Originally published in Prism here.
Ten parents (nine mothers and one father) make up Mothers of the Kidnapped (MOK), the feminist abolitionist collective partnering with the United Nations to demand Illinois officials pardon all survivors of police torture and wrongful convictions.
Their sons are 10 of more than 500 people whose cases have piled up on the desks of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s desk, after being investigated under the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act, a 2009 statute meant to provide redress for victims of police torture.
To be a mother to one of them is to be a mother to all 500, the mothers agree. This work extends beyond the biological; they are mothers to those inside and mothers to one another. As they offer mental and financial support to their children and those inside—sending gifts and adding money to their commissaries—the mothers also bear each other up while they endure the stressors and physical toll of survivorship and take on advocacy and activism as political forms of caregiving.
“It’s enough to make you want to just keep on fighting and not give it up,” Armanda Shackelford said. To many, she is known as “Mama Justice,” but to her son Gerald Reed, she is just “Mama.”
In 1990, police arrested Reed in connection with two Chicago murders. Two detectives working under then-Police Commander Jon Burge brutally beat Reed, dislodging a metal rod in his thigh, until he confessed to the murders. Reed was sentenced to life without parole, and, in the years to follow, Burge was fired and put on trial amid numerous allegations from Black men in Chicago of torture.
Reed was nearly 30 years into serving a life sentence when a Chicago judge vacated his conviction. But, a devastating decision by the judge’s successor, Judge Thomas Hennelly, sent Reed back to prison to serve his life sentence in 2020.
A year later, Gov. Pritzker pardoned Reed. Shackelford wept; the other mothers celebrated.
In July 2022, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Joanne Rosado vacated the convictions of Juan and Rosendo Hernandez, two brothers who spent 25 years in police custody after notoriously corrupt Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara framed them for murder. Esther Hernandez, their mother and a member of MOK, wept. The other mothers celebrated.
Pressuring for change
Their earned distrust of Chicago police, like the officer responsible for Reed’s arrest and the officer who framed the Hernandez brothers, and faith in one another propels MOK members in the relentless fight to decarcerate Chicago today.
This year marks the second year MOK will work with the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination. Together, they’ll draft a report to strengthen their case for pardoning people who’ve been framed or tortured into confessions.
In 2020, the mothers drafted a similar document containing the names of four Chicago police officers involved in the framing and torture of at least 196 people.
“We, the mothers of survivors of police torture and frame-ups, are calling on Governor Pritzker to pardon these individuals and to hold those who violated their rights accountable,” the report read, followed by extensive research conducted by the mothers themselves.
They hoped their prior victories and Foxx’s vocal support for Black Lives Matter would endear people to their pleas for justice. And it did, for a few months.
After several fruitless meetings with the governor and meetings with the state’s attorney that came to a dead end, they felt the need to apply more pressure.
“It’s so hard to get the meetings, and when we do get the meetings, we feel like it’s the same old responses, and nothing’s happening,” MOK and MAMAS founder Nadine Suleiman Naber said.
Making room for mothering in social movements
Naber, mother, scholar, and professor, has been working at the intersection of mothering and abolition since 2011, when she witnessed firsthand the critical role women played in the Arab Spring revolutions. While in Egypt, she saw the mothers of martyrs resisting state violence through protests but also through arranging and participating in child care, an invaluable act of mothering that requires time and physical labor and challenges ideas about who gets to partake in “the revolution” and how.
Naber returned to the U.S. and found community among other Chicago activists, mothers who felt excluded from and exploited by social movements in their community.
“The exclusion of mothers and the way that mothers of color are often used by social movements for their tears to put an emotional face to the struggles—that’s a patriarchal structure in a lot of activist movements,” Naber said.
Guided by the work of Black feminist abolitionists like Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, she began carving out a new space for the mothers of survivors of police torture to organize with a few simple abolitionist principles in mind: the system does not work and was never designed to. The system itself has to go.
Because many mothers came to MOK through the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, they were already familiar with the concept of a world without police or prisons. “The Alliance,” they call it, was born in 1973 from the movement to free political prisoners like famed abolitionist Angela Davis. Now, it was time to put those principles into action.
“When I used to tell people my son is imprisoned, my next comment was, ‘But he’s innocent,’” Denice Bronis said. But MOK has revealed how rebuttals such as this reinforce the idea that there are people who do deserve the harsh punishments doled out by the state.
“Why do I even have to say that? I care about others that are in there, too,” Bronis said.
As of publication, it has been 23 years, seven months, one week, two days, 13 hours, 57 minutes, and 20 seconds since Bronis’ son Matthew Echevarria, was incarcerated. Yet another survivor of torture at the hands of Chicago police, Echevarria was arrested at 17 and sentenced to 50 years for a crime he did not commit.
Bronis deposits $150 into Echevarria’s commissary account monthly. She calls it “child support,” referencing court-ordered payments parents make when they don’t have custody of their children, but for her, it’s a simple motherly act of caring. If she hears someone else inside is struggling, she’ll send additional money.
As Bronis and her husband prepare to move out of the home where they raised Matthew, she is grateful to have a network of other mothers to lean on.
“Otherwise, I would be doing exactly what the state of Illinois wants me to do: shut up and accept it. It makes a big difference when you walk into a room with other mothers that are going through the same exact thing you are,” she said.
Strategies for survival
Several months ago, April Ward, the most recent mother to join MOK, mailed a gold chain to her son, Mickiael Ward, as a token of her love. April thinks of Mickiael fondly and often. She said he was obsessed with keeping things tidy and organized, and at 13, he spent hours cleaning and rearranging the furniture in their home to impress her.
“I said, ‘You should become a designer,’ but they took his life away,” Ward said.
Around the same age, she said, Mickiael began having run-ins with the police.
At 18, Mickiael confessed to the 2013 killing of Hadiya Pendelton, and in 2019 a judge sentenced him to 84 years in prison. His confession was the result of the Reid Technique, a questionable method of interrogation that draws its namesake from the Chicago cop who popularized it in the ’50s. The nine-step process involves an intense line of questioning that assumes the alleged’s guilt from step one. It was renounced by one of the nation’s largest police consulting firms in 2017.
Mickiael’s case garnered attention from the Obamas and sparked a national conversation about gun violence, overshadowing talk of torture and racial profiling. MOK has been a lifeline for Ward as she works on bringing awareness to this. In many of the ways that their sons are survivors of the violent system of policing and incarceration, the mothers of MOK consider themselves survivors, perpetually enduring the ripple effects of the carceral system.
“Mothers of the kidnapped already are living the alternative [to the policing and prisons] because they’ve been forced to create strategies for surviving and living when they’ve had everything taken away from them,” Naber said.
They’ve exhausted their financial resources on lawyers, visitations, phone calls, and commissary payments. These acts of caring carry their own emotional weight. And according to Naber, the physical toll is “extremely profound,” with illnesses among MOK ranging from stress and anxiety to kidney failure and cancer.
At 80, Shackelford isn’t able to march on the front lines the way she used to, she said, but she can still pick up the phone. Nearly all of the mothers have established a rapport with someone incarcerated in Cook County, offering advice and words of support.
“That’s something that we all do as moms, we encourage each other.” Shackelford said. “When one is going through, we all are going through together.”