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2020 was a tumultuous year rocked by two twin plagues: police violence which led to the George Floyd protests and continued discussions about police brutality and of course the novel disease COVID-19. Normally here at Making Contact, we look back on movement leaders we’ve lost over the year in order to pay them tribute and honor their lifetime of work. But this year, we’re commemorating those we’ve lost to police killings who might not have received as much media coverage in part one of our show, and in part two, we remember organizers and activists who died because of COVID.
People we lost in 2020 to COVID-19 and police shootings. Pictures at the top from left to right: Walter Wallace Jr., Lorena Borjas, and Andres Guarddo. Pictures at the bottom from left to right: Valente Acosta-Bustillos, Pamela Rush, and Garry Bowie.
Special thanks to Queens Public Television and our guest reporter, Andrew Stelzer.
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Featuring: Yahne Ndgo, organizer with Black Lives Matter Philly (speaking about Walter Wallace Jr.) Carlos Montes, organizer with Centro CSO, (speaking about Andres Guardado) Melanie Yazzie, co-founder of The Red Nation (Speaking about Valente Acosta-Bustillos) Cristina Herrera, CEO of Trans Latinx Network, on Lorena Borjas, founder of Colectivo Intercultural Transgrediendo Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, on Pamela Rush, member of the Poor People’s Campaign Jeff Wacha, on his husband Garry Bowie, Executive Director of Being Alive Credits: Guest Reporter: Andrew Stelzer Executive Director: Sonya Green Director of Production Initiatives and Distribution: Lisa Rudman Staff Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, and Monica Lopez Web Updates: Sabine Blaizin
Yahne Ndgo, organizer with Black Lives Matter Philly (speaking about Walter Wallace Jr.)
Carlos Montes, organizer with Centro CSO, (speaking about Andres Guardado)
Melanie Yazzie, co-founder of The Red Nation (Speaking about Valente Acosta-Bustillos)
Cristina Herrera, CEO of Trans Latinx Network, on Lorena Borjas, founder of Colectivo Intercultural Transgrediendo
Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, on Pamela Rush, member of the Poor People’s Campaign
Jeff Wacha, on his husband Garry Bowie, Executive Director of Being Alive
Guest Reporter: Andrew Stelzer
Executive Director: Sonya Green
Director of Production Initiatives and Distribution: Lisa Rudman
Staff Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, and Monica Lopez
Web Updates: Sabine Blaizin
Broke for Free – Summer Spliffs
Blue Dot Sessions – An Oddly Formal Dance
Soft and Furious – So what
Alpha Hydrae – Friends and Apples
Lobo Loco – Inside Your Body
Blue Dot Sessions – Derailed
Lisa Rudman Hi there, this is Lisa Rudman from Making Contact. It’s time to put your money where your media is. Please support Making Contact today and click the donate button at radioproject.org. Help us produce our people powered radio and become a supporter at radio project.org, Thank you. And here’s the show.
Erica Gordon Taylor Yes, racism yet exists today. Fifty seven years later, after Emmet’s death, especially through police brutality, police officers all over the country, they are the new Klu Klux Klan.
Andrew Stelzer That’s Erica Gordon Taylor, a cousin of Emmett Till. Gordon Taylor was a racial justice activist and director of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, and she’s one of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States who died of Covid-19 in 2020.
Erica Gordon Taylor They patrol our communities and treat us like criminals. We yet see it reflected through the images of victims such as Rukiya Boyd, Stephon Watts, also killed in his home. James Rivera, Alan Bluford, Howard Morgan, Ricky Bradley, Ramala Graham, Darren Hannah, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, amongst hundreds of others across the country. We mustn’t forget them. They’re the victims of this war. They are the catalysts for the new civil rights movements.
Andrew Stelzer I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact. Usually at this time of year, we bring you our Fallen Heroes episode, telling the stories of lesser known local organizers and activists who passed away during the year. But 2020 was unique, so we’re changing it up a little bit. In the first half of the show, we’ll hear stories of people who died at the hands of law enforcement. And in the second half, we’ll hear about the lives and work of activists who died after contracting the coronavirus. These twin plagues have taken down so many of our community members, further revealing the fault lines of race, class and identity that permeate our lives.
