Mothers of the Movement

Last Friday, a funeral was held in Baton Rouge for a police officer murdered there last week. Saturday brought two more police funerals, one in Kansas City, and another in Baton Rouge. The funeral for the third Baton Rouge officer killed last week was held on Monday.

Also on Monday, to far greater attention than any of these funerals received, the Democratic National Convention began in Philadelphia. Among the speakers to address the convention on Tuesday night was a group of women collectively known as the Mothers of the Movement, the members of which are connected by way of having lost children under violent or otherwise controversial circumstances. The group includes the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Dontré Hamilton, Jordan Davis, and Hadiya Pendleton.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of these people are so divergent that it’s difficult to discern what “movement” their mothers might represent or what it is they seek to move. Two of them, Davis and Pendleton, were unambiguously murder victims. Davis was 17 when he was shot and killed in Jacksonville, Florida, after arguing with a man who had asked him to lower the volume of the music he was playing. The man who shot him was convicted of first-degree murder (though it took two trials) and sentenced to life in prison. Pendleton was 15 when she was shot and killed while in a park with friends in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Two suspects, both gang members, have been charged with her murder.

This is not to minimize any mother’s pain at the death of her child, but the speaker’s podium at a national convention should be a platform from which to bring attention to national problems, one of the more urgent of which at this moment is the rising level of violence in American cities. But among these Mothers of the Movement, only Davis’s and Pendleton’s would seem to have clear standing in this regard. As for the others, consider:

Trayvon Martin was 17 when, in February 2012, he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. After the uproar that ensued when the local district attorney declined to charge Zimmerman, a special prosecutor accused him of murder. The trial ended in acquittal after the evidence showed Zimmerman acted in self-defense while being attacked by Martin.

Eric Garner died of a heart attack in July 2014 after struggling with New York Police Department officers who were attempting to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes on the street in Staten Island. Contrary to popular belief, he was not choked to death, and a grand jury declined to charge any of the involved officers.

Dontré Hamilton was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer in April 2014. During an altercation, Hamilton gained control of the officer’s baton and struck him in the neck with it. The district attorney found the shooting to be in self-defense, though the officer was fired from the police department for deviating from policy.

Sandra Bland hanged herself in a Texas jail in July 2015 after being arrested following a traffic stop. The state trooper who arrested her was fired from his job and charged with perjury.

Michael Brown was shot and killed in August 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The fiction that he was surrendering and had his hands up when he was shot engendered the often-repeated “Hands up, don’t shoot” mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement. Investigations by a St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department (PDF) revealed that Brown had attacked the officer and attempted to disarm him, and was charging at him again at the time the officer fired. The claim that Brown was trying to surrender when he was shot was simply a lie.

But it’s a lie that’s nowhere more commonly believed than among the attendees at the Democratic National Convention, who, when the Mothers of the Movement were presented Tuesday night, received them warmly while offering the familiar chant: “Black lives matter!” Nowhere in the coverage that I watched was there mention of the apparent incongruence in seeing Hadiya Pendleton’s mother sharing a stage with Michael Brown’s.

Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, spoke first, and she must have caused great consternation in the arena when she began her remarks with a request for “two moments to tell you how good God is.” This was greeted with tepid applause, though the crowd warmed up as Reed-Veal went on to express gratitude for the opportunity “to cast our votes for a president who will help lead us down the path toward restoration and change.” Which raises some questions: Who has been president for these past seven and a half years? Wasn’t there some talk about “change” when he was elected? And if he has been unable to bring that change about, why would anyone think Mrs. Clinton can?

Next to speak was Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, who spoke movingly of protecting her son’s legacy. “I lived in fear that my son would die like this,” she said. “I even warned him that because he was a young black man, he would meet people who didn’t value him or his life.” Davis was in fact killed by a white man, but in this his murder is more of an aberration than a symbol of a national problem. The unfortunate fact is that the people most likely to undervalue black lives are black themselves. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2014 (the most recent data available) shows that of the 2,451 black murder victims that year, 2,205, or 90 percent, were killed by other blacks. McBath’s remarks included the reminder that “the majority of police officers are good people doing a good job,” which seemed to receive the same level of applause as Reed-Veal’s reference to God.

Prior to their taking the stage, the Mothers were introduced via a short video that showed Hillary Clinton meeting with them last November. The video opened with a shot of Mrs. Clinton entering the meeting under the admiring narration of Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontré Hamilton. “It wasn’t about politics,” she said. Again, this is not to disregard or minimize Hamilton’s pain at the loss of her son, but she should know – as everyone should know – that with Hillary Clinton, everything is about politics. If it weren’t, why were there multiple cameras there to record the event, and why was it shown at a political convention?

On July 19, after five police officers were murdered in Dallas, and after three more were murdered in Baton Rouge, President Obama released an “Open Letter to America’s Law Enforcement Community.” On its face, the letter is a well-crafted expression of thanks to America’s police officers and a recognition of the dangers they face. But it was just a letter. There was no Oval Office speech, no lighting of the White House in blue, no invitations to the widows to meet with the president or attend the convention. Recall the president’s very public criticism of the police in a number of controversial incidents, and you realize that his letter, like Hillary Clinton’s embrace of the Mothers of the Movement, is nothing more than politics.

Violent crime is on the rise, but it’s wishful thinking that a President Clinton will do anything about it.