Antwon Rose II and the mothers who bury their sons

I see mothers bury their sons

I want my mom to never feel that pain

Antwon Rose II wrote those lines for his 10th grade honors English class in 2016.

Last Tuesday, Antwon, 17, was fatally shot by East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld. The poem, titled “I Am Not What You Think!” and publicized by the Woodland Hills School District after his death, now reads with an eerie prescience.

The image of the grieving mother is a powerful part of the narrative when a young person dies. In black communities across the U.S., these images have become a regular occurrence.

Narves Gammage, whose 31-year-old son died in police custody in Pittsburgh suburbs, in 1996. (Robert Pavuchak/Post-Gazette)

Antwon knew this, even as a high school sophomore. His poem reflected his fears — not just for himself, but for the mother who would mourn him.     

In 1955, the images of Mamie Till-Mobley’s grief helped shape the narrative of the Jim Crow South. After her son Emmett was brutally lynched at the age of 14, Till-Mobley held a public, open-casket funeral. Jet magazine published pictures of the event, displaying Emmett’s disfigured face and his mother weeping over his body. Thousands attended the funeral in Chicago, and the gruesome pictures galvanized support for civil rights causes. 

Sixty-one years later, seven black women — all mothers of children killed by police or in police custody — took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, similarly turning their mourning into activism. They labeled themselves the Mothers of the Movement.

Pittsburgh and the region have had their own stories of young black men who died at the hands of police — and, of course, the mothers who grieved them.

In November 1993, Pittsburgh police fatally shot Maneia “Stoney” Bey. He was 23. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives have one photograph of his mother, Ellen Fern. It appeared on the front page on Dec. 10, 1993, beneath a bold, three-word headline: “Shooting ruled justified.”

Front page of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 10, 1993.

The picture shows Ms. Fern leaving the courtroom during a break. She and other family members and friends left the courthouse before the verdict was delivered and said they were “disgusted” with the proceeding. In the picture, she looks harried and alarmed, caught in a frenzied moment. A cameraman stands right behind her, vying for his own shot.

Fern Ellen, mother of Maneia “Stoney” Bey, who was shot to death by Pittsburgh police in 1993. (Bill Levis/Post-Gazette)

Four years later, Narves Gammage called the justice system “a mockery.” In October 1996, her son, Jonny, died in the custody of police officers during a traffic stop — an incident that began in Brentwood and ended in Overbrook. Of the five officers who were involved in the confrontation, three were charged with involuntary manslaughter and none were convicted.

One picture from the Post-Gazette archives shows Ms. Gammage holding up a poster during a protest. The sign shows pictures of her son’s mutilated, lifeless face. It isn’t quite an open-casket funeral, but it has a similar effect.

Narves Gammage held pictures of her son Jonny at a rally Saturday, Dec. 13, 1997, in front of the Allegheny County Courthouse.
(Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

On Monday, hours before Antwon’s funeral, his parents, Michelle Kenney and Antwon Rose Sr., appeared on “Good Morning America.”

“If he has a son, I pray his heart never has to hurt the way mine does,” Ms. Kenney said of Officer Rosfeld.  “But I think he should pay for taking my son’s life. I really do.”

Marella Gayla is an intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a rising senior at Harvard. You can find her on Twitter @marellagayla.

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