So for 2020, we present The Fallen.
Yahne Ndgo My name is Yahne Ndgo. I am a core organizer with Black Lives Matter Philly and I am also a founding organizer with Ubutu Built Freedom Project. On October 26 of this year, there was a family, the Wallace family, who had a member, Walter Jr., who was in distress and called 911 in order to receive help and support in addressing the situation. There were multiple times that the police were called that day during Walt’s mental health crisis and the third time that the police came there were two officers who apparently had not been informed of the previous incidents, who came upon the scene and immediately drew weapons on Walt. And while he was about 15 feet away, they opened fire on him because he had a knife.
Police voices: And put it down, put the knife down, put the knife down.
Yahne Ndgo One thing that people who watch the video may not be aware of is people see them as he was actually approaching the officers because the officers were between him and his parents’ home. So he wasn’t even actually affronting the officers. He was just moving somewhat in their direction. But there was just no attempt made to disarm him. The community had a very immediate reaction because people saw the video. We saw yet another black person murdered by police. We saw that it was preventable. And so everyone rallied and went right to the neighborhood where all of this happened.
The need for help for Walt started before that day, because Walt has mental health issues and those kinds of concerns and the ability to address and have resources to address, those kinds of concerns are not readily found in poorer black communities. So what really should have happened is that the family should have had someone that they could turn to and trust that they could go to for ongoing support on how to address the problems, how to support him, how he can support himself, how they can put together a care plan that will actually work for him, and how members of the community can be involved in supporting that care plan and understanding that care plan. .
Those two individual officers are not the problem. They [the family] were looking for mental health support and so mental health professionals would have been more appropriate. We are not going to be safe until we have some new kinds of systems of safety built. And so we want the full abolishment of the police, but not immediate. We want to do that over time where we can be taking resources from the police. And as we defund the police, we begin to resource programs that actually prevent violence because police does not actually prevent violence. The police respond to violence and respond to crime. But there are actions, activities around building up communities that actually prevent violence and prevent crime. And then we can have a small team of people who can be trained to respond to things that are more aggressive, that may be happening in the community, which would be minimal and under circumstances where the community is well serviced and well resourced. That’s why you find that there is less crime in wealthier communities because those communities are secure and well resourced. And so if we resource our communities, then we won’t need those kinds of military occupations that police provide.
Carlos Montez Hi, my name is Carlos Montez, a community organizer in Boyle Heights, Southern California. I am a member of Centro CSO Community Service Organization, and we work and organize with families fighting against police killings and advocate for public education and immigration reform.Aand one of many cases that have occurred in recent years of the L.A. County Sheriff’s killing our young black and Latino men. And there is Andres Guardado, an 18 year old working as an informal guard at an auto body shop in Gardena.
He was killed on June 18, 2020 by the L.A. County Sheriffs out of the Compton station, which is notorious for other controversial killings. A poor young men, a man who was shot five times in the back. The community rose up. They did a car caravan protest. There was mass protests and marches and the sheriffs came out, tear gassed people, arrested people, shot rubber bullets. And this was in addition to all the protests that we were having downtown L.A. at the district attorney’s office, at the LAPD headquarters, at the East L.A. sheriff’s station. There were protests all over the county of L.A. against the sheriff and the LAPD, against police killings and all expressing solidarity with black and brown communities.
We’ve attacked this problem on several fronts, right? We’ve protested and rallied marched at different stations. But working and uniting with Black Lives Matter, L.A. for the last three years, we’ve been demanding that the district attorney prosecute these cops, investigating them. Her name is Jackie Lacey. Right. We did petitions, callins, walk ins to her office. We called for a meeting. She refused to meet with us eventually. So finally, the demand was Jackie Lacey must go.
