A Mother’s Plea: Don’t Overlook My Son’s Death
By Narene Stokes-James
Special to NNPA
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In the midst of the headliners Eric Garner, Michael Brown and now Tamir Rice, the name of Ryan Stokes has not been part of the news or the protests that are taking place around the nation and it hurts me. As a mother, it hurts that no one is marching for my son and no newspapers are writing about him. The Justice Department is not investigating. Attorney General Eric Holder has not visited. President Obama does not know his name. It doesn’t hurt because I feel slighted. Rather, it hurts because in the wee hours of Sunday morning, July 28, 2013, a knock on my door ended life as I had known it and it has not been and will never be the same.
My son’s name is Ryan Stokes and he was only 24 years old when a Kansas City, Mo. police officer chased him and shot him four times – two times squarely in the back and two times in his side near his back. He was killed in the Power & Light District of the city; an area in downtown Kansas City frequented primarily by White middle- and upper-middle class professionals. It is an open secret that Blacks are not welcomed by the clubs, restaurants, theaters and shops in the district. In fact, there is a pending lawsuit against merchants who have used dress codes and other ruses keep Blacks out.
Many young Black males often will go to the area to walk around on their tax-paid public streets. They usually don’t commit any crime or loiter about but they walk around in groups. That’s what young people do, whether it’s at the mall of a gentrified section of downtown. My son and his friends left our home on Saturday evening, July 27, 2013 to do just that.
Ryan was in a good mood and looking forward to an evening with friends. I never knew, did not ever imagine that night would be the last time that I would see him alive. Had I, I would have blocked the door. I would have tied him up until morning. I would have given him a something to make him sleep all night. I would have done anything to make sure that he never got to the Power & Light District that night.
Ryan was born on Oct. 18, 1988. He was a beautiful child by everyone’s account and a very active one. He had long lashes, lots of hair and a smile that made everyone else smile. He loved sports from an early age. Throughout his teen years, and even up until shortly before his death, my Ryan was the regular recipient of trophies, awards and recognitions for his achievements as an athlete. He was also academically accomplished.
He was a standout as our official griller at family gatherings. In some of the last photos we have of him, Ryan is smiling as he grilled for the family. He was a big guy in an apron with an even bigger smile and shining eyes as he looked at the meat on the grill. Ryan loved to eat and we loved to watch him eat. He enjoyed life and doing the kinds of things a young man enjoys: family, friends, sports, food, grilling, reading. Looking at those photos of him at the grill just weeks before he was killed now bring me as much joy as they do pain. He will always be 24.
Ryan worked in his dad’s dry cleaners and had no criminal record. He was a “little” brother to two sisters who loved him. He was an uncle to their children. He was a father to a toddler, a little girl whom he loved and who loved him. He was a real father, not just someone who impregnated his child’s mother and moved on. His daughter will never know her father but through our eyes and the photos in which he lovingly held her minutes after her birth and while she was a pre-toddler. She can only know him through the eyes and experiences of others and through what she is told or what she reads.
And if she reads news account of her father’s death after she gets older, she will not see any accurate depiction of him.
According to police, Ryan had a gun. Police claimed that while Ryan was running from them, he threw the gun away. Early reports also said he turned and pointed a weapon at police officers. The police and media painted a picture of an all too familiar portrait of young Black males: a violent young man who died while trying to shoot police officers.
My law firm obtained the autopsy, which revealed that Ryan was shot in the back and in his side near his back. It also showed that he had no drugs or alcohol in his system.
KMBC-TV ran a story that showed a video taken minutes before Ryan was killed and pointed out that the last images of him showed his true character. He was breaking up that disturbance and trying to bring peace among those involved in the fight. Shortly afterward, he was seen on the video running when police arrived as so many young people do, particularly, Black males, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. Ryan certainly had not.
I arrived at the scene where his friend told me he had been shot in the wee hours of the morning. The police would not tell me anything, spoke to me rudely when I inquired about my child and told me go sit on a bus stop to wait for someone to speak with me.
I could see someone lying on the ground in a roped off area in the distance. I said, “I think that’s my baby.” The police would not confirm or deny it was him but as a mother, I knew that my child. I was numb. I was sick to my stomach. I could hardly stand.
My oldest daughter and I sat on the bus stop like we had been instructed. I sat there for what seemed like a long time. Finally, an officer came over and curtly demanded to know who told me to come there and why. He never told me if it was my son on that ground. I left and went to Truman Medical Center, where I have worked for many years. My co-workers checked but said he was not there.
After I returned home, our extended family and friends came over. We stayed there all day with no official information from the police. That was the worst day of my life. Every time I tried to stand up, I fell down. Finally, I took a dining room chair and sat out in the front yard near the sidewalk. I don’t know why. I sat there in the hot sun for a long time just staring up the street. Maybe I was waiting for him. Maybe I was hoping to see him. Maybe I couldn’t stand being inside anymore…I don’t know why I went out there to sit but I felt had to sit out there.
At about 5:00 that afternoon, the police called and told me and my husband (Ryan’s stepfather) to come down to the police headquarters because they wanted to talk to me. I told them to come to my house, if they wanted to talk to me and they did. They told me my only son was dead and that he had refused to drop a weapon and had to be killed. However, no gun was ever recovered from the scene. I knew, we all knew, it was not true.
To discover the truth, my lawyer filed a suit last August against the Kansas City Police Department for the death of my son. Ryan’s daughter must not grow up thinking that her loving father was violent criminal. I must and I will clear my son’s name and restore his reputation. The truth will be told and justice must be served – for him, for me, for his daughter, for his father, for his sisters, for his stepfather, for his extended family and friends, and for every other young Black male who has been unjustly killed by police officers. I want my son’s voice to be heard. And it is and will be heard through me. I speak for my son and so will the evidence.
There have been no demonstrations, marches, protests, or riots for Ryan Stokes. There has not been much media coverage, save for the first few days. No parent should experience what I am experiencing now. And no young man should have his life cut short by officers who feel that they can take a life and not be held accountable for their actions.
Until Ryan’s good name is restored, I continue to suffer in pain.