Mourning Patrick Lyoya, Communities Seek Justice Together

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – In America, always listen for the We.

It’s not the! pluralis majestati, the “royal we” that signifies the power of the elevated person. Not the “we” of American politics, used—or some might say abused—to position a candidate inside some calculated group. This WeIt is used to communicate kinship and shared values, concerns, joys, and pains.

This WeThis signifies that there have been connections made. Sometimes, in fire. It was so. WeAl Sharpton turned to Friday as he began preaching at the funeral of Patrick Lyoya, a Congolese refugee who was killed by a Grand Rapids police officer. Al Sharpton looked to Friday, as he started to preside at Patrick Lyoya’s funeral. Patrick Lyoya was a Congolese refugee who died April 4, when a Grand Rapids police officer shot into his back.

“They took us from the shores of Africa and brought us across the Atlantic and made us slaves,” Sharpton, who demanded that the officer’s name be released, told those gathered, as a translator echoed him in Swahili. “And they devalued our human worth by teaching their children that we were less than they were…. But I come almost 400 years later to tell you that we were not created to be your boys and girls… And you thought we wouldn’t come from all over the world and let you know that enough is enough?”

That was it. We, enunciated inside the Renaissance Church of God in Christ, a predominantly Black American congregation in Grand Rapids, that prompted Delvil Basengezi, another Congolese refugee and a co-worker of the dead man lying in the white casket at the front of the sanctuary, to slowly wave a massive blue, yellow, and red banner—the Democratic Republic of Congo’s flag. If anyone thought it was discordant that Sharpton’s message prompted such a display from someone who measured his history in the United States in years, not centuries, nobody said so. In some ways, these words are emblematic of moments when elements from the Black American and Congolese immigrant experiences seemed to blend. They are a good indicator of some of the new relationships found in Western Michigan since Lyoya died 18 days ago.

Continue reading: The Police Shooting at Grand Rapids (Mich.): What we Know so Far

Around 18% of Grand Rapids’ nearly 200k residents are Black. The majority (at 58%) of Grand Rapids’ residents are white, with 16% identifying as Latino, and 3% Asian. According to Freddie Nyembwe (president of the Lansing Congolese Community), there are over 1,000 Congolese households within that number. Most of these families settled in Lansing or Grand Rapids about twenty years ago. Patrick Lyoya lived in Grand Rapids, the major city in nearby Kent County, his family having arrived in the U.S. about six years ago—assured, his father Peter said through a translator, that this was a place where they and their children would be safe. He lives with his parents, and many of his siblings in Lansing (about 70 miles).

Nyembwe explains that tribal, political, and other conflict back in the Democratic Republic of Congo can continue after emigration. This creates stubborn divisions within the community. “But we are a family. The one who passed away, who got killed, to me I treat him as a Congolese because I don’t think about tribes. I think about my country,” Nyembwe says. Justice is an element in every nation and civilized country, says Nyembwe.

To him, that drive for justice is enough to unite people across dividing lines—not just within the immigrant community, but also across the divide between those born in the United States and those born in Africa.

“It’s been a growing relationship,” agrees LaKiya Thompson-Jenkins, executive director of LincUp, a nonprofit organization that has been pushing for police reform in Grand Rapids. “I don’t think things are where they needed to be [in terms of including African immigrants in local conversations about justice]But there have been some improvements. There has been intentionality in making sure Africans are really represented at the various tables in the city of Grand Rapids.”

The weeks since Lyoya’s death have put a harsh spotlight on that developing relationship. It was on display eight days after Lyoya’s death, in a gray-walled Grand Rapids City Hall meeting chamber, at a time when people in other parts of the country had just begun to hear the name of the 26-year-old auto-parts factory worker whose passions included teaching young people traditional Congolese dance. In Grand Rapids, angry that Lyoya’s mother and father had not been allowed to see his body and that video of the incident had not been made public, people had marched on the city’s streets. On April 12, at the first City Commission meeting since Lyoya’s death, so many came to share their outrage in the three-minute intervals allotted for individual public comments that the meeting stretched to five hours.

Continue reading: Behind ‘Grand Rapids Nice,’ Police Problems Run Deep in Michigan

Many spoke on behalf of African immigrants or refugees. Only a few of those who spoke were Americans of color. Most were Black Americans who spoke about Lyoya’s shooting as part of a larger pattern about which they have long been concerned. It was not by race, but skin color that they were traced.

“This young man came here with dreams of a future,” said a young Black woman with an American accent and a leather jacket who did not give her name, in a statement now preserved on the video record of the meeting. “I am ashamed that this city…brought death to this young man who came here with dreams for a future. You too should be ashamed.”

Rosalynn Bliss (Grand Rapids mayor) had, at the beginning, banned applause. The next speaker, who’d been nodding along vigorously, was Fridah Kanini, a woman with a Kenyan accent who had earlier offered to interpret for Swahili speakers in the room.

“Many of us as refugees and immigrants, we came to America for safety and… you took it away,” she said, detailing how in her experience it has seemed that when police hear African accents, they assume there will be few consequences for violating residents’ rights. “Beyond the racism that we face, we also face other barriers,” she said.

Continue reading: ‘We Knew It Was Coming.’ Police-Reform Advocates in Grand Rapids, Mich., Had Been Bracing for a Death Like Patrick Lyoya’s

She added that she had suffered in silence rights violations in the past. Lyoya, she stated, would not have been killed if he had gone home. However, this silence has ended now, she stated.

“Africans, we are people who want peace. “We want only to be able provide for our family, to go to school and work hard. [executives], do the best things we can for this city,” she said. “We are here. “We are here. …We don’t need to wait for another tragedy to happen so that you can hear us.”

