The world was introduced to Eric Garner after seeing the image of him falling to the ground from a fatal chokehold by a New York City police officer. They were in the midst of arresting him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. Garner’s life however amounted to much more than his tragic last moments screaming, “I can’t breathe.” After the social media hashtags returned to celebrity dragging and Facebook video shares reverted back to their usual antics, the families of police brutality victims like Garner remain in mourning of the sudden loss of their loved ones. Their grief lasts much longer than the news cycle for such stories.
The “Say Their Names” multimedia project, helmed by husband and wife team, Marc Bayard and Nicole Lee, aims to provide a forum for their narratives offering a comprehensive view of the lives of victims of police brutality. The project will include a 20-minute documentary, five film vignettes featuring the individual family stories and an accompanying book.
“Many families have endured deaths because of the state violence. I used to document abuses people suffered at the hands of the state in Haiti, across Africa, and other places,” says Lee, who is an international Civil Rights attorney. “I know about dealing with people who have suffered significant loss. We wanted to create an outlet where the families can speak their truth. My husband Marc understands about shifting the narrative and we are working together to get these stories to the forefront. It’s actually one of the first projects we’ve done together.”
They are currently working with 10 families and ultimately hope to have 20 for the book. An IndieGogo campaign in support of Say Their Names has generated thousands of dollars thus far, but they are still in need of far more resources s in order to dig deeper into the lives of these victims.
“We want the deepest, richest humanitarian stories we can get,” notes Bayard, who is a Black labor and Civil Rights expert. “We want to change the narrative around Black lives, but we want to bring in historical context. This is not anecdotal. There are patterns.”
Bayard was inspired to create Say Their Names after spending time with Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr last summer. They ate at a pizza place in Cleveland and she regaled Bayard with stories about her son that go well beyond the “I can’t breathe” phrase that became the popular hashtag and t-shirt slogan.
“In the 24-hour news cycle, there has been lots of fragmented information to fill up time,” says Bayard. “There have been limited conversations with the actual families to talk about their loved and it’s not just sons or just straight people. There are daughters and people who identify as LGBTQ. We want to share all of these stories.”
Lee and Bayard teamed up with another husband/wife duo, filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster to produce and direct the Say Their Names films. Stephenson and Brewster are behind the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary American Promise about African American boys and the education system.
“I’m a storyteller because it’s a passion. It’s an attempt to become an agent of change,” says Stephenson, who co-authored a book called Promises Kept. “I’m offering the skills I have to amplify the work I’ve already done and I’m trying to shift things for my son and my grandchildren. We think it’s important to highlight, feel the empowerment and amplify what these families are already doing. Some of them have really channeled their pain into action by pushing for policy and other changes. The moms I’ve met so far have been nothing but inspirational. We want to highlight that their loss and pain are not in vain.”
Bayard agrees and believes this project is a collective effort in bringing about a deeper understanding of humanizing the lives of the Black men and women victimized in this way. The project has already received support from a number of organizations including Mothers Against Police Brutality, the Black Lives Matter co-founders, and MSNBC contributor, Dorian Warren.
“Having just statistics or phrases can blur or sensationalize the issue,” he says. “It’s not just Black history, it’s Black future.”
Say Their Names is still in the pre-production phase. To learn more about the project, get updates or offer potential subjects, go to the official Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/saytheirnamesproject.