Former D.A. San Francisco George Gascon ran against her. So BLM L.A. decided to do a full campaign to get the vote out. They didn’t endorse Gascon directly, but we just say Jackie Lacey must go. Every time we would have a rally at the DA Jackie Lacey’s office we would ask people to bring their mail in ballots and we would walk to a local balloting place and deliver them in person. And we got a lot of young, black and Latino and white people to vote finally. A lot of folks had given up on voting that it doesn’t work. George Gascon won. We had a meeting with him after the election where he committed to not push the death penalty. He’s also going to eliminate the gang enhancement. He’s going to eliminate juveniles being transferred to adult court or jail. And he’s also committed to investigate police killings.
George Gascon I have already pledged to reopen four of dozens of fatal officer involved shootings we review. I am convening a use of force review board and then will make recommendations to my office as to which additional cases need to be reopened.
Carlos Montez And I feel optimistic, you know, and I’ve been around for 50 years, you know, I feel optimistic that things are going to change. We got rid of Jackie Lacey.
That was a big victory, you know, for the community. I think that’s a big victory nationally, really, that we got rid of a sitting D.A. who got the support of millions of dollars from the Police Protective League, from the Association of District Attorneys and also from the deputy sheriffs union. They pumped in millions of dollars to support her and we defeated them.
Melanie Yazzie My name is Melanie Yazzie. I ‘m an assistant professor of Native American Studies and American Studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m also a co-founder and organizer with a grassroots indigenous organization called The Red Nation. A lot of our politics, radical politics around police brutality, often center on indigenous or native people, on the Hispanic community and on the migrant community.
And so when Valente Acosta Bustillos was murdered, APD had gone in to Valente’s home for a welfare check. This is actually a pretty common scenario for cop killings of civilians. He lived in a neighborhood that is already heavily policed in a city, I think it was in 2013 and 2014, possibly 2015, the APD had killed people at a higher rate per capita than any other city in the United States. And so the relationship with police in Albuquerque is incredibly tense. It always has been.
[Audio from KOB4] Put it down now. Police rush into the home. You can see the laser lights from the taser is pointed at him. And Acosta Bustillos raises a shovel toward the cops. One officer fires a taser, the other fires shots. Back up. Back up. Put it down. You’re going to be tased.
Melanie Yazzie Part of the reason why there wasn’t more of a public response or people taking to the streets was because of the pandemic. In March it was just kind of emerging. I think people were possibly afraid to congregate, you know, in large numbers in the streets.
Of course, that changed two months later with the major uprising of the summer following George Floyd’s murder in late May. His [Valente’s] family members led the protest, holding up a sign with his name, eventually ending with a vigil right outside the home. Acosta Bustillos once lived in.
Arguing about the semantics of like, did this person have a weapon or did this person not have a weapon? Where I’m at now, in my understanding of policing is it’s a bit irrelevant because when you’re asking those questions, you’re actually thinking like a cop, right? You’re thinking like a cop. When you’re asking a question about threat, it’s that like everyone’s an enemy. And so how do we think about policing by not employing cop logic. Right. But by trying to employ, let’s say, abolitionist logic and to try to think about policing from a very different perspective. And so, you know, the conversation about abolition has become much more mainstream, I would say, in the last months after George Floyd’s murder. And I think moving forward into 2021, we’re going to see people continue to double down on changing the way that we understand this and actually making real demands.
Andrew Stelzer You’re listening to Making Contact. To make sure you don’t miss out on new shows and behind the scenes information, go to radio project.org. Now we return to The Fallen of 2020 with stories of just a few of the important organizers and activists who passed away this year from Covid-19.
Cristina Herrera My name is Cristina Herrera. I am the founder and CEO of Trans Latinx Network. Lorena Borjas was a pasatina, from Mexico. I met Lorena Borjas back in 1987. I was 17 years old then. We were by Port Authority in New York City. We were just hanging out trying to find community back in the 80s in general, the transgender community didn’t have many places to go and to feel safe.
Lorena Borjas (translated) I came to this country when I was very young, 20 years old, because I didn’t have a future in Mexico. As at the time I considered myself a gay man. My plan was to transition from a man to a woman. In 1990, I was arrested for prostitution and human trafficking, but the charges were false. I was actually the victim.
