Dolores Piper (left), great aunt of Derrick Gaines, and Gaines’ half-brother Michael Red (right), 7, pose for a portrait in their home in South San Francisco. Gaines, 15, was fatally shot by South San Francisco Police Officer Joshua Cabillo on the night of June 5, 2012. Photographs by Joel Angel Juárez
HOW FAMILIES COPE AFTER POLICE KILL THIER LOVED ONES
By Jennah Feeley
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n May 2012, two weeks before his high school graduation, Alan Dwayne Blueford, 18, ate one last piece of candy and left his house to meet up with some friends. In the hours that followed he was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer.
Two months later, 15-year-old Derrick Gaines walked with a friend in his hometown of South San Francisco when police approached him. The confrontation turned into a foot-chase that ended with Gaines dead in an ARCO gas station lot, having been shot in the neck by an officer.
In February 2014, San Jose State University police gunned down Antonio Lopez Guzman just beyond the campus borders. Footage from the lapel and dashboard cameras have yet to be released to the public — and details of the confrontation are ambiguous.
Disparities among police records, accounts from family members and media coverage persist in each incident. While the facts in many cases remain uncertain, the concern with police brutality in the Bay Area and beyond is clear. A fatal shot by Oakland police on Nov. 15 marked the 1,000th death at the hands of law enforcement in the U.S. this year alone, as reported by The Counted, a database maintained by The Guardian.
Some cases grabbed the nation’s attention, enraging the public on both sides of the law-and-order conflict, and spread like a shotgun blast across social media platforms. All at once, friends and family of the deceased were swept up in a whirlwind of interviews, police investigations and community uproar. But when the limelight dimmed, those families were left in darkness to deal with the aftermath. Despite the trauma of losing a son, a partner, a father or a friend, people have had to somehow pick up the pieces and find a way to continue their lives. And that’s what Alan Blueford’s mother, Jeralynn Blueford, finds so difficult – that nobody thinks about what happens to families after the police kill their loved ones.
RELIVING THE NIGHTMARE
Blueford thinks about the night she lost her son everyday. She remembers granting him permission to go out with his friends — a moment she can’t take back — and the phone call she received the next day telling her he was gone forever. She recalls a feeling of disbelief, of puzzlement. She thought, “they were wrong, this can’t be. Not my Alan.” She relives the sinking feeling that took over as her husband’s fist repeatedly pounded the counter and she saw the candy wrapper their son had left behind the last time she saw him.
Along with her husband, Adam, Blueford went to the police station for answers, but ended up leaving with more questions: What happened that night? Why had the police killed their child? What could Alan have done to deserve losing his life?
In the months that followed, Blueford lost herself in grief. While dealing with a lawsuit over the murder of her son, defending his honor in the face of demonizing media accounts and trying to maintain a strong front for Alan’s two siblings, she didn’t think she could carry on. Anger consumed her and the sadness was paralyzing. She stopped working. She felt like she couldn’t move, sometimes like she couldn’t breathe. She said the sensation was worse than having the wind knocked out of you. “It’s like you gasp for air and there’s no air there.” She was on the brink of suicide when she came to the realization that she needed to pick herself back up for her family.
“I was like, ‘damn, it’s unfair for me to end it for me. I have other people, what about Aaron, what about Ashley, what about the grandkids,’” Blueford said. “They deserve to make memories with me. They deserve to share and know who I am. How will they learn about Alan if I’m not around to tell them?”
Like Blueford, Dolores Piper had to learn how to push herself through the intense moments of sadness. Several years have passed since Piper lost her nephew, Derrick Gaines, but his death is still the first thing she thinks of when she wakes up sleepless at night. Having adopted him as a child, Gaines was a son to her, and his sudden death was devastating.
Piper was on her way home from a business trip in Sacramento the evening Gaines died, and didn’t find out he had been shot until her niece woke her with the news later that night. In the hours that followed, police officers arrived at her door to search the house. She recalls frantically trying to call people, but her mind was in such a fog she couldn’t dial the numbers correctly. The events of that night are still hard for Piper to fully remember.
“There was no describing it, where that night went,” Piper said.
Although the funeral brought forth an outpouring, support from the community wavered for Piper and her family in the weeks that followed. The media coverage, she felt, assassinated Gaines’ character almost immediately. Stories stated he had allegedly pulled a gun on an officer, and Piper couldn’t help but wonder, “who looks at ‘allegedly?’” She got the feeling that members of her community in South San Francisco thought Gaines deserved what had happened to him. She chose not to read the comments people made about the incident online.
Piper has instead held fast to the positive memories she has of her son. She remembers him as a chipper kid who could talk his way out of anything. She thinks back to the trips they took to Chicago, Seattle and Vancouver and how he indulged in hotel room-service. She read to Gaines every night, right into his 15th year — “I still have the book beside my bed that we were halfway through.” She’s held onto his books, his shoes, his clothes — all little mementos she keeps to remember him by.
