From the Archives: Every Mother’s Son

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From now until New Year’s day, the POV Blog will be posting about great documentaries from the POV archives. Rent one at the local video store or via Netflix to watch with your friends and family during the holiday season.

When Amadou Diallo died in a hail of police gunfire in his New York apartment building’s vestibule while reaching for his wallet, there was widespread public outrage. Many New Yorkers believed Diallo’s death was an egregious example of police negligence or criminal misconduct aimed at poor and minority communities. Others, including then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the police leadership, suggested the killing was a tragic yet unavoidable accident in the dangerous job of policing the city’s mean streets. Despite differing accounts of police actions and motives, one thing was certain: the young Amadou, a West African studying in the U.S., was guilty of nothing more than coming home at the same moment a squad from the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit happened to be passing his building.

I thought of Every Mother’s Son a few weeks ago while listening to NPR’s excellent “On the Media” program. On their November 30 broadcast, a reporter from Arkansas talked about his frustration with the national media and their coverage of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Arkansas Times reporter Max Brantley complained that “Huckabee’s ethical history isn’t making the news as much as his folksy conservative bona-fides,” saying that he and other local reporters “have some insights that the rest of the world maybe hasn’t tuned into yet.”

As we approach the primary phase of the 2008 presidential election starting later this week in Iowa, I want to recommend this film that aired on POV in 2004 that recalls the history of another presidential hopeful. Every Mother’s Son takes a look at events that occurred during Rudolph Guiliani’s term as mayor of New York City, before he became “America’s mayor.”

The filmmakers, both New Yorkers, picked up their cameras in 1999 out of a sense of outrage at what was happening in their city. “When Amadou Diallo was killed, Kelly [Anderson] and I felt we had to get out there with our camera and talk to people about what happened, just for our own sanity,” says co-producer/director Tami Gold. “We felt like the film chose us.” “We were concerned that the issue of police brutality remain visible after the first flush of media attention,” adds partner Kelly Anderson.
The film recounts three cases of unjustified or questionable police killings in New York — and tells of the victims’ three mothers who came together to demand justice and accountability. Every Mother’s Son alleges that such killings result not only from aggressive police tactics, but also from public policy set at the highest levels. Mayor Giuliani had declared certain neighborhoods drug-prone criminal areas, giving police the go-ahead, in the eyes of many, to stop and search citizens aggressively at will — effectively suspending Fourth-Amendment protections.

Every Mother’s Son provides graphic illustration that such police tactics extend beyond poor or high-crime neighborhoods. Gary (Gidone) Busch was a Hasidic Jew and dean’s list computer student who lived in Boro Park, Brooklyn — a middle-class Jewish neighborhood that had good relations with the police and supported Mayor Giuliani. Six months after Amadou Diallo was killed, police responding to a disturbance complaint rang Gary’s doorbell, interrupting his prayers. Gary came to the door wearing a prayer shawl and holding a small ceremonial hammer with religious inscriptions. The police pepper-sprayed Gary in the face and then, after he ran screaming in pain and confusion, shot him 12 times, fatally.

The film recounts what happened after Iris Baez, whose son Anthony Baez was choked to death by police in 1994, approached Amadou’s mother, Kadiatou, and Gary’s mother, Doris, after their sons were killed. As a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, a West African woman who relocated to New York and a Jewish woman from Long Island, they made an unlikely team. But together they formed a powerful collective voice on behalf of all victims of police violence. The grassroots movement they inspired in New York is challenging the militarization of law enforcement and the erosions of constitutional protections across the nation.

Whenever police kill someone under suspicious circumstances in New York City, the mothers assemble to help the family deal with its grief and to seek the truth and accountability. The mothers have also become advocates for police reforms, including better training and more citizen oversight, and have connected to a larger national movement against police brutality.

Every Mother’s Son is a tragic account of police power gone awry. It is also a heartening and intimate portrait of three women who would not stand by silently when their sons had been unjustly silenced forever.

For those interested in delving deeper into the issues of community policing policies and best practices, the POV website for Every Mother’s Son includes an overview of the community policing approach, examples of communities where best practices are in place, excerpts from the New York City Police Department’s Patrol Guide and a quiz where viewers can put themselves in the shoes of a mayor, a police officer and a citizen. What choices would you make?

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