Activism

4 Police Brutality Victims’ Families Share their Stories Before National Day of Protest

‘The pain will never go away:’ Hear from families who lost their loved ones, and join the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality on October 22.

Michael Nida's daughter Marlee and wife Nally protesting after Nida was shot and killed by police.
Photo Credit: Jean Thaxton

While police brutality is gaining national attention, the October 22 National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation will take place for its 18th year on Tuesday in nearly 40 citiesacross the country.

The protest was first organized in 1996, by a diverse coalition of groups and individuals who wanted to bring about resistance to police brutality on a national level.

Kathie Cheng, an organizer with the coalition, said that while national dialogue around police brutality declined after 9/11, there has since been a resurgence as more people are standing up and documentation has increased.

The coalition also works on the Stolen Lives Project, which monitors killings by law enforcement agents.

Cheng said the October 22 rally is important in reminding people that police are not supposed to behave in a brutal fashion.

She said, “If there isn’t a very visible alternative to how people see police brutality, we’ll just accept that ‘Well, this is just what happens.’”

She added, “It’s also a platform for many families of those who have been killed by police to be able to have a voice. Very often in media they just go by the police report, and the victims’ names are just dragged through the mud. And so this is a chance for others to hear the truth about what’s going on.”

AlterNet spoke to four families whose loved ones were killed by police. The following are their stories:

Ernest Duenez

On June 8, 2011, Ernest Duenez, 34, was shot and killed by Manteca, CA police officer John Moody. Moody was waiting down the street for Duenez to pull into his driveway. When he saw Duenez’s truck, he followed him into his driveway where he yelled at Duenez to put his hands up and to drop a knife, despite the fact that no knife was visible. As soon as Duenez stepped out of the car, within four seconds, Moody fired 13 bullets, striking Duenez 11 times in his back, chest and head. Witnesses stated they saw the police give each other high fives while watching the dashboard camera (dash cam) video of the shooting.

At first, police stated that Duenez had a gun and that there was no dash cam video. But after months of fighting, the family was able to obtain the video, which does not show Duenez in possession of any weapon. A forensic team and other experts later confirmed that Duenez held no weapon whatsoever.  Moody was given three days off, and then was promoted to a detective, now training officers. The Duenez family is pursuing a wrongful death civil suit and is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to open a federal investigation.

Duenez’s cousin, Christina Arechiga, said he was her best friend. “But he was best friends to a lot of people, he was one of those kinds of people,” she said. Arechiga said Ernest was “that laughter in our family.” He was previously incarcerated for a drug-related charge, but he had recovered and recently had a son, who was 11-months-old when he was killed. Arechiga said the family is helping Ernest’s wife raise the son, “who is a spitting image of Ernest and does all the funny and crazy things he did.”

Arechiga said, “This is my own life tragedy, I live that day everyday of my life since 2011. … We don’t know why this happened. All we know is try to make it better for us and everybody else that it happens to.”

Arechiga is now working to organize against police brutality. Arechiga will be attending her first October 22 rally this year. She played a key role, along with the California Statewide Coalition Against Police Brutality, in organizing families across California to converge on the state’s capitol of Sacramento. This will be the first statewide protest in the rally’s history.

Arechiga said they are demanding the California legislature grant them a legislative hearing to present all the cases of police brutality. She said there are also demands for a discussion on police officers’ Bill of Rights, statewide laws requiring police to be drug tested at random, laws requiring police officers to wear body cameras, and autonomous civilian committees to oversee police.  

She said she that everyone should join the rally because everyone has a stake in police officers’ behavior.

She said, “This affects every single person, whether you’re directly affected like I was, whether you were beat by a police officer, whether you were incarcerated, or whether you’re a citizen who is paying for theses misdeeds of the police.”

Malcolm Ferguson

On Mar. 1, 2000, Malcolm Ferguson, 23, was shot and killed by plainclothes NYPD officer Louis Rivera. Ferguson was in the lobby of a building with friends when Rivera came into the building. Seeing Rivera’s gun, Ferguson ran up the stairs, where Rivera fired the gun at his head. The medical examiner found that, because the bullet didn’t exit Ferguson’s head, it must have been pressed against something hard, and thus more officers were likely involved in restraining Ferguson.

The district attorney refused to charge Rivera, so Ferguson’s mother, Juanita Young, took the case to civil court. When Rivera testified, he mentioned that he didn’t fear Ferguson because he knew he didn’t have a weapon. He said that his gun accidentally went off when he pulled it out. Young was granted a monetary award, but Rivera remains on active duty in the NYPD.

Young said Malcolm was a loving son.

 “He was teased and called a ‘momma’s boy,’” she said, adding that he was also the big brother figure in the household, and very protective of his younger sisters.

“One time, he told a boy who wrote a love letter to his sister to please leave her alone,” she said.

Young also remembers another time when she was in the hospital and Malcolm had tried so hard to cook for his younger siblings, but not even their dog would eat his food. “But it made me happy that he tried.”

Young said that Malcolm had gotten in trouble once, which led to eight months in prison. He vowed not to go back, but, she said, the media portrayed Malcolm as a big time drug dealer.

“It’s not true,” she said. “That’s just the way the media had to portray him to justify why he was murdered.”

She said Malcolm’s death still pains her everyday.

