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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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Jeralynn Blueford grew up in Oakland and always felt a sense of pride in being Black, and especially being a member of Oakland's Black community. In 1984, when she was in high school, she helped stage a sit-down strike to protest a decision by Oakland school district officials to cut extra-curricular classes. It was an Oakland kind of response to something she felt was wrong. However, Blueford admitted that before Alan was killed, she focused on her family, church, and her immediate community. Like most people, she wasn't campaigning for political causes. Today, Blueford travels the nation meeting the parents of other children slain by police. And she said that even though her family no longer lives in the city (they reside in Tracy), she always tells people she's from Oakland because of the Town's strong social movement history.

"This spring and summer are going to be busy," said Blueford, who is trying to coordinate a trip to Washington, DC to lobby Congress on issues of police accountability. It will be her second trip to the nation's capital in the past year. Last December, during a trip to DC, she joined Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed on his wedding day in 2006 by plainclothes New York police officers; Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, an eighteen-year-old who was killed in his home by NYPD; and Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant.

"We have an understanding with each other," Blueford said of the mothers. "You sometimes think you're in it alone, but when you talk to other mothers you realize there's this bond we share, where we come together to fight."

One of the more recent fights in which Blueford and other families took part was a protest that shut down Broadway in downtown Oakland for several hours. On February 3, Yuvette Henderson, a 38-year-old mother of two, was accused of shoplifting at Home Depot in Emeryville. Police say she pointed a pistol at security guards and fled on foot into West Oakland. Police say Henderson then attempted to carjack several vehicles. She was shot near a storage facility by several Emeryville cops who say she pointed her weapons at them. But police and the Home Depot store have refused to release surveillance tapes that recorded clips of the incident, including the shooting. The Oakland Police Department has been assigned the responsibility of investigating the shooting because it occurred in Oakland, but Costello and others don't trust OPD to conduct an impartial investigation.

Costello and several other organizers affiliated with groups, including the Idriss Stelley Foundation, ANSWER, and a recently formed coalition called the Anti-Police Terror Project, convened a vigil on April 12 at the site where Henderson was killed. Then they rode in a caravan of 27 vehicles to OPD headquarters in downtown Oakland. A line of two-dozen Oakland cops closed Broadway a block from the police building. Exiting their vehicles, the coalition faced off against the police skirmish line.

Jeralynn Blueford, who had rendezvoused with the caravan in downtown Oakland, grabbed a megaphone and began shouting to the officers. "I implore you, as human beings, I don't care what the law says, have a heart! Stop shooting us!" Blueford's voice cracked as she attempted to tell Alan's story, and the story of her family's fight for answers. She broke down in tears and her shoulders sagged.

Someone nearby shouted, "We got you," and a chorus of voices went "mmm-hmm!" in affirmation.

Yuvette Henderson's sister Antoinette, buoyed by the show of support, especially from other families that have lost loved ones in altercations with the police, delivered a letter to an OPD captain that, among other things, demanded release of the tapes that filmed the shooting.

Like the officer who killed Blueford's son, one of the Emeryville police officers who shot Henderson was wearing a body camera, but didn't turn it on until after the killing. Blueford believes one small, but important police reform would be the mandatory use of body cameras by cops. The Oakland police now all wear body cameras, but many departments, including the Emeryville police, do not yet require them. Blueford wants every cop in America to have a body camera, and she wants strong penalties for officers who forget or refuse to turn them on.

"I want to take body cameras a step further," Blueford said. "We need a law passed so that any cop who turns off their camera is fined or punished, and if an officer shoots or kills someone with their camera off, they need to go to jail."

But Blueford's work isn't all street marches, confrontations, and fighting for police reforms. "We have to do things to focus on the happy memories, it can't just be all about the bad stuff," she said. "When Alan went to his prom, that was a very happy day, so we'll donate prom dresses and tuxedos to Oakland students." One of the beatific photos of Alan that has been painted on posters, printed on T-shirts, and posted thousands of times on social media since his death was taken on his prom night. A relaxed Alan, in a spotless snow-white tux, smiles at the camera. The sun, low in the sky, bathes a leafy suburban background in golden light. It's a handsome portrait of a young man brimming with promise.