After life: A grassroots foundation supports families after police violence

Apr 7, 2016

This isn’t the story of another police shooting. It’s the story of what happens after a police shooting. Especially one in particular.

In memory of Idriss

“The night he died I felt my soul tearing apart. He was my only child,” explains Mesha Irizarry. Her son, Idriss Stelley, was 23 when he was killed in 2001 by San Francisco police at a movie theater during what was possibly a psychotic episode. Stelley was bipolar. But his mother says, he was much more than that.

“He was a web designer. He was an artist. There was nothing that was impossible to Idriss,” says Irizarry.

Suddenly, he was gone. As the police's version of the story made the rounds in the local news, his mother desperately tried to figure out what really happened. She says she didn't get much sympathy, because some people felt the police had done the right thing. She realized, “I’ve got to take care of people around me, because if I start thinking too much of what happened, I’m going to lose my mind.”

So she started the Idriss Stelley Foundation in her son’s honor to address issues of police misconduct, and she’s been working relentlessly on it ever since.

Committed to the cause

Mesha Irizarry describes herself as an "old dyke." She’s 67 years old, a multi-racial woman originally from the Basque country in Spain. She wears her hair in long, tightly woven braids pulled back into a ponytail. When she speaks, she often holds her hand to her heart.

These days she’s also disabled. She walks with a cane, and suffers from a respiratory illness.

“I’m more like the matriarchal figure,” she says. “I show up, but I speak for two minutes. I carry a legacy, but they’re really doing the work at street level.”

The people she’s referring to are her team, made up of two younger activists – Rebecca Ruiz and Jeremy Miller – and a handful of rotating interns. The Idriss Stelley Foundation has no website, no funding, and isn’t registered as a nonprofit. They run the whole thing out of Irizarry’s one-bedroom apartment in Bayview-Hunters Point. They’re about as grassroots as grassroots gets. They’re kind of like family.

“Jeremy actually reminds me a lot of my child,” says Irizarry.

And they never stop working. The foundation has a 24-hour crisis hotline for victims of police brutality and their families. When I ask Irizarry where that number rings, she raises her flip phone in the air.

“It’s under my pillow at night,” she says.

People do call, even at 2 a.m.

“I feel like, 'Oh, Lord.' And then I listen, and I don’t think about me anymore,” Irizarry says.

Relating to police

The San Francisco Police Department says they get calls from families of those killed by police too, but it’s pretty different.

“We assign a liaison to the family, and they’re available 24 hours a day,” says Monica MacDonald, a public information officer with the SFPD.

Their phone line is not for emotional support. It’s more about answering questions about the investigation and other police-related matters.

“That person works out of our office at media relations,” says MacDonald.

MacDonald says the SFPD does have a unit that provides free psychological services, but it’s for police, not members of the public who may have been impacted by police actions.

“A lot of times families have their own resources already,” says MacDonald. “They have their church, they have their family members, they have other stuff like that,that they lean on as well. If there’s a trust issue, that’s maybe not something they would ask us.”

Angela Naggie is an example of someone who has lost trust in police.

“There is nothing anybody can do to help me gain their trust anymore. Trust is gone,” she says.

Her son, O’Shaine Evans, was killed by SFPD officers in October of 2014 when he was 26. He was shot while sitting in the driver’s seat of his mother’s car. Naggie says she called the police department repeatedly, even showed up in person, but it took months to get her car back, which she relies on to get to and from work. When her car was returned, it still had blood, glass, and bullet holes.

“I just finished cleaning the blood out of my car,” says Naggie.

Naggie says she was lost until she and her family met Mesha Irizarry about a week after her son’s death. Irizarry and her team helped Naggie fundraise for funeral expenses. They let her know her legal rights to file a complaint or a lawsuit, and they connected her to an attorney.

“Those are my shoulder to cry on. Those people are everything to me. I’m not getting any therapy. Those people are my therapies,” Naggie says.

Like Irizarry, Naggie has become politically active. When a young Guatemalan immigrant named Amilcar Perez-Lopez was killed by police, she stepped up to speak for him.

“O’Shaine was an immigrant. I am an immigrant. This is an immigrant right here,” she says to the crowd during a town hall meeting addressing Perez-Lopez’s death.

The SFPD holds meetings like these a few days after someone is killed by police. Police Chief Greg Suhr uses the meeting to share the official story. The SFPD’s account differs from some witness accounts, so at times, the crowd chants: “Lies, lies, lies.”

Idriss Stelley Foundation’s Jeremy Miller attends these town hall meetings. He says he comes to these for a couple reasons. One: to be accessible to people like Angela Naggie. And two: to be noticed by police and the Police Commission.

“I come to remind them that we are still here, you are still being watched, there are still people in the community that are paying very close attention to what you’re doing, and we’re not going to let this go,” Miller says.

Serving directly

Miller says he met Irizarry almost 10 years ago. He has a day job, but on nights and weekends, he works for the Idriss Stelley Foundation.

He says he joined because he was struck by the lack of resources for victims of police violence.

“Victim services won’t touch you. You have to fight to get legal representation,” says Miller.

Miller might work with clients for days, months, or even years, as in the case of Kristopher Brown. Miller met Brown at the funeral of Brown’s older brother, Raheim, who was 20 when he was killed by an Oakland Unified School District police officer. He was sitting in a parked car close by a high school with his friend, when he was approached by two officers, and a scuffle left him dead. Brown, who was just 18 at the time, was in shock when he heard the news.

“So our first interaction wasn’t that great. He was angry at the whole world at that point,” says Miller.

Miller initially counseled the whole family, but now, four years later, he’s mainly in touch with Brown.

“The kid that I met versus where he’s at now? He’s grown up so much,” says Miller.

Brown says Miller has become an important person in his life.

“He has helped me grow as far as being able to trust someone who is not my family,” Brown says, adding that he calls Jeremy Miller his uncle now.

Brown works seven days a week as a security guard, but says he hasn’t always worked this much. He says he dropped out of school in ninth grade, and cycled through many jobs through the years. And after his older brother died, his family unraveled. His mother became more distant. They all struggled to go on without Raheim.

“He was our balance,” says Brown. “Physically, he’s not here. I don’t accept it, but I’m coping with it.”

One way he copes is writing music. He says he tries to write things his brother might have rapped about.

Idriss Stelley Foundation Founder Mesha Irizarry says even with all their activism and lobbying, connecting with those left behind comes first.

“The most important to me are clients or activists who say, ‘You are the first people who listened to me. You gave me faith in humanity again. You allowed me to stop feeling like I wanted to die. You stopped me from going to kill a cop,’” says Irizarry.

So Irizarry keeps working.

“Being able to help others is a very selfish way that I’m getting my own vicarious healing,” she says.

Every time another person is shot by police, Irizarry revisits the night her son died. In helping those families recover, she picks up the pieces again.

For more information on the Idriss Stelley Foundation, visit their Facebook group

This story was originally published in June of 2015.