Moms demand action on police reform at DC’s Freedom Plaza

(CORRECTION May 6, 2021 7:15 p.m. — An earlier version of this story stated the rally occurred at Black Lives Matter Plaza. It occurred at Freedom Plaza. This story has been updated.)

Just ahead of Mother’s Day, moms from around the country gathered at Freedom Plaza in D.C. on Thursday to demand action on police reform.

Marion Gray-Hopkins, president of the Coalition of Concerned Mothers, which is locally based, said she hopes leaders “hear our cries.”

“The crying of the mothers that are not only here, but across this nation, to say we’re sick and tired of (police) killing our loved ones. And that there is some federal legislation, along with legislation in each individual state, that will address the impunity that officers are now getting for killing our loved ones,” Gray-Hopkins told WTOP’s John Domen.

She said she lost her son when he was 19 “to the hands of two Prince George’s County, Maryland, police officers, after attending a dance at a local fire station where he had actually been a peacemaker, breaking up an altercation between a friend and someone else” in November 1999.

Gray-Hopkins said mothers are at the front line of the movement.

“And I think that people have finally realized, after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and so many others across this nation, that something needs to be done,” she said.

Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner — a Black man from New York City who died after a white NYPD officer put him chokehold during his arrest for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes — was also at the event.

Garner’s dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry among police reform activists.

Those words drew renewed attention last May, after George Floyd echoed them as Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck, leading to his death.

Carr said she hopes the rally will move the nation toward more accountability.

“Because the police have that qualified immunity, which we’re trying to get rid of,” she said. “In New York City, where I come from … we do have that in place. But we need a nationwide law, a federal law for this qualified immunity because the police, they get away with too much. And the bar is set so high that it’s almost impossible to indict or convict a police officer. So this has to stop.”

She added, “The law should be for all of us, not just for me, or not just for the Black and Brown community, but for the police officers also when they do wrong.”

Catherine Young said her son was shot and killed by an off-duty D.C. police officer in May 2018.

“I’m heartbroken that he was murdered and don’t have all the answers why,” she said. “I was told that my son had a gun and that my son shot at the police officer … that’s what the police officers say but the public says something different.”

Young said she received “some” body-camera footage, “but it was not the whole body-cam footage.”

“And because the police officer was off duty, he didn’t have a camera on him,” she said.

Young described video from a nearby recreation center as showing her son having a conversation with the officer, and “my son looked like he was trying to get away from the police officer. And the police officer kept pursuing him, acting like he wanted to fight my son.”

Sean Bell was killed in November 2006 in a 50-shot barrage by NYPD officers following his bachelor party in Queens. His mother, Valerie Bell, was also at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Thursday for the rally.

She wants “everybody to hear our cry, that’s the name of the rally, Hear My Cry, meaning to speak to people, to let them know that you are still hurting for what happened to your son or daughter that was killed by police officers who are here to protect us.”

“So if they hear us, maybe they will have a heart to do other things that need to be done to make a change in this world today.”

She called for more legislation and more police accountability.

“It says justice for all — it’s not justice for all. Because we are killed while we walk. We are killed while we talk. We are killed while we drive a car. We are killed even when we hold our hands up,” Bell said. “That needs to be stopped.”

Rev. George Gilbert, with The Center for Racial Equity and Justice in Northeast D.C., helped organize the event.

He said video cameras and recordings have “put a face on this devil.”

“And it’s not necessarily each individual police officer. But I would ask how many of us would take a flight on American, Delta or Frontier if they told us that, ‘Oh, we just have a few bad apples?'” Gilbert said.

“How many of us would would buy a burger from Burger King, McDonald’s or Wendy’s if they said, ‘Only a few burgers are bad?’ So now we’re dealing with a system that’s telling us, ‘Oh, we only have a few bad apples.’ But we need the whole system changed. It’s time for America to change the system.”

Among the changes Gilbert wants to see are nationwide standards for all police departments. That includes mandates on body cameras, doing away with no-knock warrants, community review boards “that really have some powers and teeth” as well as a “bad cop registry.”

“We just want to see justice,” he said. “And quite frankly, we want our people to stop dying. We want our kids and our young men and our young women to stop being killed.”

The D.C. Council voted late last year to make BLM Plaza a permanent part of the District.

WTOP’s John Domen contributed to this report.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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