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was the bond given to Mama and Papa Lyoya,” says Bethlehem Kongwa Shekanena, when she rises to speak at the funeral on Friday. The daughter of Congolese refugees, this young woman speaks English in a way that is not unlike those born in Michigan. Her mother is the first generation American. She and her family, like Patrick Lyoya’s parents, are members of the Bafuliru Tribe of America. This is one of over 400 tribes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The president of the Bafuliru Tribe of America, Shekenena, had previously explained this to the mourners. It’s Shekenena’s words that prompt both of Lyoya’s parents to weep. “Like many… including my own family, Mama and Papa Lyoya came to this country with an assurance, a promise that they and their children would not be presented with turmoil and death…The very foundation of what makes America, America—it was broken when Patrick Lyoya was killed in the street.”

Peter Lyoya was first informed about Patrick Lyoya’s passing via a telephone call. Israel Siku is the primary interpreter and spokesperson for the Lyoya families. Starting then and every day since, all the facts, figures and details he has learned about Patrick’s fate have come at him fast, in his third language—English, which the French and Swahili speaker began acquiring less than a decade ago.

“Imagine,” says Siku. “Imagine that. Imagine what this family is going through.”

The elder Lyoya spoke out about the search for Patrick Lyoya’s father in a radio interview on April 8, with Robert Womack (the Kent County Commissioner). Sir“An officer replied, Your son was killed.

Before this moment, the idea that the police might target, injure, or kill any of his children was not, for Peter Lyoya, a prominent concern—despite what local activists say about the perception that immigrants often have their rights ignored. Siku also said that race and police were not a common topic of discussion within the family. He knows that for some people, Lyoya’s death can be reduced to one simple question: After getting out of his car during the traffic stop, after confirming to the officer that he did speak English, why did he run? Peter Lyoya saw the tape and immediately recognized a possibility. Wouldn’t his son have been—justifiably, it turned out—afraid?

Womack, a Black man, has heard many different stories while working in his two jobs. According to Womack, he hears about the fear Black men live with. “Now you have the added element of our African brothers and sisters who, like Patrick Lyoya’s father, believe police are handling them differently—no, dangerously. Peter Lyoya told me he does not believe that the officer would have killed his son like an animal, shot him in the head, if he were not an African.”

After Womack learned that although four days had passed since the fatal shooting, the elder Lyoya had not been allowed to see his son’s body, Womack contacted Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney perhaps best known for his work with the families of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. Siku states that until Friday, no one from the Grand Rapids Police nor state police had contacted the family. Michigan State Police issued a statement Friday morning saying that the investigation into Lyoya’s shooting continues and no timeline for its conclusion exists. (The name of the officer in question has not been revealed.

Continue reading: Inside Ben Crump’s Quest to Raise the Value of Black Life in America

“This is what Patrick[‘s] family firmly believes, especially his father,” Siku tells me several days before the funeral, which was attended by more than 500 people. “[With Patrick] being an African, [officials]They thought that they would sweep it under the carpet. They believed [the family] will not see any support like this.”

Incorrectly they believed that Siku’s statement would be ignored by local activists. The Black Americans have been closely following Grand Rapids police work for years and would see Lyoya’s loss as a small inconvenience.

“They were wrong. They were wrong. We are all one. We are all African,” he says.

It is possible that the truth is more complex than this. Sharpton claimed that Lyoya’s family was denied a space to grieve in multiple churches around the region, fearing they would be accused of breaking the law and being ostracized by the public. But in the emotion of Friday’s remembrances, it was possible to believe that unity could be found in strife. There was much that happened at every turn of Friday’s services—in the church and at the graveside—that was both Congolese and Black American. If there’s one thing that a Black American church can do well with, it’s the ability to manage deep and painful emotions.

As mourners filed past Lyoya’s open casket, a trio of Black American women stood to the side holding boxes of tissues and a basket to throw them away. Black American women associated with the church dressed in white comforted the overcomers throughout the service. A choir of 15 Black American people sang such a rousing rendition of “You Are (The Source of My Strength)” that Lyoya’s mother began to wail. And when two of Lyoya’s friends, young men who are also Congolese refugees, sang a song in Swahili with a Congolese sound over an almost hip-hop beat, other members of the family fell from their seats and had to be collected from the floor. These young men had composed the song specifically to honor their deceased friend.

At the gravesite, after a brief ceremony and comments from the leader of a local Congolese ministers’ association about the way that justice for Lyoya would ensure that his death was not in vain, a staggering reality—one experienced all too often by Black Americans—became clear.

It is a Congolese tradition for an eldest son like Patrick Lyoya to speak the final words before his father’s body is buried. Peter Layoya and Dorcas Layoya were unable to inter their son because of the two police officers standing nearby.

A Congolese custom is to place a corpse in the ground permanently. This protects against grave robbers from curses. So, as Dorcas Lyoya wailed about the pain of leaving her son in the graveyard on a cold rainy day, and mourners sang a song about happiness in heaven in Swahili, two white graveyard workers inserted her son’s casket into a concrete vault and moved it into the gaping grave, a deep pit in the Michigan red brown dirt.

Issues with policing in the United States don’t always rank near the top of refugees’ concerns, Crump tells me before the funeral began. Crump tells the mourners that the issue has now come to them urgently and emphasizes their shared grief.

“Where they shot this young brother in the back of the head,” Crump says during his speech at the funeral, “his Black life mattered. It was his African life that mattered. His human life mattered. This isn’t a just legal matter. It is more than a matter of civil rights. This is a human-rights issue.”

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