Two funerals were held in less than one week at New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington Blvd., in the West Garfield Park neighborhood where Bettie Jones, 55, and Quintonio LeGrier, 19, were both fatally shot on Dec. 26 by police officers responding to a domestic incident involving LeGrier and his father, Antonio LeGrier.
At Antonio’s request, Jones had gone to the apartment’s entryway to answer the door for police officers who had responded to the father’s 911 call. The teenaged LeGrier — a ward of the state who his biological mother said had mental or emotional issues — had reportedly been wielding a bat and threatening his father. Seconds after opening the door, Jones was shot in the chest. Seconds later, the younger LeGrier was shot several times.
Both families have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the city. The lawsuits claim that the actions of the officers involved in both shootings were unjustified.
Jones’s service, attended by at least 300 people on Jan. 6, drew more media attention than LeGrier’s Jan. 9 funeral. In the days after the shootings, the Chicago Police Department called Jones’s death an “accident” and, along with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, apologized for the actions of any officers involved.
LeGrier’s death, however, didn’t elicit similar remorse from the city; with multiple media accounts relaying the police department’s description of the teenager as “a combative subject.”
But many people who spoke at last week’s funeral services emphasized that neither death was justified. Both deaths, they insisted, were caused by a system that considers places like the West Side virtual war zones and their black and brown residents beyond the pale of human consideration.
“In an occupied zone of terror, there’s no safe place; not even in the home,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended Jones’s funeral.
“When police shoot [they try to cover up their tracks],” he said. “At least in [Jones’s] instance, they said it was an accident — as if killing LeGrier, shooting him seven times, was on purpose. Both of them should be alive today.”
“It is not an accident, it is a pattern,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) at Jones’s funeral. “It is unfortunate that we, in a civilized society, don’t have the same protection that folks of other hues have. It is unbelievable in a civilized society that a woman, awoken out of her slumber to help, finds herself laid out here today.”
Rev. Marshall Hatch, the pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim who delivered eulogies for both Jones and LeGrier, described how officers handled the Dec. 26 call in terms most reserve for militarized areas like Iraq and Gaza.
“There is nothing that she did that she should have done differently,” Hatch said at Jones’s funeral. “Her sacrifice demonstrates dysfunction between this police department and the community they claim to police. There is no way she could’ve expected aggression from sworn officers of the peace; no way she could’ve anticipated she would be someone’s collateral casualty in an aggressive police raid on her residence.”
Jones’s daughter LaTonya Jones, 19, sobbed as she described the loss of her mother — the woman she called her “everything” who “fought for everyone.”
“My momma didn’t deserve this,” she said. “She didn’t deserve this. The police took my momma from us for no reason. All she tried to do was help them and this is how they repay her. Her life was taken away for helping the city … Now, we’re hurting and we’re crying, because of these police! All these police killing all these innocent people for nothing!”
Jones and her twin sister LaTisha both called for mourners to mobilize against police in a united front. She also urged activists and demonstrators to marshal the kind of organizational discipline shown in civil rights struggles of the past.
“While everybody wants to get into it with each other, we need to be trying to get into it with the police,” she said. “We need to be trying to join each other to get them to respect us. What do you think Martin Luther King died for? Rosa Parks? Malcom X? We got to keep that going. We can’t let them kill us off like that.”
Eric Russell, a spokesman for the Jones family, said at LeGrier’s funeral that the two shooting victims would be remembered as “the Rosa Parks and Emmett Till of today”
“We’re in a fight,” he said. “We’re in a fight for our very humanity. There are those who are sworn to protect us who don’t value our humanity.”
Russell was among roughly 200 mourners who, through their testimonies, pushed back against those who might dismiss LeGrier as another “combative subject.”
Classmates and teachers at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, where LeGrier attended before enrolling at Northern Illinois University as an engineering student, described him as a math and science whiz.
Dolores Striver, a math teacher, remembered LeGrier as one of her brightest students who would always ask “is there anything I can do for you?”
Gwendolyn Brooks Principal D’Andre J. Weaver remembered the student who once completed a marathon with classmates in an effort that raised more than $13,000 for World Vision, the international humanitarian aid organization. Weaver recalled LeGrier’s “heart,” his “sense of selflessness” and his refusal to make excuses despite his hardship, before announcing that the school would rename an existing scholarship in his honor. It also raised more than $15,000 to cover his funeral expenses.
LeGrier was born to Janet Cooksey and Antonio LeGrier, but raised by Mary Strenger, his foster mother. During the service, both biological parents seemed adamant to clear the record about their relationship with their son.
The elder LeGrier, who said that he was also brought up in foster care, noted that he often dropped his son off, and picked him up, from school. He also mentioned that he fought nine years for custody.
Cooksey, who conceded that she’d been a late presence in her son’s life, insisted that their bond was tight and showed mourners an elaborate birthday card LeGrier gave her not long before his death.
Hatch said that the LeGrier portrayed at his funeral “totally contrasted any kind of stereotype.”
“[LeGrier was a math and science whiz … That’s not a gang banger. A gang banger doesn’t run marathons for World Vision.”
As if picking up on his eulogy for Jones, Hatch indicted a system that gives African American children who grow up within it “no margin for error.” He decried what he called “the problem of racism” and the practice of “setting up institutions that guarantee outcomes for people of privilege and guarantees failure for people with challenges.”
Hatch recalled a period from his youth to illustrate why “everybody needs grace.” He said he was a freshman at Western Illinois University and was back home on his first break when he “some wine-drinking buddies in Austin” ran out of money and decided to steal some batteries on the North Side.
“Somebody called the police,” he said. “The police caught me, went in my wallet and found out I had an ID for Western Illinois University. The older cop said, ‘Don’t mess that kid up. Give him another chance.’ I do not have a record [today] not because I’ve been perfect, but because I had some grace. I had an opportunity to grow and mature.”
LeGrier, Hatch lamented, didn’t get the same chance. But in a moment of some consolation, Weaver recalled a conversation LeGrier, while he was a student at Gwendolyn Brooks, had with an administrator.
“Antonio told [an assistant principal at the school] that he wanted to be somebody one day,” Weaver said. “[But] Quintonio was already somebody. He was somebody then. He is somebody now. And he will be somebody tomorrow.”