“That’s one pain that will never go away until the day you die,” she said. “You have to live with that pain. There’s no closure. There’s no nothing. Especially when the person or child was so violently taken away from you.”

This will be Young’s thirteenth year joining the October 22 rally in the Bronx. Since her son’s death, the NYPD has harassed and beaten up Young. But she said she will continue to stand up and fight. “I refuse to allow them to put that fear in me.”

Young encourages others to rally and support the families of victims of police brutality. She said:

“Come stand with the families that have been forced to live through the pain of the murder of a loved one so that it does not hit your family. Come stand with us the victims so you and your family might be a little safer.”

Nicholas Heyward Jr.

On Sept. 27, 1994, Nicholas Heyward Jr., 13, was shot and killed by NYPD officer Brian George. Heyward was playing a game of cops and robbers with his friends, all ages 11-14, in a housing complex when an officer said he got a 911 call about a man in the building with a gun. The officer said when he got to the fourteenth floor, he heard clicking (of the toy gun) and shot into the darkness. However, Nicholas’s friends said they all told the officer “We’re playing, we’re playing.” The district attorney immediately determined the officer was justified and essentially blamed the killing on the realistic looking toy gun, saying that the officer feared for his life. The gun was plastic with bright orange colored handles and tips. 

However, when questioned by Nicholas Heyward Sr.’s attorney, George said he was not on a 9-11 call, the stairwell was not dimly lit and things didn’t happen in a split second.

After the event, George was simply transferred to another precinct, where he remains on active duty.

Nicholas was an honor student, and “one of those real happy, happy kids,” Heyward Sr. said of his first-born son, adding that he went to church every Sunday on his own free will.

Heyward Sr. said:

“He was always in search of knowledge. I would go outside and instead of seeing him playing with kids, he’d be sitting on a bench talking to an adult.”

Heyward Sr. recalled going to an open school night and being approached by the principal, who said that Nicholas was always in his office.

“I was like ‘What?!’” Heyward Sr. said. “And he said, ‘No, he’s one of my favorite students. He’s always in the office helping me out.’”

Nicholas had also been practicing and tried out for his middle school basketball team. He was killed before finding out he had made the team.

“My son meant the world to me,” Heyward Sr. said. “It’s been 19 years now since Nicholas was gunned down and it’s almost like it was just yesterday. It’s just such a painful feeling that just doesn’t go away.”

This will be Heyward Sr.’s eighteenth year marching and organizing in the October 22 rally in New York City. Heyward said he hasn’t seen a single case of justice in a police brutality case in the last 19 years. He said his main goal is to bring awareness to others, and encourage more people to join in support. 

He said, “We have to protect our own communities, and in order to do that we have to make our communities better and safer, and give our children an environment where they can grow and be productive in society.”

Michael Nida

On Oct. 22, 2011 Michael Nida was shot and killed by Downey, CA police officer Steven Gilley. Nida and his wife were at a gas station filling up when he ran across an intersection to buy his wife a pack of cigarettes. When he came out, a police officer questioned him over a $40 ATM robbery in the area. Assumingly not wanting to be late for his birthday celebration that evening, he ran back across the street, where another officer told him to get down. Nida listened. The officer suddenly began stomping on Nida’s back. Nida, a construction worker, had a history of back problems, and so got up and ran from the officer. The officer then shot him in the back with a machine gun.

The officers then refused to allow Nida’s wife to go to the hospital with him, and held her for hours. After Nida’s mother demanded they release his wife so she could tell their four children that their father was murdered, the officers told her that she should tell them herself — and then later suggested she bring her grandchildren to the police station so their mother could tell them there.   

In the district attorney’s report, Gilley said he was afraid the “fleeing felon” would shoot somebody else, despite the fact that Nida was unarmed and innocent. The district attorney found Gilley justified in the shooting.

Gilley was taken off duty with pay for some time and then promoted to detective.

Jean Thaxton, Michael’s mother, said Michael was full of life. He fell in love with his wife at 16, and they eventually got married and had four children.

 “He was a hands on dad,” Thaxton said. “He went to teachers meetings, took his kids to the doctor, and started dinner for them when he got home.”

Michael also won competitions for his construction work. He was good at his trade and worked as much as possible to support his family.

Thaxton said he was a caring son. “He used to tell me ‘Mom when you grow old, I’m going to be the one who takes care of you.’ and I would tell him ‘I’m going into a nursing home!’ and he’d say, ‘No you’re not, I will take care of you mom, if I have to, I’d change your diapers.”

She continued, “The first year after Michael’s death was really hard. I still, sometimes, can’t sleep.”

This will be Thaxton’s second year joining and organizing the October 22 rally. She’ll be in Sacramento this year. She said that people should join that rally and realize that this could happen to any family.

“We didn’t think it would happen to our family,” she said. “We are law-abiding people. We are middle-class America. Nobody is immune to it. You are putting your children’s lives in jeopardy if they don’t come out and help us protest.”

She added, “Before my son was murdered, I was as ignorant and complacent as most of our citizens are today. I believed what I saw on television. I believed that the police officers were out there getting the bad guys off the street. But since Michael has died, and I’ve met so many families, I know it’s all lies."

For more information on how you can join your local rally, visit the October 22 Coalition's website here

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.