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Checking in with families whose loved ones were killed by police

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This week a grand jury indicted 10 people on charges of second degree murder in the death of Irvo Otieno. He was in a mental health crisis at Virginia's Central State Hospital earlier this month. And sadly, he is the latest case of a Black person killed in an encounter with law enforcement. Irvo Otieno's older brother, Leon Ochieng, spoke at a press conference last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEON OCHIENG: Can someone explain to me why my brother is not here right now? Can someone explain to me why my mother can't sleep, can't eat? We're broken. Our hearts are broken.

SUMMERS: This week I spoke with two other families who know that heartbreak and who now know each other.

SAMARIA RICE: Before we get started, I don't think I had the pleasure of meeting Princess. And if I do, I don't remember.

PRINCESS BLANDING: Yes, Miss Rice. I'm sending much love to you and positive energy and support to you and your family.

RICE: Thank you - you as well.

SUMMERS: I'm that's Samaria Rice and Princess Blanding. In 2014, police in Cleveland shot and killed Rice's 12-year-old son, Tamir. He'd been playing with a toy pistol. The officers involved in the shooting avoided federal charges in a case that sparked a national reckoning over police brutality.

RICE: I have the love for the people that still fighting for justice for my son, which - he would be 21 years old June 25 of this year.

SUMMERS: And Princess Blanding is the sister of Marcus David Peters. Officers shot and killed him in Richmond, Va., during a mental health crisis in 2018. Blanding helped pass a state law named after Marcus, even though she says it didn't do enough to push for police accountability. She remains an outspoken activist.

BLANDING: For me, I get strength by speaking out, by fighting.

SUMMERS: We brought both women together on Zoom and over the phone to reflect on this moment and what it's been like since their lives were torn apart. I started with Samaria Rice, and I asked her how she's feeling eight years after Tamir was shot and killed.

RICE: A lot of sadness and disappointment, heartache and pain, a lot of rage and - very emotional. Nobody in America could tell me why I don't have an indictment for my 12-year-old son that was murdered by a Cleveland police officer. So that's kind of how I'm doing these days. I have my good and bad days. It's not easy.

SUMMERS: And, Princess, May will mark five years since Marcus was killed. What's on your mind when you think about that?

BLANDING: You know, I must echo some of the things that Miss Rice said. You know, the pain will never go away. It will never go away. That day is ingrained in my brain. And May is coming up again. So every birthday, every May, you know, it's that void being put in your face that your loved one - in this case, that my brother, Marcus David Peters - will never come back again. And, you know, I am very unapologetically a mad Black woman. The system has given me and, quite frankly, all Black people reasons to be mad Black men and women. And to make matters worse, last January I lost yet another brother at the hand of police but this time in New Jersey. So it's like the pain doesn't end, whether it's my loved ones, you know, or it's, you know, Tamir Rice, you know, whether it's Tyre Nichols. Like, there's always another name. So the pain continues to just grow deeper and deeper.

SUMMERS: First of all, Princess, I'm so sorry that you've had to deal with the loss of not one brother but two. I didn't see as much national coverage of your brother Marcus David's death as other names that are often invoked when it comes to the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police. What has that experience been like for you?

BLANDING: I literally was just thinking about that same question and the same feelings over the past, you know, a couple of weeks after the other young man, Mr. Irvo, was killed here in Virginia. And the reason why that came back to mind is because this young man was experiencing a mental health crisis as well. The little attention that my brother's case did get was because we didn't back down, you know, because the media put out the message, crazy Black man, you know, and tried to make immediately the victim the criminal. And what I'll say is that, you know, from the lack of coverage, you know, from me kind of getting into the frying pan with these players, I understand how this political system works, so it doesn't surprise me anymore.

SUMMERS: Samaria, your son's death garnered a good deal of national attention. It is a story that many of us have heard and sat with. I wonder if you can share a little bit about what it was like to be thrust into this incredibly massive spotlight while you were grieving your loss.

RICE: It was horrific. It was horrible. I had two children still in school at the - in this process. And, you know, I was given ultimatums to do this and do that and - very overwhelming because I'm still a mom, and I still have two children. And I just had a new grandbaby and my oldest daughter. So, again, to be thrust in the limelight - it wasn't easy. It was not easy. It's never going to be easy. You might not come back from a situation like this mentally, spiritually, physically. Police terrorism - it destroys families. Me and my family have PTSD to this day, and America should be ashamed of themself. There's no liberty and justice for no one that's Black in this country or brown.

SUMMERS: I'd like to invite both of you to weigh in on what's happened nationally since you lost Tamir and Marcus. As we sit here, there has still not been federal police reform passed. To each of you, what do you want federal authorities to know? Samaria, I'll start with you.

RICE: I think the DOJ is very cowardly. And the whole administration up there - they have blood on their hands. And if they're OK with that, God be with them. They should cease fire on Black and brown people in this country. That's what they can do. That's the first and most important thing that they can do.

SUMMERS: And, Princess, what about you? What do you think that federal officials need to understand?

BLANDING: We the people have a lot of power when we unite. When the people come together, we move mountains. I am a strong believer that we must take some steps to include ending qualified immunity. I am a very strong supporter of defunding the police, but I also understand what it means. When we say defund the police, we mean allocate funds to systems of community care and service. Police officers shouldn't be the ones responding to a mental health crisis.

I also very strongly believe that we must abolish the police. Policing, if you go back to its inception, was never designed to ensure liberty and justice for all. So we can't expect for that soil to produce flowers that were never planted there. So we must abolish the system. And I'm not oblivious. That scares people as well. We abolish it. But we have to put together. We have to build a system that works for us all, that prioritizes community care and safety. So that's where I believe that we must go as a people to force the government to take those actions.

SUMMERS: Princess Blanding is the sister of Marcus David Peters. She's also an activist and former candidate for governor in Virginia. Samaria Rice is the mother of Tamir Rice. She's also founder and CEO of the Tamir Rice Foundation and Afrocentric Cultural Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.