Loretta Prater’s son Leslie died in 2004 after four police officers in Chattanooga, Tennessee handcuffed him behind his back and held him face down for several minutes.
Sybrina Fulton’s son Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida by a self-appointed neighborhood watch coordinator in 2012.
Prater and Fulton talked about their grief and experiences in the years since earlier this week at a University of Delaware’s “Black Mothers and Police Violence” forum, hosted by the university’s Department of Women and Gender Studies.
Prater, a former dean of Southeast Missouri State University’s Department of Health and Human Services, expressed her grief over the death of her son. Chattanooga police and prosecutors determined Prater’s death was “accidental.”
“I just have to talk about these things because my son’s voice is silenced,” she said. Since his death, Prater has focused on social justice issues, giving her the “opportunity to talk to many of you, with the intention to learn something that might make you look at things a little differently.”
Fulton talked about her son’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman and how she has worked to turn her personal grief into societal change. A Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty in Martin’s death in 2013.
“I want to just take a moment and just remove the color of somebody’s skin,” Fulton said, adding that Martin was racially profiled in part because he was wearing a hoodie sweatshirt. That even sparked a “Million Hoodie March” in protest. “It had nothing to do with the hoodie that he was wearing. It had everything to do with the color of his skin.”
Moving past the loss of their children has been difficult for both mothers. “The pain is still there,” Fulton said. “I live with it every day.”
“For us it has been 19 years, and it sounds like it was 19 days,” Prater said.
She said the grief was further compounded by misleading statements and inaccurate reports about the severity of her son’s injuries. “We were faced with lies and more lies,” she said. “They said he was six feet tall, he weighed over 300 pounds. He wasn’t six feet, was like 230 pounds. And I think what they were trying to do was to paint him as this huge monster that four police officers had to hold down.”
As part of a settlement with the city of Chattanooga following her son’s death, Prater was given the opportunity to teach police cadets about her son’s death at the Southeast Regional Police Academy.
“One of the things that we actually put in our lawsuit because I was an educator, was for me to be able to teach some classes at that police academy where my child was killed at that department,” she said. She hopes teaching officers to understand the cultural background of the people in their community “will become a part of regular police training.”
At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Prater endowed a scholarship in criminal justice in her son’s honor. The Leslie Vaughn Prater Memorial scholarship is designed to help future officers “with critical thinking when they realize that they don’t have to kill people,” she said.
She also created the Circle of Mothers, a non-profit organization to support and connect mothers who experienced police brutality. “It’s about moving to your new normal, moving to your next step.”
Both mothers say social change starts with a change in the way people think about one another. “We have to change mindsets, which is harder than changing laws,” Fulton said. “You have to change somebody’s mindset to turn away from hatred.”
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