BY CLARA KINKEN
Managing News Editor
Before Tyre Nichols, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, there was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old from Miami, Florida, shot outside of a convenience store in 2012 armed with a soda can and a bag of skittles. Eight years before Martin there was Leslie Prater, a young man held down and suffocated to death by four police officers in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
On March 7, university students, faculty and community members alike gathered in Mitchell Hall to hear a conversation on race, police violence and social justice advocacy from Loretta Prater and Sybrina Fulton, the mothers of Leslie Prater and Martin, respectively. The discussion was facilitated by Emerald Christopher, an assistant professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies, which hosted the event as the inaugural Ida B. Wells Lecture.
“I think that the voice of Black mothers is so important when we’re talking about police brutality,” Maxum Rhode, a senior psychology major, said.
The conversation began with Loretta Prater and Fulton recounting their personal experiences with racially-motivated violence and the loss of their sons.
“I never imagined myself living with a hole in my heart,” Fulton said. “Nobody is going to be able to take that pain away.”
Loretta Prater reiterated Fulton’s sentiments and discussed how the settlement she and her family came to with the City of Chattanooga did nothing to assuage their grief.
“The pain does not go away, and no amount of money is going to bring your child back,” Loretta Prater said. “19 years later, there is still no closure.”
Both women commented on the lack of support they felt in the wake of their sons’ murders from local authorities. While the families had been assured action would be taken, in the end justice remained unserved as the perpetrators were either never charged for or were acquitted of their crimes.
“It’s a script,” Fulton said. “Every family that has experienced senseless gun violence has heard it.”
While Fulton and Loretta Prater expressed frustration with the reaction from local police departments following the deaths of Martin and Leslie Prater, both mothers rejected the notion that they were “anti-police.” Fulton discussed her childhood growing up with a police officer for a father and made the distinction that her son’s killer was not an officer, but a member of the neighborhood watch or “wannabe police officer.”
“We are all educated enough to know there are good and bad officers,” Fulton said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Loretta Prater, who said she viewed individuals who used their authority as law enforcement to take lives on the basis of race – including those who murdered her son – as “fake officers.”
Both Fulton and Loretta Prater called for increased transparency, accountability and justice in police departments across the country.
“I think that the police really need to have some reflection and really change the structure of the institution,” Rhode said. “There’s so much racism behind it that needs to be unpacked.”
The racism in law enforcement institutions is a reflection of a larger societal issue, according to Fulton and Loretta Prater. They expressed how racism is not limited to one segment of society, and needs to be attacked on all fronts in order to guarantee an end to police violence and the senseless murders of unarmed Black people.
“We shouldn’t get to a point in society that you don’t like a person so much you want to harm them, you want to hurt them, you want to kill them,” Fulton said. “We should never get to that point.”
Nearing the end of the discussion, the two mothers spoke to the role social media has played in their experiences, both in the wake of their sons’ deaths and as a resource for social justice movements. Fulton attributes the national attention Martin’s murder received to younger generations’ action on social media. Across the country, students donned hoodies and marched in protest, something Fulton said she will never forget, and is the reason she is never opposed to speaking at colleges and universities.
“Social media has helped us a great deal,” Fulton said. “I am forever indebted.”
While social media did not play a significant role immediately following the murder of Loretta Prater’s son, she discussed the power it has to bring transparency to instances of police violence today.
“It has added another dimension,” Loretta Prater said. “We’re seeing it as it unfolds.”
In their closing remarks, Fulton and Loretta Prater expressed their dedication to continuing to share their story and advocate for societal and institutional change, speaking on behalf of their sons, whose voices were silenced.
“This journey I started on, it will end when my life ends.” Loretta Prater said.
After the discussion, both mothers were awarded the Mary Ruth Warner Award alongside the university alumna and former gender studies professor for which it was named, to honor their contributions to the movement against racism and police violence.
“We have to continue to make change, positive change,” Fulton said, “but we have to change mindsets, which is harder than changing laws.”