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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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Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs bring pictures of their son, James Rivera, Jr., to every march and vigil they attend. But the pictures are not like the family photos that other parents show in public.

James Rivera, Jr. was killed by Stockton police officers on July 22, 2010. While driving a stolen minivan, he had crashed into a garage. Rivera was unarmed, but the police say he was revving the van's engine and gearing it into reverse. Officers unleashed a volley of 48 rifle and pistol rounds, striking Rivera 19 times. Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs (who is Rivera's stepfather) dispute much of the police officers' account of how Rivera died. They say authorities desecrated his body and have never released records of the investigation. They say Rivera — who they admit was "no angel" — was made out to be a "monster" by the police and the media.

The photos of Rivera that his parents show the world were taken during his autopsy. The images are hard to look at. In one picture, Rivera is lying face down, stiff, one of his arms visibly broken and bent. His ebony skin is discolored and stretched like damaged vinyl. Dark puncture wounds in his back show where the bullets ripped through his internal organs. There is a massive bullet hole in the back of his head.

"The reason we do this," Carey Downs told an audience at a recent forum on police violence, "is people don't often really get a chance to see what these officers are out here doing to our kids, to our friends, to our mothers, our fathers."

Along with Jeralynn Blueford, Dionne Smith-Downs and Carey Downs also attended the recent vigil and caravan in memory of Yuvette Henderson. At the site of the vigil near the Emeryville-Oakland boarder, they unfurled a banner for their son. Bold red letters demanded: "STOP POLICE TERRORISM!!" As mourners continued to arrive, three Emeryville police officers cruised by slowly in an unmarked Crown Vic. Their blank expressions and wrap-around sunglasses hid their emotions. Strong gusts of wind blew over signs, flowers, and candles, but people picked up the offerings and rebuilt the makeshift altar.

"She took care of me," said Yuvette Henderson's younger brother Jamison, his eyes flooded with tears, at the vigil. "I'm gonna fight, if it's the last thing I do, 'cause I don't want this to happen to nobody in the future, to nobody's kids." Jamison's voice trembled. He stepped back into the circle where arms reached out to comfort him.

Smith-Downs stepped forward. She's done this more times than she can count, speaking at vigils for the dead, telling her son's story. For Henderson's vigil, she recalled the day her family took custody of Rivera's body. The funeral home director told her not to look at the mangled corpse. She had him in an open casket anyway, and let her children see and touch their brother one last time. But she also recalled the horror of seeing her son lifeless. In the hospital where they had taken him immediately after the shooting, she was only allowed to peer at him through a small window. Smith-Downs began to break down in front of those gathered. Her own mother, who used to cook food for the protests that she and Carey Downs organized, and was a source of emotional and spiritual support for her, died in December. It was a major blow to Smith-Downs, and she briefly thought about stepping back from the movement.

These feelings suddenly welled up in her all at once. She cried out: "I don't have nobody now!"

"You got us!" her husband shouted back.

Smith-Downs lifted up her head, a steely look in her eyes. "We need ya'll. We need a plan," she said in a tone beyond serious.

Smith-Downs and her husband already have a blueprint for how to attack the problem of police violence. "When we hear someone has been killed by the police," Downs said in an interview, "the first thing is: What can we do to help them? A lot of families are confused and afraid, so we tell them our story. We make an effort to go and stand with them."

They distribute booklets instructing people on their rights, and pamphlets on how to film the police safely. "The police are not to be feared," Downs said. "They're to be challenged."

The couple has also become adept at communicating through social media and raising money on crowdfunding platforms to pay for food, transportation, signs, posters, and other protest materials. Unlike the environmental or civil liberties movements, the movement against police violence has no significant support from major foundations or wealthy people. Families spend their own money and solicit a few dollars here and there to pay for funerals and lawyers.

A big part of Smith-Downs and her husband's strategy is to persevere and, as they say, "never let the story die." On Smith-Downs' car, they've pasted a giant sticker with the dates of Rivera's birth and death. But they also put the names of the officers who killed their son on the vehicle. "We're not going to ever forget this," Downs said. "And so they're not going to either."

When Ferguson erupted in protest last year, Smith-Downs flew there and marched in the streets. "I went there the day after Mike Brown was killed," she said. "You know that picture of the guy with the dreadlocks throwing the tear gas canister back at the police?" she said, referring to one of the iconic photos that have come to symbolize the Black Lives Matter movement. "I was right behind that guy.