US Collaboration with Sisters Seeking Justice for Police Killings in Jamaica
By Sarah Hamilton, Country Specialist for Jamaica, Amnesty International USA
“I turn my pain into power for the justice of every person who has been killed by police” — Beverley Smith
“A broken sister remembers so that others don’t forget” — Shackelia Jackson
I was privileged and honoured to spend time last September, with Simone Grant and Shackelia Jackson, two human rights defenders from Jamaica, who joined Amnesty International in a series of events in Washington D.C. They came to share not only their stories of strength and courage, but the stories of two individuals whose voices were silenced all too soon: their brothers Matthew Lee and Nakiea Jackson.
Both men were killed by the Jamaican Constabulary (Police) Force, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Though one was from an affluent area and the other from an inner-city neighbourhood, both men were under 30, and noted for their good natures and their strong aspirations in life. Neither men were known to be involved in any criminal activity, and disturbingly both men shared their unfortunate fate, at the hands of law enforcement.
Jamaica’s police has killed more than 3,000 people since 2000. Since last January, there is a 44% increase in the numbers of people killed by the police compared with the same period last year. It’s roughly 3 killings a week, in a country of only 2.8 million inhabitants. Although many of these killings are believed to be unlawful, only a handful of police officers have been convicted for murders in recent decades.
Tragically, this is all too familiar with what we live in the United States. We have been haunted by names such as Philando Castile and Michael Brown. Hundreds of people are killed each year by the police in the US, and it is extremely rare for police to be held accountable. For too long we have failed to recognise that this is a regional issue, disproportionately impacting young black men living in marginalized communities from Jamaica, Brazil or the USA, to name a few.
Further, how often do we hear about the personal struggle and raw emotion from the women who are left behind?
Simone and Shackelia are two of those women. Since their brothers were killed they have demanded justice. They have joined other families across Jamaica facing the same wall of impunity for their loved ones’ deaths. Now, with the support of Amnesty International, they’re crossing borders to connect with families living similar reality, whether it is in the USA or in Brazil.
During their time in D.C., they joined at a public event the Coalition for Concerned Mothers and the local Chapter for Black Lives Matter to raise awareness about Matthew and Nakiea. Simone tearfully apologised for her display of emotion, emphasising that after 4 years, it is still difficult to talk about the loss of her brother. She stoically conveyed that she focuses her energy on obtaining justice: “that is where my energy is focused. At the end of the day something positive has to come out of it.”
Shackelia spoke with passion: “my brother was good at so many things… I often think what if? So we are left to say not what if? But instead who else can I save?” She implored those present to recognise the connections between the United States and Jamaica. Speaking of the “universal language of death” she recognised the community of sorrow that she was now a member of.
The next to speak was Carol Gray, a mother who moved from Jamaica to New York to keep her son safe from police violence, only to have her son killed by New York law enforcement at the age of 16. Carol began mournfully, as she confirmed Shackelia’s words: “you speak and I’m there with you.” It was clear then more than ever that the shared sisterhood among these women was the bond that was helping them through. She spoke of the betrayal of both Jamaica and the USA “I come to the… land of the free and then my son is shot in the back.” She tearfully demonstrated the raw pain that she experienced on a daily basis.
Beverley Smith, a mother from D.C. who also lost a son killed by police, followed her words: “I turn my pain into power. Not only for the justice for my son but the justice of every person who has been killed by police. That’s how I turn pain into power.”
Finally, a defiant April Goggans, from Black Lives Matter, spoke about her own harassment by the police as a known activist in her area and the community impact of “a state that continues to use population control under the guise of (protection).” She noted that “there is a human cost to whole communities whose children are being stolen.”
The following day involved a presentation at the US Congress where members were urged to call upon the Jamaican authorities to address rights violations by the police and provide justice to Simone, Shackelia, and hundreds of other families.
But I was still struck by the words shared at the public event.
Their grief, their tears and their sorrow struck me to my core.
Like you, I have seen the horrendous videos circulating on social media. I have wept hearing the cries of “don’t shoot!” I have despaired at the news of another ‘not guilty’ verdict. I have sorrowed as I have followed the news of so-called Jamaican death squads, lies about those murdered by police and a corrupt criminal justice system in Jamaica, the place that my parents tenderly call ‘back home.’
But I have never before sat with the women who are left to piece their life back together. I have never before seen them take off their masks of stoicism and witness a very small part of their inescapable, all-encompassing grief. I have never before considered the enormity of the task that they are undertaking on behalf of not just their own family but all men and women who are being murdered by the police throughout the world. I have never before seen this “unfortunate sisterhood” in action.
But now I have.
“We have a duty to protect ourselves from falling into the trap of complicity,” said April. I am determined to keep standing by their side. Amnesty will stay by their side. Are you ready to stand with us?
The voices of murdered young black men are crying from the dust throughout Jamaica, the United States, Brazil and many more countries of our Hemisphere. Simone Grant and Shackelia Jackson awoke me from my sleeping state of comfort to this horrific reality.
You can take action now and support Shackelia through Amnesty International’s Write for Rights Campaign today. You can also like and follow our Facebook page dedicated to supporting women like Simone and Shackelia.
How else will you respond to this call?
Join us in the fight for justice: www.time4justice.org.