November 15, 2017
At around 1:50 a.m. on Aug. 8, just two days after Baltimore’s first 72-hour Ceasefire, DeJuane Beverly was shot near a house on Liberty and Tulsa roads. He died. Police found no motive. No suspect was arrested.
Naturally, DeJuane’s mother Dedrah Johnson was caught completely off guard. It was the last thing she expected to hear on that Tuesday morning.
“It’s like, you become shut off from people sometimes because you feel like nobody understands what you’re going through,” she said.
After taking time to mourn, Johnson has been actively volunteering and spreading the word about Baltimore Ceasefire 365.
“I want to put it out there. This has to stop,” she said. “I really want to do whatever I can to stop this from happening, but some days are harder than others. So I go to my therapy group on Tuesdays.”
The therapy group is Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters (MOMSD), which meets every Tuesday and Sunday at St. John’s Alpha and Omega Church.
In that group she connected with other mothers dealing with the same kind of grief—and one whose 15-year-old son was murdered just 30 minutes before DeJuane, in almost the exact same way, in the same part of town.
Daphne Alston founded MOMSD in 2008. She knew firsthand what these women were going through. On July 14, 2008, her son Tariq was on the phone with his girlfriend at a party when someone shot and killed him. When Alston got the call, she was devastated. She was living in Harford County and tried a couple different groups, but she says they were predominantly white and the members were mostly parents who had lost their children to drug addictions, motorcycle accidents, or suicide. She says she eventually felt uncomfortable speaking in the groups.
“It would interrupt the group every time,” she said. “So I stopped coming because the women would be so overwhelmed with my story. How could I live through something like that? Many of them had lost homes, marriages broken up, got addicted and all kinds of stuff while going through their grieving process.”
But there was one woman, Mildred Samy, whose son Samuel had also been shot and killed during a dispute at a Waffle House one night.
At the time, Alston and Samy felt they were the only women in Harford County that had this shared experience of losing their sons to gun violence.
“That year I think it was only one murder for the whole county,” Alston recalled.
But when they watched the news at night and talked to one another, Alston says they saw so many women in Baltimore City who were going through the same thing. They felt their pain. Without knowing any of them, they still felt the loneliness these women may have felt. No one was paying attention to people like them, the mothers left devastated by the bullets that snatched their sons.
They decided to start Mothers Of Murdered Sons and Daughters in the city. A co-worker introduced Daphne to the pastor of St. John’s Alpha and Omega, a church in West Baltimore. He gave MOMSD space to operate out of their building and the group has been meeting there ever since. MOMSD officially became a non-profit 501(c)3 two years ago. Daphne says the group has been predominantly self-funded, only receiving their first grant this year.
“The majority of black people who live in this city, when they walk out they door, they don’t see hope,” she said. “Broken bottles, trash, blunt guts. How is somebody supposed to be hopeful living in these conditions?”
The conditions of poverty are heightened by the trauma of living in what she calls “homicide density.”
“We just went to a boy’s funeral the other day . . . Dante,” Alston said as she took a pause, thinking about him and his mother as if they were her own family.
Today, the group has around 65 active members who regularly attend the meetings and more than 300 in their extended network.
“A lot of the mothers don’t come out much, but we have a lot of phone conversations,” Alston said.
The group reaches out to every parent or grandparent when someone is murdered. They attend the funeral services and try to keep in touch with the family of the deceased. They also have two liaisons who work to follow up with detectives to be sure that cases are consistently being worked on.
“Look, I’m on the phone seven days a week, still talking to who I can about what happened to my son,” Alston said, “but everybody can’t do that.”
Dedrah Johnson knows the kind of support that these mothers need through her first-hand experience.
“Sometimes they just need someone to sit in the courtroom with them while they have to relive this over and over again. Some of them have the killers walking the streets again in the same neighborhoods because the courts didn’t have enough evidence to convict them. How are they supposed to live with that?”
“We are abnormal. Losing a child is hard regardless, but let’s be real, losing a child to murder is different than losing a child who is sick,” she said. “Sometimes my husband has to point things I do out to me and say, ‘Baby, that’s not normal.’ These women need to know that it’s OK to be abnormal. You can come on over here and be abnormal with us . . . together.”
This piece runs in print in the Baltimore Beat. Photo by J.M. Giordano