The gentle lady who came to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico when she was one year old had two kitchens in her home in the Bronx. One downstairs for the early eaters and one upstairs for the late eaters. She cooked for both groups. Together the groups comprised seventeen family members-she had six children with her husband, and adopted five more. The other eaters were assorted family members her big heart took in.
But one is missing now. His breath was taken away from the gentle lady’s kitchen in 1994 by a policeman’s martial arts armhold. And the gentle lady who says of herself: “I was never part of a movement except anything but raising my kids. I don’t remember raising my voice” now claims everyday as Mother’s Day and wears a button with her missing son’s picture. Iris Baez has been transformed by her son’s murder, she has a calendar of appointments that would rival a corporate executive’s with travel arrangements and contact numbers-but her conferences are for press interviews, her colleagues are the aggrieved, her bottom line is justice.
Ms. Baez joins with two other mothers, Kadiatou Diallo, and Doris Busch-Boskey, of African and European Jewish descent respectively, in the world premiere independent film entitled, Every Mother’s Son, offered in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival on May 4 and May 6 in New York City.
The film, shot on a very limited budget, and featuring home videos and still photographs of the victims attempts to infuse the changing political sensibilities of the three mothers from very diverse backgrounds, who, prior to their sons’ unjustified killings, had very little activist inclinations.
We hear Kadiatou Diallo speaking of her son’s major adjustment to American life as learning to cook for himself-a task Guinean men traditionally left to women. Ms. Baez and Ms. Busch-Boskey speak of their sons’ strong inclination towards religious studies.
Yet these mothers have not left retribution in the hands of their respective deities. All three criminal cases against the police officers involved were returned with no convictions despite witnesses and forensic evidence that the three men were innocent of any malicious intent or evidence towards anyone. The women have crossed racial and class barriers to sit in, march, picket, and agitate for the telling of the true stories of their sons.
The film brings the historical context to the fore in understanding how the political climate under the Mayor of New York allowed for dismissal of charges. Mayor Giuliani campaigned for election in 1994 on a platform which advocated the disbanding of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. In a famous rally near City Hall, he blamed the decline in police morale on Mayor David Dinkins, the man he replaced at Gracie Mansion. When he was elected, community activists noted a dramatic increase in civilian complaints of unlawful searches. The New York City Police Department admitted targeting specific neighborhoods for dragnet techniques under the theory that if you search everybody, you were bound to get somebody who was criminal.
This approach strongly mirrors the tactics of the Argentine police in the 1970’s when thousands of young people were “disappeared” by the authorities in the name of creation of order.
In a book called God’s Assassins: State Terrorism in Argentina in the 1970s. by William and Patricia Marchak, the authors note that “terrorism is an instrument designed to frighten a larger population.
In contrast to the violence that typically precedes it, it is not designed merely to kill political opponents; it is intended to terrify people. There is no adequate explanation for the choice of victims; fear is engendered by unpredictability. a*| There are no rules. There is no certainty about what constitutes a trespass. It seems that anyone could be in the wrong, anyone could be a victim.”
This definition is brought to startling reality when Ms. Baez recounts how her son’s offense was playing football in the street with his brothers when the ball hit the police cruiser. The reality becomes even more grim when a police office explains that if the officers who shot at Amadou Diallo had really thought he was a rape suspect, as they claimed, the correct procedure would have been to call their suspicions in via radio before exiting their cruiser-no call was ever made.
The complicity of the state apparatus becomes manifest when the police released a report stating that Baez died of asthma-even though he had no history of the ailment. Only when the family hired an independent coroner was the public made aware that the police department applicant died of strangulation.
Gideon Busch’s trial had strong problems since several of the jurors had ties to the police department-this is the basis for an appeal of the trial. Similarly, the officer who strangled Baez had fifteen Civilian Complaint Review Board complaints, yet his captain countermanded orders to remove him from his precinct. Yet at his trial, while stating that “there is a nest of perjury in this trial,” after hearing the officers’ give testimony which has put some of them behind bars for sworn falsehoods, the judge dismissed the case against the strangler.
Yet the three mothers press on. They have a noble precedent in Argentina. For twenty-three years, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo–also known as the Mothers of the Disappeared– the 30,000-plus who disappeared during the military dictatorships in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s– have marched on Thursday afternoons in front of Government House, where Argentina’s president lives.
Last month, several of the Argentinean mothers came to New York to campaign against the Rockefeller Drug Laws which have placed many mothers’ children behind bars for more than fifteen years for a first narcotics violation.
Perhaps their diligence can help the three mothers chronicled in Every Mother’s Son. Even though the U.S. Justice Department refused to press civil rights charges against the officers who fired 41 times at her son, Kadiatou Diallo, who recently was supported by Mayor Bloomberg in her quest for permanent resident status to stay in the U.S. to continue her fight, says at the end of the film, “At the end of the day, I can stand up and say I did something.