Published on June 29th, 2017 | by Amy Abugo Ongiri2
Mothers of the Struggle
Many people know the name Emmett Till, the young boy from Chicago whose violent death one Mississippi summer made him into civil rights icon, but not as many people know the story behind his mother’s courageous efforts to make her son’s death matter in changing the world for others. Mamie Till, had already accomplished quite a lot in an era when possibilities for Black women were extremely limited. She graduated high school on the honor role and attended teacher’s college. She was also a domestic violence survivor who was determined to make her own way in the world and create a better life for herself and her only child. She managed to do this by moving with her son from rural Mississippi to Chicago in the 1950s as did millions of other African Americans who were fleeing Southern racial terror for the economic and social opportunity of the urban North. Mamie Till was following the tradition of thousands of other African American families when she sent her son Emmett “home” to rural Mississippi to stay with relatives for the summer in 1955. There he was tortured to death at the age of 14 by grown men who were punishing him for supposedly whistling at white woman. (The woman in question has recently admitted that she had lied about the incident). Outrage around Till’s death is seen as one of things that triggered the civil rights movement but not much attention has been paid to the courage that Mamie Till showed in the face of her child’s gruesome death or her insight that making “the world see what they did to my baby” could actually transform the world for the better.
Till’s body had been so badly mangled, that the local sheriff would only release the body to Till if she agreed to sign a contract saying that she would have a closed casket funeral. In order to get the world to acknowledge the importance of the loss of her son’s life, she violated this order and even reportedly helped the mortician remove nails from the casket. When Mamie Till learned of her only son’s death, she said: “I realized this was a load that I was going to have to carry. I wouldn’t get any help carrying this load.” However, Till also believed that her loss could help change the world so that other mothers would not have to feel her pain. She said: “I think that everybody needed to know what happened to Emmett Till.”
Over 50,000 people attended Till’s open casket funeral in Chicago and a couple months later the Montgomery bus boycott began.
Perhaps La Mesha Irizzary and Katherine Espinosa understand Mamie Till’s loss, actions and insights better than anyone else. Both Espinosa and Irizzary lost children to the rash of San Francisco Bay area police violence that occurred before the Black Lives Matter movement made the issue part of a public conversation on police accountability. Irizzary has said of her son, Idriss Stelley’s, death: “The night he died I felt my soul tearing apart. He was my only child.” Irizzary lost her son when police responded to calls that a mental health crisis was occurring in a movie theater. Asa Sullivan was murdered when police were sent to answer a trespassing call. (Sullivan was not trespassing at the time.) The vision, activism and organizing of Irizarry and Espinosa were undoubtedly a catalyst for the later Bay area organizing that lead to Black Lives Matter. I spoke to them about this work for MUTHA Magazine; here is our conversation. – Amy Abugo Ongiri
MUTHA: What enables you to do the work that you do in seeking justice for your son?
Kat Espinosa: It will be 11 years in 4 days on June 6th. As my youngest son said to me today: “Nothing will ever bring Asa back.”
La Mesha Irizarry: Getting justice for my son mobilized my energy only shortly. Getting justice for all also felt elusive until I joined other social and racial movement, feeling that there is trust in numbers to challenge the status quo.
MUTHA: Where are you in that struggle and do you feel justice is ever possible?
Kat Espinosa: Sad. Today and many days. Justice would be someone who knows more than what has already been said to come forward and tell the real truth. I am currently working with great people on our People’s Investigation Report about Asa. The report will be made public when finished.
La Mesha Irizarry: The Idriss Stelley Foundation is based in San Francisco. Justice is only possible for me through Revolution. I am not a reformist, although I lobbied towards a number of reforms, they do not last long term.
MUTHA: What’s something you’d like the world to know about your son?
Kat Espinosa: Asa was very smart, sweet, had a lot of love and made people laugh A LOT!
La Mesha Irizarry: Idriss was a young Black student, killed at the age of 23, by the San Francisco Police Department during a so called psychiatric intervention. 48 bullets, 9 cops, Idriss did not have a gun. It happened 16 years ago inside the Metreon theater.
MUTHA: What are your spiritual resources? How do you cope? Some people think that there is spiritual meaning or wisdom to be found in tragedy. Do you agree or disagree with this?
Kat Espinosa: I used to believe in afterlife but after Asa was wrongfully killed I believe there is a void and we are simply gone. Asa is in our hearts and minds, always loved; one to speak and turn to always. Been told “tragedies” shape who we are now; I’d rather not be in this club our family was forced into in this way. Knowing what other friends, family and community loose as the saying goes, “It’s a crying shame.” Lately I’ve become more of a seeker of spiritual matters, more open.
