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Mothers hope to shine NFL spotlight on police violence

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Yolanda McNair, center, with Kimberly Griffin, left, Madge Penny Morgan.
Yolanda McNair, middle, is pictured with Kimberly Griffin, left, and Madge Penny Morgan. McNair will join others at the Take a Knee Conference taking place this Super Bowl weekend.
Courtesy of Yolanda McNair

Yolanda McNair's memories of her oldest daughter, Adaisha Miller, are filled with the care she showed for others. She loved to teach kids and she was easy to get along with. She wrote poems and played the guitar.

When Adaisha died six years ago, it came as a shock. "Going to a party is not an agreement to be murdered," said her mother.

McNair belongs to a network of people who have lost family members to police violence. Her daughter was just hours from turning 25 when a friend took her to a party at a police officer's house in Detroit.

Just a little while later, she was dead. Police say she was dancing with an officer when his gun went off. "The officer claims that he never touched his weapon," McNair said. 

McNair will join a handful of mothers visiting Minnesota from across the country this weekend. They're coming not to watch the big game or visit the attractions. They'll be here for the Take a Knee Conference — a two-day event that aims to take advantage of the national spotlight that has focused on the NFL ever since quarterback Colin Kaepernick went down on one knee to protest police violence.

Organizers expect 150 people to attend. The purpose of the conference is to deepen the public's understanding of police shootings, racism and the right to protest. The event starts Saturday and ends with a rally on Super Bowl Sunday.

Adaisha Miller was killed in 2012, well before the Black Lives Matter movement took hold and before Kaepernick's gesture captured national attention.  McNair said she's been organizing and protesting since her daughter's death. She knows hundreds of other mothers going through the same thing.

"I value my daughter's life," she said. "I value her future that was stolen from her."

Organizer Mel Reeves said the workshops will examine racial disparities but also the systemic issues brought to light through police shootings.

"A lot of times, when you think about police violence, you just think of it as a black problem," he said. "But the police kill white people, too, as we've seen here with the death of Justine Damond (Ruszczyk) in Minneapolis under real questionable circumstances. So what does that say about society and the role of police?"

McNair said she's spoken with experts who say her daughter's injuries contradict the account of the officer who shot her. 

"Unarmed people shouldn't be dead," she said. "My daughter wasn't doing anything, she committed no crime. Yet they want to say it was an accident, but they can't prove it."

These mothers often meet at various events across the country, whether it's a large conference like the one coming up this weekend, a vigil or a memorial service. They've formed a support network as they seek answers.

But in case after case, they find themselves struggling against laws that give wide latitude to police. 

"Those laws should never have been passed," McNair said. "Because it gave officers an excuse to say, 'I was afraid,' or 'I thought,' instead of being certain."

Whether justified or not, the shootings are tragic. And preventing the next tragedy is what keeps this network of mothers engaged in their cause.