At the recent Democratic National Convention (DNC), a group of black mothers whose sons and daughters have been killed by police violence received a standing ovation after sharing their stories. These "Mothers of the Movement," as they call themselves, explained why they chose to endorse Hillary Clinton, praising the presidential hopeful for supporting gun control policies that would curb these kinds of incidents. Their featured spot at the DNC convention is a culmination of several months of organizing a series of community and national events aimed at bringing attention to the systemic problem of police violence and brutality in the United States.
Their collective efforts to address these national issues reflect the political activities of a long line of black women, often black mothers, who have mobilized in an effort to end police violence and brutality. During the 1980s, two black women--Mary Bumpurs and Veronica Perry-- led a similar initiative in New York City; united by their similar experiences and determined to share their stories with those who would listen.
In 1984, Mary Bumpurs's 66-year-old mother Eleanor Bumpurs was shot and killed by New York City Police while resisting eviction from her apartment. A year later, in June 1985, Veronica Perry's 17-year old son Edmund Perry was shot and killed by a plainclothes police officer who claimed that Edmund and his brother, Jonah, had attempted to rob him. A gifted young man, Perry had recently completed Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the country, and had plans to attend Stanford University later that fall. During the 1980s, both cases drew widespread media coverage and public outcry from black leaders who demanded tangible changes in policing practice at the time.
Foreshadowing the kind of activities now organized by the "Mothers of the Movement," Mary Bumpurs and Veronica Perry joined forces to combat police brutality, appearing in a series of high-profile events together during the mid-1980s. On September 24, 1985 the two women appeared together at the Memorial Baptist Church in Harlem where they delivered rousing speeches before an audience of community members and religious leaders. "Because I am black and poor and live in Harlem," Mrs. Perry explained, "they thought my son was just another 'nigger.'" "They found out that he was not just another black boy, that he was a very special and unique individual..." Appealing to audience members to join local efforts to prevent the killings of other young black men, Mrs. Perry insisted that "we will not stand for the KKK in blue uniforms...we will not stand for it."
Her collaborator, Mary Bumpurs followed in a moving speech, reflecting on her mother's life and her struggles to care for her children with few financial resources and support. "I don't hate [the police]," Mary explained, "But, there's a big dislike because they did take something from me that they or no one else can replace." Vowing to fight until she received justice for her mother's death, Mary expressed some optimism that "we will overcome whatever this is the system has become today."
On May 10, 1986, the two women appeared together again at a community forum at the C.A.V. building at 55 West 125th in Harlem to share their stories and call for policy changes. In an interview with the New York Amsterdam News, the coordinators for the event remarked that the "issue of police brutality has reached monumental proportions and it is critical to build a concerted community effort to combat police violence and racism." Mary Bumpurs and Veronica Perry certainly embraced this point of view and attempted to harness their collective experience and power--though limited--to reduce police violence in black communities.
In October of that year, the two women stood together at another community event, held at the House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. As they had done several times before, they called on community members to take seriously the escalating police violence in New York City. They were joined by several other black women and their relatives including Carrie Stewart whose 25-year-old son Michael Stewart had succumbed to injuries sustained in police custody.
Like the "Mothers of the Movement," these black women's lives were shattered by police violence and brutality. Like the "Mothers," these women turned their grief into political action. They fought to provide a voice for black men and women--the individuals who were far more likely then (as now) to be killed by police than their white counterparts. And like the "Mothers of the Movement," Mary Bumpurs and Veronica Perry extended a national call for unity and change, maintaining a deep sense of hope and optimism that their actions would one day result in police reform.