On Mother’s Day, Mothers Who Have Lost Children To Violence March To Remember
O n Mother’s Day in 1996, Clementina M. Chéry decided she was going to raise awareness about homicide and the challenges that people affected by murder face by walking in honor of her son Louis Brown, who had been murdered two and a half years earlier. “I noticed that there were walks for hunger, for AIDS, for domestic violence, but no walks for peace,” she says. So she created one. “I wanted to do this because Louis was murdered publicly, so I wasn’t going to celebrate or grieve privately,” she says. “I was giving myself permission and providing space for other mothers.” Chéry describes Louis as “a total bookworm” who “wanted to be the first Black president,” and says she really didn’t know how to celebrate the day with her living children when her oldest son wasn’t there.
Twenty-one years later, people in Boston still march the 6.8 miles from the southern neighborhood of Dorchester to City Hall so mothers of murdered children can get support, be a part of community, and raise awareness about the struggles that survivors of homicide victims face. Today, almost 15,000 people from across the state of Massachusetts participate in the Mother’s Day Walk For Peace. Hosted by the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which Chéry founded in honor of her son, people still walk “because murder still happens,” she says. “It’s not a Black issue or an urban issue. We are showing the power of mothers in the midst of our pain, making a statement that we choose peace, and that we are more than what society portrays us to be. We are a unified community.”
Danielle Bennett, Survivor Outreach Advocate at the Peace Institute, began participating in the walk with her family after her cousin, Sharrice Perkins, was killed. “That first walk, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Bennett. Sharrice was just 22 when she died, and Bennett describes her as “a beautiful soul, literally,” someone who “was a natural giver and who loved to teach kids how to double dutch.” Sharrice was murdered while sitting in a car in front of her house in August 2012, and the family walked that next May. “The feeling we got — the unity, the solidarity in the crowd, the support we felt — it was magical, peaceful,” she says. “It rained; we didn’t care. It meant that we weren’t alone.” Her family has walked every year since 2013.
‘The feeling we got — the unity, the solidarity in the crowd, the support we felt — it was magical, peaceful.’
The people who walk are examples of resilience, of faith; they are people who are turning the pain and anger of their incredible loss into action for a better, more just world, so that others do not have to suffer the way they have. “It shows that there are survivors who live each and every day across Massachusetts. We come together on Mother’s Day to walk in memory of loved ones, but moreso to show survivorship — that we’re still here, standing, strong, walking together,” says Bennett.
On Mother’s Day, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be. “Not only are [women who have lost children to violence] not acknowledged on Mother’s Day, people won’t talk about their child’s death with them because there’s so much stigma around the way they died. There’s no safe place for them to express pain,” says Sadiqa Reynolds, President and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, an organization that supports communities of color in achieving social and economic stability and equality in Kentucky.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15,809 people were murdered in the United States in 2014. The Peace Institute estimates that for each homicide, 10 people are directly affected by the grief and upheaval of the loss, and this doesn’t include extended family, co-workers, neighbors, or classmates. Homicide causes financial, emotional, and physical instability in families that are affected by it — and that goes for families on both sides of the violence. When someone’s child or loved one commits a murder, that family is affected by the violence, too.
The Walk For Peace is more than a walk. It’s also a fundraiser. “This is how we sustain most of our programing and are able to support the families we serve,” says Bennett. “It’s being able to continue this work and continue to help families heal.” The work that the Peace Institute provides to survivors entails various support services, as well as policy work (they’re currently aiming to increase the line item for survivors of homicide victims in the state budget, as well as to amend the current Victim Compensation Statute so that no one is disqualified from receiving financial assistance because of how their loved one died), and their Rest In Peace Fund, which helps families afford funeral and burial costs for their loved ones. It is the support that did not exist when Chéry’s son Louis was killed, the resources she wishes she had been able to access. And yet, “fundraising doesn’t come easy for people who look like me,” Chéry notes. “Fundraising is harder for communities of color; we have to work harder.”
Reynolds has invited mothers who have lost children to violence to gather at the Louisville Urban League on Sunday. She says she’s not sure if anyone will show up but, “I hate the thought of a woman being alone or lonely, or feeling like people aren’t thinking of her on that day,” she says. Reynolds believes that there is healing to be found in community, and that coming together for support is crucial. “There are answers for our community in rooms full of women who have lost children to violence that we don’t seem to be tapping into right now, chances to do something really meaningful for our community,” she says.
Many survivors stress the importance of sharing space with others whose loved ones were murdered. After Debra Johnson’s son Cory was killed in 2010, Johnson’s community at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church’s Social Impact Center in Boston rallied around her. Cory, who his mother describes as “a very smart young man” with “a very big laugh,” was shot and killed while walking with his brother to a friend’s house when he was 27 years old. In 2014, her church began a program called “CAN WE TALK?: A Community Conversation on Trauma” run by the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing (“Emphasis on healing,” says program director Colleen Sharka). Once a month, people who have lost loved ones to violence can attend the open mic event, where attendees share stories, feelings, poems, music, or anything else that moves them.
“I feel like I was in this deep sleep for five years and when I started to go to [CAN WE TALK?], this community space, I started to tell my story. I would be listening to these people…and some of the stories I was hearing started to take me out of this darkness that I was feeling,” Johnson says of the program that bears her son’s name. “Having the freedom to just feel whatever it is you’re feeling and to be able to say it or write it and know you’re not alone, that’s what’s helping me.”
‘Having the freedom to just feel whatever it is you’re feeling and to be able to say it or write it and know you’re not alone, that’s what’s helping me.’
“The last thing you want is to feel like that death is in vain and it’s hard not to feel that when when life was snached early, unnecessarily, and violently. For some women, if they can make something good or help someone else’s child, they want to do that,” says Reynolds. That desire to help others is what led Chéry to found the Peace Institute. Bennett got the job at the Peace Institute a few years after Sharrice’s death, and feels like Sharrice pushed her into the field of helping other survivors. “I always say that Sharrice’s life gave me life,” she says.
When Johnson is asked what she wants the world to know about her son she says, “Just that he was loved. He was so, so loved.”