Cristina Herrera Lorena was a long term survivor of HIV. She was diagnosed in the beginning of the eighties. Lorena stayed focused and continued to study. She continued to make a lot of friends at different places. She was able to really talk about the trans Latinx experience and the challenges that we face. So people really like gravitated towards her, especially like providers, like lawyers and politicians. So, you know, she spoke to those leaders, those networks of people that wanted to help the community. And then she advocated for the community in the early 90s to get access to medical services. Back then, many of us in the community, we were accessing black market hormones.
Lorena Borjas (translated) In 1995, I decided to become an activist to change police policies and systems. I organized my first trans march as a trans woman. My mission led me to create an organization that now has 479 trans women registered as members. But it started out focused on helping trans women living with HIV or AIDS and being arrested.
Cristina Herrera Lorena established a fund, a program that she created to interrupt that process of community members who are being put into the criminal justice system. So through that fund, we were able to pay, you know, like bail for community members so that they wouldn’t go through the process and where ICE immigration can step in and put holds, you know, immigration holds on them and start to process them for removal proceedings. So through Lorena’s work, many community members were able to get their records, you know, cleaned and stuff. And some of those community members had also been victims of trafficking.
Lorena Borjas (translated) Seeing them happy is the goal, seeing them obtain a work permit, seeing them in a complete transition, having access to proper medical care, and making sure they’re getting their hormonal treatment supervised by a doctor.
Cristina Herrera She served as a model to other providers who wanted to, you know, learn how to better work with the transgender community, the transgender immigrant community.
And she started a center, which was Centro Intercultural Transgrediendo. And for it to be a more holistic institution where individuals were going to get their prevention needs met through groups and education and empowerment. But she also wanted through that center to have a more robust immigration and legal services for our community. She had already secured a space in Jackson Heights. She was also doing national work to provide capacity to other transgender organizations around the country.
Lorena Borjas (translated) I consider myself the luckiest trans woman that doesn’t have to wake up in the morning and prostitute herself.
Cristina Herrera As the pandemic started, Lorena continued to meet the needs of the community. I think she probably assumed that it was a cold. She got sick with the flu and then everything happened fast because it was about a three to four week ordeal for her. I feel that as we live our lives, as we celebrate who we are and we challenge those systems that have historically oppressed us, we’re honoring her because we’re not giving up. Everything that she wanted was for us just to continue to live our life to the fullest and make the life of the future community members a little bit better.
Catherine Coleman Flowers Pamela Rush is an activist that everybody should know, Reverend Barber has termed her the Fannie Lou Hamer of Poverty.
Pamela Rush Hi, my name is Pamela Rush. I’m from White Hall, Alabama and I live in a mobile home with my two kids.
Catherine Coleman Flowers My name is Catherine Coleman Flowers, and my work has been around water and sanitation issues, in particular sanitation issues at the intersection of climate change and poverty and the Covid pandemic has really magnified the problems that exist around all of these issues that I work at the intersection of. One of the glaring examples of all of these intersections happened with Pamela Rush. Pamela, at the time she passed away from Covid on July 3rd, had become a national spokesperson for the new Poor People’s Campaign. And a lot of people knew who she was because Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign actually came to visit with her.
Pamela Rush My mom also lived in a mobile home too. In the winter time it would get so cold. And my mom got pneumonia in the trailer and she died from. I know I need somewhere else to stay. These people did her wrong charging a lot of money for the home, one hundred fourteen thousand dollars. And I still owe fifteen thousand. It ain’t it worth it.
Senator Bernie Sanders. When we use the expression that it is very expensive to be poor. This is worth talking about.
Catherine Coleman Flowers The house was full of mold and mildew. Her daughter was about 10, was sleeping with a C Pap machine. She was straight piping and there was effluent from when she flush the toilet, went out on top of the ground right behind her house. All of these conditions have to make Pamela very, very vulnerable to other kinds of externalities that would happen that she had no control over. Initially, she didn’t see herself as an activist. She was just telling her story of hope that somebody would help her and her children. But as time went on, I think one of the transitional points for her was going to Washington and testifying before Congress.