Memories of Gaines linger everywhere in her life. She often drives past the ARCO station where he died and can’t help but think back to that horrible night. Before he was killed, Piper had never considered law enforcement a threat to her son. She doesn’t think Gaines ever believed cops were dangerous himself, either, and must have been shocked when met face-to-face with the officer’s gun that night.
“I think about how he must have felt at that very second, and how that must have been horrible,” Piper said. “If I dwell on those moments, I just get sick.”
These days, Piper still feels like she has to be on the defensive when she talks about Gaines. After reviewing the police report and talking to witnesses, she came to her own conclusion about what happened that night. She quit saying he was shot by police; now she says he was murdered by them. Speaking out about it and her involvement in activism against police brutality has become a means of healing.
In the face of a similar situation, a turn to activism was obvious to Laurie Valdez. Her partner, Antonio Lopez Guzman, was shot down by university police just off campus at San Jose State. She couldn’t wrap her head around the incident and said it was unfathomable that Guzman would have done something to warrant that kind of reaction from police.
She didn’t think the cops had acted lawfully and realizing their 4-year-old son, Josiah, was going to have to live the rest of his life without a father, she knew she had to take action. Losing her partner was hard, but having to explain the situation to Josiah and his 12-year-old half-sister, Angelique, was agonizing. Angelique continues to try and be strong about the loss of her “papi,” who raised her since age 3, but Josiah still struggles to comprehend what happened. Almost two years later, Josiah still yo-yos between conceptualizing his father’s death and thinking he left to go back to Mexico. His pain is something Valdez “can’t put a Band-Aid on,” and it continuously breaks her heart.
“I feel so bad every time I have to tell my son — I have to re-traumatize him — ‘your dad is dead,’” Valdez said. “I feel evil. I feel like a bad parent because I have to remind him every single time he asks.”
As far as Valdez is concerned, there is no way of providing justice for Guzman, because he is already gone, but her little boy deserves someone to stand up for him. Valdez created the campaign, Justice 4 Josiah, to raise awareness about police violence and find solutions to help heal communities it impacts. She wants to prevent another child from losing a parent.
“My son is going to suffer, but if I can prevent that for another family somehow, some way Antonio’s death won’t be in vain,” Valdez said. “At least we will save somebody else from having to go through this.”
As Josiah grows up Valdez fears he will search the web for information about what happened to his father and read the comments people made about the incident. Guzman was an undocumented immigrant — and Valdez recalls comments that said he deserved what he got because he shouldn’t have been in this country in the first place. Other comments she saw characterized him as a person Valdez doesn’t recognize. Because he was so young, Josiah’s memories of his father are scarce and Valdez doesn’t want negative comments to paint an unfair picture of the man he was.
“I don’t teach my kids negativity,” Guzman said. “But this is the aftermath.”
Valdez filed a federal civil suit against San Jose State over the death of her partner, which was recorded on cameras worn by the officers involved. She believes the footage from the incident should be released to the public in this case, and in all others like it, so the right people can be held accountable.
In Alan Blueford’s case, the officer who shot him was also wearing a lapel camera it was switched off before he shot the 18-year-old. His mother has become an activist as well, and is working to create the “Alan Blueford Law,” which would require the prosecution of any officer who turns off or otherwise tampers with their camera equipment in an incident where they kill someone. In addition, their pension, under the proposed law, would be transferred to the family of the victim.
Recognizing that families in these situations have minimal government support, Mollie Costello teamed up with Blueford to help make the law become a reality.
“It’s not like you have money set aside for burial costs, or what happens when you can’t work,” Costello said.
Blueford and Costello also opened the Alan Blueford Center for Justice in Oakland as a hub for healing in the community. The center serves as a place for people to grieve, create art and find support in each other. Blueford has found solace in “helping hearts heal,” and aims to be a resource and an advocate for those touched by police violence.
“If we change the laws, not only will it be justice for Alan, it will be justice for all,” Blueford said. “Although I am speaking out for my son, somewhere there is another mother who cannot speak out for her son, and he has no justice. Nobody is calling his name.”
Valdez, too, works to be a voice for families in similar situations. In a televised interview on MSNBC Nov. 4, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino mentioned Guzman’s name in a comment about police violence in America, giving a nod to her efforts. “Wow,” she said. “I’m being heard.”
Piper also organizes friends and family members of police brutality victims as a means of support and activism. She created a Facebook account for the sole purpose of keeping in contact with the loved ones of those gunned down by law enforcement. She participates in marches and works to reach out to the youth in her community. It’s painful, she said, but she does it for her son.
Despite activism across the nation, the issue of violence between law enforcement and citizens remains unresolved. Blueford and Piper don’t want another mother to lose her son, and Valdez hopes other children don’t lose their fathers the way her son has. They are tired of hearing about fatal encounters with police because, as Blueford put it, “with each case you relive your own story.”
In the meantime, these women have pledged to continue to fight in the names of those lost. They will continue to seek better protections from police and for better support for the families left behind in the aftermath. Blueford, Piper and Valdez’s activism is what helps them carry on through their losses.
“My healing thing is to try and bring other families together so they know they are not alone because I know what it feels like,” Valdez said. ”We’re going to get through this together.”