La Mesha Irizarry: I believe in trying to achieve love and acceptance within oneself and practice meditation daily, my deities are the 4 elements. My son converted to Islam at 17. To me, finding spiritual meaning to violence is an idiotic rationalization. What spiritual gain do we get through the mass killings in Syria, Soudan, Palestine? The kidnapping, rape, torture and killing of Native Women? And domestic terror in the US through the police state? Please.
MUTHA: What has this situation taught you? Has it been a teacher at all?
Kat Espinosa: The wisdom I found was some “authority figures” lie, act stupidly and “negligently.” Pay enough money and so-called “experts” can spin things any way they like. I feel we need to change how our police are being trained to be “militarized.” Mental health TRAINED staff need to arrive first on scene before cops with lethal weapons arrive. Non-lethal tools need to be used first. When one cop pulls out a gun, other cops can do the same making it much more likely those guns will be used. [We need] attitude, compassion, humanity, common sense training, and body cams ON. Life is precious. In my case some paid “expert” who never met me or any of our family wrote all about us in negative light. Many inaccuracies were presented. Asa’s childhood was used against him. What those police did that night had nothing to do with anything that happened before that night. Our family has continued to suffer at the loss of Asa.
La Mesha Irizarry: The “situation” has taught me to be a mentor and help other families in need. From our bilingual hotline, 101 counseling, support groups, tech assistance in hosting press conferences and rallies, fundraising, attorney referrals to court accompaniment, setting up facebook groups for impacted families and much more.
MUTHA: How if at all has your sense of motherhood and your identity as a mother changed? What does parenting look like now to you? What is family life like for you now? How has the loss shaped or changed your idea of family?
Kat Espinosa: I am still a mother to my adult children who are left. But the killing of Asa has been a shock and something we are still coping with. Still. Our core family is split apart physically. I am a great-grandmother recently for first time. My children have been dedicated to their offspring as much as possible. We are supportive of each other but we have changed so much because of Asa being killed. A light in our lives has been taken out.
La Mesha Irizarry: I am estranged from biological family and motherhood now means being a matchmaker Elder of sort. Idriss was my sole biological child. Early on he became a young communities of color emblem, my role being to introduce individuals. Families and grassroots groups who had social and/or racial mindship and help organize strategical planning between them towards action.
MUTHA: Do you see yourself as part of a coalition of mothers who have politicized the loss of their loved ones, for example The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo/Mothers of the Disappeared? What’s the potential for movement building among mothers who have lost children?
Kat Espinosa: Yes, I am part of a mother’s who have lost loved ones by authority figures movement. This is a very important and lifelong support network. Mothers of the Disappeared I admire very much. They are a brave, strong and determined group of women who made a difference by coming together. Mothers in my situation of “authority overstepping their jobs with lethal force” have marched, spoken out (even in Washington D.C.) and told our stories—some individually, some in groups both private and public. Because we are mothers we fight beside each other for justice for our children. I don’t believe that will ever stop. Sadly more loved ones are killed adding to our numbers.
La Mesha Irizarry: Yes, I am part of many mothers groups who focus their efforts towards justice, in the prison and police accountability movements. Here in California, it tends to be local, North Bay, South Bay, San Francisco, Central Valley, LA, San Diego, with periodical junction on May 1, international human rights day, etc. There is increasing participation by grieving fathers and male relatives.
MUTHA: Who has mothered or mentored you in your life?
Kat Espinosa: My natural mother was longest person in my life to know me but not continually raise me. Though she is gone now, my mother’s influence stays with me. At a young age I began to be raised by Dominican Nuns in boarding schools. My mom had a best friend I called “Aunt” that was helpful at the time. There were other female caretakers some I remember, some I don’t. One of my maternal grandmothers was around for a time. Institutions, staff and girl peers were a big base of my upbringing. Lastly, but not least, myself.
La Mesha Irizarry: I was raised right after WWII in a big sanatorium run by my mother, raised mostly by women. So my sense of family was not nuclear, many parents by extension. My stronger mentors were a Rosicrucian artist, and the socialist party that I joined at age fourteen.
MUTHA: What makes mothers so powerful?
Kat Espinosa: For me, a deep sense of connection towards my children. Wanting the best for them and my natural instinct to protect. Putting their needs first while raising them. Wanting the best for them now. Doing the best I could at the time. The feelings of love, joy and our history make my bond stronger with them.
La Mesha Irizarry: The power of mothers is ancestral, a strong archetype, from the fertility goddess to the acm virgin and so on. Marianismo in indigenous Latino cultures, Mater Dolorosa in Mediterranean cultures, mother courage in Eastern Europe, etc. Cindy Sheehan icononizes Camp Casey, Mothers Against Drunk Driving goes national, Megan’s Law is created by a woman. In the police accountability movement, high profile cases rule and polarize attention and eventually fade, suffering and destroyed by turf issues, cultish leaders and egos, all attempts to unify the movement have failed, due to competition around funding, creating logistic conflicts with similar events on the same day, envy…This discourage many activists who eventually shy away.