Pamela Rush And then I have animals coming to my house. Possums; I trapped four possums in my house. Cats and stuff and I got raw sewage, I don’t have no money and power and I have to take my daughter to Montgomery for the C Pap machine. No car, and I don’t have no money to take her. And then we have had a high utility bill and I was paying like three hundred and seven dollars a month on the trailer and like a two hundred seventy, something like nearly 300 in the summertime.
Catherine Coleman Flowers She started to realize that telling her story was going to have an impact on other people who are living in poverty around the United States. If you go into the Central Valley, you find Pamelas, you know, if you go into Alaska, you’re going to find Pamelas. You find them in Hawaii, you find them in Puerto Rico. They’re all over this country. The question is, is do we have the moral fortitude to change this?
Jeff Wacha My name is Jeff Wacha, and Garry Bowie was my husband for 20 years. Garry was the executive director of Being Alive Los Angeles and was known throughout the community as a strong advocate for the HIV community. Also, he worked with the homeless populations, the trans populations, as well as those that were in recovery.
Garry Bowie We are finally seeing the rate of new HIV infections dropping, but we must be vigilant. And that means challenging everyone to do their part to help us reach HIV zero by the year 2022 in Los Angeles County and by 2025 in the nation.
Jeff Wacha Once Garry found out that he was HIV positive in 1984, he went through the normal thing that most people do, the depression, that this was the end of life. Pretty much because back in 84 it was a death sentence. But he quickly got out of that because that was his nature. And soon his mother and he were driving to Mexico to buy AZT and smuggle it back into the United States so he could distribute it to friends and people that needed it, because at that time it was hard to get and it was expensive. And a lot of insurance companies weren’t covering it yet.
Garry Bowie When I began this journey myself, I had my own coping methods. I lost nearly every single friend to HIV and AIDS in the early days. Going to tell you, attitude and outlook was part of my strategy to staying healthy. But volunteering was also an important part to make sure I was in this fight.
Jeff Wacha Didn’t matter if it was nine o’clock at night or two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, he’d get on the phone and he would talk these people through their diagnosis and what they needed to do next and give them hope. He would help them get housing, help them get food. It was more than once I would get a phone call from him at work going, I hope you don’t mind, but one of my clients is on the street and I need to get him off. So is it OK if he stays in the guest room for a few days.
Garry Bowie For many people, communities of disparities, communities of color, those who are in socioeconomically poor communities, getting care is not simply going to the doctor and taking an HIV pill. For a large percentage of our HIV community, barriers to care is not medicine, but rather housing, food, mental health, transportation and so much more. Let us take a moment to walk in their shoes. Let’s check our privileges and have a compassion and empathy to meet them where they’re at.
Jeff Wacha Garry was one of the first to realize that HIV and AIDS care was changing and that the agencies needed to change along with it or they would go out of business. His quarrel, so to speak, with some of the agencies is that they were in the business of taking care of sick people. And that’s the business they wanted to be in, because it was profitable. Gary’s mission was to get these people healthy and help them maintain their health. The agency would teach them about self care. They would do some case management. They would hook them up with services. And they had a program that made sure that they checked in on these people, that they were taking their meds and making sure that their viral load got to zero and stayed at zero. You know, his whole idea was to stop the spread of it. And let’s stop treating everybody who has HIV like a victim and get them back into normal life. It is kind of ironic that Garry was one of the first people to be infected with HIV. He’d been positive for 37 years and he’d been healthy the entire time. He lived through the first pandemic and it was the second pandemic that killed him.
Andrew Stelzer And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. The list of people we wanted to honor was long and we had to make some tough choices to put together this show. If there is an important activist or organizer you know of who passed away in 2020, let us know on our making contact Facebook page, the making contact team includes Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamarani, Lisa Rudman, Sonya Green, Sabine Blazin. And I’m Andrew Stelzer. We close today’s show with the words of a legendary figure in the struggle for civil and human rights who passed away this year, Georgia State Representative John Lewis.
John Lewis The scar, the stain of racism still remains deeply embedded in American society. Whether it’s stop and frisk in New York or injustice in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. The mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the center of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights. So I said to each one of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must never, ever give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.