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Just one day before his 17th birthday, on July 22, 2010, James Earl Rivera Jr. died in a hail of 48 rounds fired by three Stockton, Calif., police officers after they forced the car he was driving to crash. Nineteen of those bullets--fired by 9mm semi-automatic guns and AR-15 assault rifles--tore through his body, killing him on the spot. Nearly two years later, the family still hasn't been provided with police videos of the killing, nor a coroner's report.
James' mother Dionne Smith-Downs has pieced together an understanding of what happened to her son through a series of eyewitness accounts, none of which indicate that the police involved--Stockton cops Gregory Dunn and Eric Azarvand, and John Nesbitt of the San Joaquin Sheriff's Department--had any justification for opening fire on James' vehicle.
Smith-Downs, her husband Carey Smith-Downs and her family have been on a tireless campaign to force the police to answer for James' murder. The family have also connected with the families of other victims of police brutality, in Stockton and in the Bay Area nearby. Smith-Downs spoke withabout the loss of her son and her experiences fighting for justice over the last 22 months.
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WHAT DO you remember about the day your son James was murdered?
I RECEIVED a phone call early in the morning on July 22, not from the police, but from a community member. She told me that the police stopped my son in a car down the street, and they let him go. I didn't really respond to her quickly because I have a lot of sons who drive. She didn't make it clear to me which son it was.
You could hear the gunshots from my house. I could hear them clear as day. It wasn't clear someone was getting killed that day. I thought it was maybe firecrackers.
I drove there, and my heart hurt. I had a bad feeling. I felt sick like I was going to cry. I called my mom, and I asked her where my kids were. I asked people, "Has anyone seen James?" I saw a crowd, and it still didn't hit me what happened. People starting putting up yellow tape, people were hollering and running with babies.
When I got out of the car, people said, "That's your son." How did people know it was my son? Then the lady said it was James. I started crying. I thought it was a drive-by. I didn't know the police shot him when they put my son in the ambulance.
I followed the ambulance driver to the hospital. Both a sheriff and police officers wouldn't let me see my son in the hospital even though I had his Medicaid card to make sure he got help. It wasn't until James' body was released to a funeral home a few days later that I got to see him and know he was actually dead.
I was supposed to be the first person who knew that James died. The police put his picture all over the news station while I was still at the hospital trying to see my son. I didn't even know he had died yet. How are they going to show James' picture when he's a minor? He wasn't even 17. When no one knew who the three officers were?
I couldn't sleep. I still didn't want to accept my son was gone. I knew he was gone when I touched him. That was in the funeral home. That's why I can show the pictures. I had to see his face and see what kind of stress he felt. I could see where the bullet holes went out of his skin. When they grabbed him and they dragged him out of the car. He had drag marks on his backside.
James wore his pants down low so when they pulled him from the car, it probably pulled his pants down further. The officers were laughing at him. The ambulance driver said to me later that there were so many bullet holes in James' body that he wouldn't have been able to survive. I think he was dead before he arrived at the hospital.
IS IT correct that you still to this day have never received a full autopsy report?
I'VE BEEN fighting for a total of 19 months. We've been having protests regarding the coroner's report, a police report--any answer of why they shot him. We have never received any of his property that he had on or with him that day. I never got any of that, not even his clothes. The police say he hijacked a car the day before.
WHAT IT'S been like trying to get this information, and what your communication has been like with the police?
IT HURTS because as a parent, when your son was shot like that, and there is still no answer. There is still no closure. And then I go to the police station and City Hall, and they tell me "talk to this guy" and then "talk to that guy." If he had a stolen van, why didn't they post this in the paper? If my car was stolen, I'd have to make a police report for insurance purposes. Why didn't we see this? Why wasn't it put in the paper?
Why are the officers anonymous, and they are allowed back into my community to hurt my other kids? I've been trying to take care of my other kids. I'm stressed out because I don't know if they'll be able to go after my other kids. They have resources. They can manipulate the system. They have people in higher places.
It's been a struggle. It's been trying. It's been a sad situation. I feel that people should be doing more. We could be doing more. I feel that James' case could have built more awareness.
The people who have been killed in Stockton since James' death shouldn't have been killed. The police are using the same words to justify these murders.
Why do the police get paid to be on vacation while we're burying our loved ones? When the officers see me out in the neighborhood, they give me a smirk. I met one of the officers personally. His name is Gregory Dunn, who is part of Stockton police. He was out there at the scene of a car accident in my neighborhood. I let him know I am James Rivera's mother, and they murdered my son.
HOW HAS this affected you and your family? You mentioned the other day that you lost your home during this time after James death.
I DIDN'T really fight for my home. I was so stressed out. I didn't know I could fight. I was still trying to figure out what was happening with James. My kids were going to school late. I explained to the school that my son died. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know I could not send my kids to school.
I miss my son. He cooked breakfast. He'd help get the kids ready for school. He'd meet them after school on his bike and bring them home. Before James died, I was sick. He knew I was sick, and he wouldn't have put himself in a situation knowing the stress it would cause me. The kids say they miss James. When I go to Oakland to protests, they want to go with me. They don't want to go to school. If I'm hurting, I know they're hurting worse than me.
WHAT POINT did you decide you could begin to fight back?
ABOUT SEPTEMBER of 2010, a few months after James died. My brother started organizing. He started the day James died. He met up with Cop Watch, and he was a spokesman. When I really started pushing organizing out there, it was meeting up with Oscar Grant's family around the Los Angeles court hearings.
