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A Different Kind of Club

Note: This column has been corrected since it was first published on this blog on March 15, 2016.

From the, March 10, 2016

“If you want to hear the truth, you must let the suffering speak.”

Cephus Johnson
Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant.

This was the quote by Cornel West that Cephus Johnson led off with at the “Testimonies of Love, Loss and Legacy” recently in St. Louis. Cephus, affectionately known as Uncle Bobby, is the uncle of Oscar Grant who was murdered by an Oakland transit cop in 2009. I met him and wife Beatrice in Oakland at my book signing event for “Ferguson is America.”

During his potent testimony, Johnson went on to say that it is the responsibility of the living to seek justice for the dead because they can no longer speak for themselves. He sees the mission of their family foundations is to seek justice for those who have been wrongfully murdered.

Johnson was in St. Louis to represent one of those foundations, Love not Blood Campaign, at a special event sponsored by Eden Social Justice Council and The Michael Brown Chosen for Change Foundation. The event featured a panel of fathers from around the country who have lost their children to violence. It was part of a weekend that included a retreat for the grieving fathers. Some spoke of enduring recent birthdays of their child and smacked with the reality that there would be no more birthdays.

The testimonies were riveting and emotional. They were especially powerful coming from black men who often get characterized by the mainstream media as absent or indifferent towards their children. The fathers got a few minutes at the program to humanize their loved one.

The Oscar Grant story was made into a movie. “Fruitvale Station” built his life of struggle around his senseless murder by BART cop Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle shot Grant in the back as he laid helpless and unarmed on the station platform. As Uncle Bobby told us, Oscar had 600 pounds of police on his 150-lb frame. The world had already born witness to the shooting via video but we didn’t know Grant. The well-written script and the phenomenal acting of Michael B. Jordan drew the viewing audience into smack into Grant’s life. I know I felt like I personally new Oscar after I saw the movie (twice). And not only did I know Oscar, I know many Oscar-types who are potential victims of police or community violence.

What the testimonies of these fathers did in the chapel of Eden Theological Seminary was to do just that—to project the lives of real children and their unspeakable loss as a parent. Black families can feel pain too.

Listening to the testimonies, I couldn’t help but think back to the murder of Mike Brown Jr. Mike was instantly dehumanized by the mainstream media resulting in a flood of online racist, hurtful comments—Mike was a big, black, scary thug. Like other victims, Mike had family and friends, he had fears and dreams. He was a kid, he was human.

What has evolved over the last few years is the creation of these exclusive clubs—formations of families who have lost children, mainly to police terrorism. Just a week ago, the Love not Blood Campaign had teamed up with the Oscar Grant Foundation and sponsored a similar event for mothers. The Circle of Mothers told their stories and gave one another the support needed to channel their grief into the fight for justice.

Uncle Bobby called me from the St. Louis airport before he left to return home. He reported that it was a spectacular weekend. The fathers had bonded; he felt renewed and ready for the next battle.

This is an exclusive club that most of us don’t want membership in. What is inspiring to me is these families are not wallowing in self-pity and despair. They are now drum majors for justice and part of the growing Black Lives Matter movement.



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