Playful shrieks of children filled the gym at St. Paulâ€™s United Methodist Church, where parents and older siblings helped the little ones decorate â€śugly Christmas sweaterâ€ť cookies. To one side of the room, kids lined up to get their photos taken with Santa Claus.
At a glance, the seasonal festivities belied the tragedies that brought everyone together for the weekend gathering. The Dec. 15Â â€śSpecial Christmas From Heavenâ€ť aimed to put a smile on the faces of kids who lost loved ones to police use of force.
â€śThese kids are always the kids that are forgotten in our community,â€ť said Laurie Valdez, who spearheaded the event. â€śThe children that are left fatherless because of police violence, nobody wants to acknowledge these children.â€ť
Valdez knows about that particular kind of bereavement all too well. Her longtime partner, Antonio Guzman Lopez, was fatally shot by San Jose State police two blocks from St. Paulâ€™s on Feb. 21, 2014. He was 38 years old. His son, Josiah, was 4 at the time.
To cope with her own grief and to make sense of the tragedy for her young children, Valdez set out to comfort similarly afflicted families. ThroughÂ â€śJustice for Josiah,â€ť her sonâ€™s namesake, the mother of two and member of civil rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug rallies activists to protest police brutality. She also advocates for expanding civilian oversight of law enforcementâ€”both here in San Jose and throughout the state.
Many of the events hosted by â€śJustice for Josiahâ€ť are neither political nor public, but private affairs for grieving families. Many of them are like the one held over the weekend at San Joseâ€™s St. Paulâ€™s church on 10th Street, where families had a chance to draw strength from each other. Only this one comes during one of the most difficult times to grieve: the holidays, when the pain of loss becomes particularly acute.
The inauguralÂ â€śSpecial Christmas From Heavenâ€ť was sponsored by Silicon Valley De-Bug, which garnered additional support this season from Mothers Quest and Respect Organ. A service group called Operation Christmas donated bicycles whileÂ 100 Black Men of America donated other gifts for each of the half-orphaned kids who participated in the event. Together We Stand, another nonprofit advocacy group, also chipped in to the toy drive, which grew from 32 recipients in 2017 to 72 this year.
The children represented at the holiday event have family members that have been killed by local police since 2014â€”and at least one since 2009. Valdez lamented the lack of institutional supportâ€”from public agencies and non-governmental community organizationsâ€”for families fractured by police killings.
â€śThey should start investing in community healing in our schools to get grief counseling,â€ť Valdez said. â€śThese kids are traumatized, and as they get older, trauma doesâ€™t go away.â€ť
According to an analysis by theÂ Washington Post, police throughout the U.S. fatally kill something on the order of 1,000 people each year. In all of California, the same newspaper reported that 109 people were killed by police to date by Oct. 1, 2018. Thatâ€™s 16 more compared to the same time last year.
Nannies MuĂ±oz lost her brother, Jacob Dominguez, on Sept. 15, 2017, when San Jose police shot the 33-year-old to death after a drawn-out cat-and-mouse vehicle pursuit. Officials say he was suspected of criminal activity, including armed robbery and drive-by shootings.Â According to MuĂ±oz, Dominguez was unarmed and shot in the back with his arms up in surrender.
His surviving young children, two sons and daughter, still donâ€™t quite fathom what took their dad from them, MuĂ±oz said. Cindy Chavez, their grandmother, said they explain away his sudden departure by saying that God needed him in heaven. The family of Dominguez said they were happy to find a community that connects them with people whoâ€™ve endured similar trauma.
Pastor Jennifer Goto, who welcomed â€śJustice for Josiahâ€ť into her church for the event, offered a prayer for the children and their families. She also exhorted the men and women in law enforcement to commit to aÂ â€śhigher callingâ€ť of bringingÂ â€śpeace and not heartacheâ€ť to the communities they serve.
Against a backdrop of youthful exuberanceâ€”presents being unwrapped, pizza being scarfed down by giddy youngsters and photos being posted for to memorialize the happy occasionâ€”Valdez took pause to reflect on memories of her late partner. Guzman was a quiet person with a low-key demeanor who volunteered at the Antioch Baptist Church, a historically black congregation in the heart of San Jose.
â€śHe was the most generous, helpful and giving person,â€ť she said.
Valdez said she hopes that by sharing her grief, she can also share her hope.
â€śWhat my son suffers, I know all these kids suffer,â€ť Valdez said.
And what gives him comfort, she added, is to find a place among other kids who understand him. Thatâ€™s the goal ofÂ â€śSpecial Christmas From Heaven.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s to bring unity,â€ť Valdez explained, â€śand to let the kids all meet each other and know that they are not the only kids without a parent.â€ť