If they had an event, I'd go to it. A lot of times, when they had an event or protest, I was just so shy to say anything. But we were out there to see how they were organizing. So that's how I really started. It seems weird, but that's how it started.
I'm still trying to get the story out without being emotional, because emotion takes hold of you. One of the members in the Oscar Grant committee said, "Don't really worry about crying, because you have to tell your son's story." Then someone said, "You have to put that crying down and cry later. You have to get James' story out there. You have to start programming yourself to put it out there." And you know, I was like, "You're right" and I said, "Bt I can't do it." But she's been helping me to really talk about it. That's why I was able to tell you all my story.
On the "We Are Oscar Grant" Facebook page, they did a little article about James. I was like, "Oh, okay, now we just have to put a face on James." He has a face. He has a mother. He has brothers and sisters. He had someone to love. So that's when it took off. And since then, I have just been going everywhere.
And I've been moving ever since. I've been going out to everything, to the scenes of other victims of police murder, and I've been marching. I tell other families that this is what we need to do. We have to protest. We are people power. I've been doing it since that day and haven't stopped.
WHAT HAVE you learned through this process?
PEOPLE IN the Oscar Grant committee listened. They let me know that you don't have to be ashamed. Since my son was killed by the police, I was ashamed. How many people do you know whose kids got killed by the police?
You hear about Black-on-Black crime or gang violence. You barely hear about police murdering people. I have a bunch of kids. I was worried what people would say about me.
I came out of that little shell, and I've been fighting ever since. I've been crying. My brother would speak. My brother was out there. I was out there, but I didn't really talk. I was digesting. I have 14 kids. I still say 14, even though James is dead. To know that Christmas is going to come, Halloween is going to come, and my son will not be there.
I heard about Rita Elias in Modesto. She got killed by an off-duty sheriff's deputy. Also, there was a boy who was 14, killed by police in Fresno.
I always thought the police were the good guys. I'm not going to lie. I felt that you could call the police. Let's say you disagree on something with someone, you don't take things into your own hands, you call the police and let them decide. But I look at it differently now. If you call the police, you're looking for a death wish.
Even when I've gotten into it with somebody, I say it isn't worth calling the police. I'm not calling them.
WHAT WAS it like to hear about the murder of Trayvon Martin?
I FEEL that mother's pain. When I heard about it, I felt her whole heart. I felt everything about it. You know, people were saying that he went to the store. The family didn't know he was dead for all those hours. I have something in common with Trayvon's mother, because we are not going to see what our sons could be, or could not have been.
The murderers took that opportunity. Trayvon was older than James by one day because James was still 16. The next day, James would have turned 17. Trayvon died at 17. And we'll never know if they would have had kids, if they would have been married, if they would have been a real part of society or not. We'll never know because they took that.
We have to speak for the dead. These are grown men that are killing our kids. And they are pushing their words, their side of the story. Everybody listens to their cry, but what about the kids that die crying?
These are babies, they aren't grown men. They are our babies. They are under 18. What about their cries? They don't matter?
What's the name of the football player who had the dogfight? Michael Vick. He went to prison for a dogfight, and people want to make sure they got justice for the dogs. So my son wasn't a dog. Can he get justice?
It's just a lot of mixed emotions. I want our people in these little towns to know they can speak up--speak up like they did for Trayvon. That was a small town I heard, too. Protestors made it known that a murder happened in that city, in that town, and they want it to stop.
Every time something goes down in Sacramento, you hear about it, but you don't hear about these little towns. We have a lot of killings here, too. And that's why we get out there and protest. That's the point of having protests here. To create awareness that you have a voice--people power. If we come together, we can't be defeated. They feel we don't want it because we don't holler about it.
People should speak up and organize like we did. On January 6, we went out there, picketing the DA's office in Stockton. We told the DA that we don't want you to retire with James' case in a box. James was a person, and he has a face. He was murdered, and I am a voice to let you know he was a person and he needs justice. If I had killed someone, I would have been on trial in 30 days.
We organized a protest on April 10 that was so good that the whole town was on alert. We stopped in the middle of the street, and it backed up cars. People wanted to know what was going on. We shut down the street leading to the freeway. The Oscar Grant committee and Occupy Oakland came up to support and help us. And you had a mother crying for justice. It was a powerful protest that day.
HOW HAVE the protests and pickets influenced the case?
WE HAVE gotten the FBI to look at case. We pushed them to sit down at a meeting with us. They have called us three times now. A victory would be if those officers would be brought on charges for murder. I think that would be a big statement if the police were prosecuted for murder.
If police officers can be brought on charges for murder, this would make them think twice before bringing an AR-15 into a community and opening fire. They would have to think about other steps before using force like that. We just want to make them change their protocol for pursuing our young Black and brown brothers.
What I would like to do in this town is [raise] more awareness. Be more involved in community. Set up barbeques, since a lot of people don't like to go to protests and meetings. Go into the community and involve mothers and grandmothers since they take care of the youth.
We want to listen to the community. Let them show us what we need to make the youth successful in the community. This should be the number one step in Stockton.
JULY 22 is the two-year anniversary of James' murder. Have you thought of what you want to do that day?
I'M HAVING a big old barbeque. I'm also going to have a march and vigil. Everyone is invited.
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