with other families and has her sights on national reforms to undo the rules that she believes provide impunity for the police when they unjustly maim and kill.

"I remember Alan talking to his dad about Oscar Grant, the injustice of this young man who had done nothing wrong," Blueford recalled. "Fast forward three years later and it happens to me, to my son."

The Blueford family was distraught and confused at first. But Cephus Johnson and Jack Bryson reached out to them. Johnson, who goes by Uncle Bobby, is Oscar Grant's uncle. He took on a leadership role in the movement in 2009 and 2010 as Oakland was rocked by street rebellions while the district attorney, police, and city officials dawdled about whether to arrest and charge Mehserle. During the past five years, Uncle Bobby has continued to organize against police violence, and also Black-on-Black violence through the Love Not Blood campaign. Jack Bryson, the father of two of Oscar Grant's friends who were with him the night he was shot, has also worked steadily to build the movement against police violence in Oakland. Jeralynn Blueford said their presence and advice were crucial in the weeks after police killed her son.

And then there was Mollie Costello, a nurse who quit her job to organize full-time with the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition. In December 2012, Costello secured a storefront on Telegraph Avenue, in the heart of Art Murmur, and she began programming speakers, music, and events during the popular First Friday street parties. The space includes a portrait of Alan in the window. For nearly a year, it featured "wanted" posters of the officer who pulled the trigger. Blueford and Costello have since become indivisible in their activism.