Daphne Alston understands why so many people are outraged by the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen shot by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman.
She just doesn't get why nobody seems to care about the deaths of many other unarmed young men — especially those in similar situations closer to home, such as Christopher Brown, 17, who died in an altercation with a Baltimore County police officer.
"We took buses, trains and helicopters to get down to Florida, because there was another nationality that was against us," Alston said Sunday, referring to the Martin case. The teen was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Peruvian. "They've been marching. They've been doing everything. We had it right here — and nothing. He was a black cop who killed a young, black 17-year-old, and nobody says nothing."
Alston, 54, and her group, Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters, say they're trying to galvanize the community around those killed locally. An annual event the organization hosts — called Tariq's 5th Memorial Cookout, named after Alston's son — drew more than 100 people Sunday to Turner Station Park.
Her 22-year-old son, who lived in Edgewood, was gunned down at a party at the Joppa-Magnolia Fire Company's hall in 2008. The case remains unsolved.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him," said Alston, who is frustrated that her son's killer hasn't been caught. "I go to the scene of the fire station. I want to see where he took his last breath. I'm not getting no closure."
Alston's event has grown steadily over the years. Started as a family cookout the summer after Tariq's death, it is now equal parts barbecue, community-builder and anti-crime rally. She has taken mothers involved in other tragedies under her wing. Her message is this: If your son or daughter was a victim of murder, you have a support network.
Among those who have joined her efforts are Bernice Johnson, mother of a city police officer murdered in 2005, and Chris Brown, mother of Christopher Brown.
Johnson, 70, is the mother of Leslie A. Holliday, a Baltimore police officer who was found shot to death in a Pikesville townhouse. Eugene Victor Perry Jr., an officer with the Department of General Services and Holliday's former fiance, pleaded guilty to killing her and her boyfriend, fellow city officer Adam Vazquez.
Bernice Johnson said Alston has helped her get through an incredibly tough situation by uniting her with other mothers who have suffered similarly.
"She's so strong," Johnson said of Alston. "It's a sad thing, but she's turning it into a positive."
Christopher Brown was killed last June after an altercation with Officer James D. Laboard in Randallstown.
The teen had been with a group of boys who threw a rock at Laboard's door before the off-duty officer chased him down. A jury decided after a four-day trial that Laboard had not broken the law by placing the teen in a neck restraint, and it dismissed all charges against the officer.
Alston lamented what she deemed an apathetic response from much of Baltimore to the killing.
"There was no community support," she said. "You know who was at the courthouse? Me and four other women. There was no action."
In response to the death, Alston and Brown are working with state Del. Jill Carter to pass a bill that would require better training of police.
"In a state where we have repealed the death penalty, we cannot allow it to be administered extrajudicially with impunity," Carter said Sunday.
Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, a civil rights leader who is running for a state delegate seat in Baltimore's 40th legislative district, attended Sunday's event, where Alston gave out 35 memorial plaques to mothers of murdered sons and daughters. He said he was impressed by the strength of the families who have gone through so much pain.
"They're reaching out and they're helping other mothers," Cheatham said. "As a father, I don't know how I could handle losing a child. These women are doing remarkable things. It's impressive that they continue to do this and help other mothers."
Like Alston, he said he was "disappointed" more local residents didn't express the same outrage over Christopher Brown's death that they did for Martin's. In the days following the news that a Florida jury had acquitted Zimmerman in Martin's death, a series of rallies, marches and protests were held in Baltimore.
"Yes, Trayvon Martin is an issue for us," Cheatham said. "But how many murders do we have in Baltimore? 129? Those are all Trayvon Martins. Every one of them. My message is always: Either you get involved now or, at some point, it's going to knock on your door.""
As she considered how her event has grown through the years, Alston acknowledged it's both a positive and troubling development. More mothers are involved, yes, but that also means more mothers have suffered.
"This is getting too common in our community," she said of the violence. "There's a lot of innocent people who've gotten killed."
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