DOWNEY - On Monday, more than 100 family members, friends and community members gathered near the intersection Imperial Highway and Paramount Boulevard for a candlelight vigil to mourn the one-year anniversary of Michael Nida's death. Nida was shot and killed near the intersection by Downey police officer Steven Gilley after being mistaken as a robbery suspect. Nida evaded officers twice before the shooting occurred. The 31-year-old husband and father of four was later discovered to be unarmed.
The anniversary of Nida's death happened to fall on the annual October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality's National Day of Protest, which has taken place since 1996. Before Monday's candlelight vigil, Nida's mother, Jean Thaxton, and sister, Terri Thaxton-Teramura, attended the march in Downtown Los Angeles to speak along with other family members of people who have lost loved ones at the hands of law enforcement.
Nida's death has politicized and mobilized his family members, many of whom did not attend marches, protests, or city council meetings prior to the shooting. On October 20, family members organized a memorial blood drive in honor of Nida with the tagline, "Give blood, don't shed blood." The family also reaches out to others who have been affected by officer-related shootings.
Friends and family members of Nida have been in touch with Norma Martinez, the mother of Gonzalo Martinez, who was shot and killed by Downey Police officers on the night of February 15, 2002 after what should have been a routine traffic stop. Like Nida, Martinez was shot by an officer using a machine gun and like Martinez's family, Nida's family is suing the city.
"I used to be one of those people who watched the news every night and saw the stories about officer-related shootings and thought the people killed were probably criminals or gang members," Jean said. "Now I know better. The truth isn't what you see on the news or read in newspapers. Innocent people are being profiled and killed and it has to stop. People need to know the truth."
In the months following Nida's death, Jean has become an outspoken critic of the Downey Police Department's policies and procedures, but when addressing the crowd at Monday's vigil in her loud, distinctive voice, she made it clear that all police officers aren't the enemy.
"We have police officers in our family and we support them, but we don't agree when they hide behind their badges. We support the good guys and we want the bad guys fired and Officer Gilley is one of the bad guys," she said.
At the vigil, many of Nida's friends and family members shared memories and stories of Nida, including his son Xavier, whose voice broke when relating his favorite memory of his father. Just a few moments later, Xavier also caused many in attendance to erupt in laughter when he shared jokes his father used to tell him.
Some in attendance treated the event as a celebration of Nida's life, though it was clear that many still deeply struggle with his death. This is especially true of Nida's wife Naily. The couple had been together for 14 years and were out having a rare night away from their four children when the shooting occurred. According to reports, Nida and Naily had stopped at the Arco gas station on Paramount Boulevard and Imperial Highway on their way to dinner and as Naily pumped gas, Nida ran across the street to purchase cigarettes. Moments later, a Downey police officer stopped Nida for jaywalking and shortly after this initial stop, he was killed.
"It's hard to put into words how I feel today; it's unexplainable," Naily said. "This is a very sad day for me and I try to be strong for the kids. I'm the kind of person who keeps their feelings to themself and I don't show much emotion, but I'm only human. It doesn't feel like it's been a year, it feels like he was killed yesterday. I keep replaying what happened in my head, but it helps that we have so much support."
Nida's death has also taken its toll on Damion Ramirez, but it has also inspired him to "fight back." Ramirez was a life-long friend of Nida's and he is one of the most outspoken activists of Nida's Rydas, the group formed with the goal of "stopping the use of lethal force by the Downey Police Department" and of raising awareness around Nida's case.
"He was my best friend and I miss everything about him," Ramirez said. "So much has happened in the past year, though it doesn't feel like it's been a year. The grief comes in waves, but fighting back against this injustice gives me the strength to carry that grief. We're trying to turn all of these negative feelings into positive action, but the past couple of days have been really hard."
This entire week has been challenging for Nida's family. On Oct. 23, the day after the anniversary of Nida's death - and just two days after what would have been his 32nd birthday - the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office released the DA report that cleared Gilley, reporting that the officer "acted in lawful self-defense and in defense of others."
The findings of the DA report, which revealed that Nida was initially stopped by Officer Blanca Reyes while jaywalking because "he looked like a gang member", did not surprise Ramirez, though it did infuriate him. During Tuesday night's city council meeting just hours after the DA report was made public, many of Nida's family members and friends addressed the council concerning the report. Some, including Jean, addressed Downey Police Chief Rick Esteves regarding the recent announcement of his retirement, implying that his decision was tied to Nida's case.
Ramirez also addressed council members, detailing how Nida's civil rights were violated. "Do you know why Mikey told his wife he hated cops moments before he died? Because he was a good man who was profiled as a gang member and the police repeatedly took his humanity and dignity away," Ramirez said. "He told the cop to shoot him because he was sick of it. They took his life because he was running for his life."
Because of their participation in every council meeting, Nida's family and friends have had to grieve in public and just two weeks ago Ramirez felt as if he'd had enough. He spoke to Jean about no longer attending the meetings.
"With every meeting it's like opening a wound," Ramirez said, but after the release of the DA report he's more motivated than ever to seek justice for Nida.
"If anything, the report just proves that Mikey's killing was unjust. The officer was wrong for profiling him, so if the initial reaction was wrong, everything that followed was wrong. It was unethical from the beginning," Ramirez said.
Nida's family and Ramirez say that Nida has been incorrectly and unfairly characterized as a gang member and attempts have been made to justify his killing by "playing up" the fact that marijuana was found in Nida's system. According to Ramirez, Nida had a legal cannabis prescription and had been targeted by Downey police officers in the past because of his appearance.
"He fostered a distrust of the police because he had no confidence in their ability to treat him fairly," Ramirez said. "When you feel like your life is being threatened - just like the report says - you have a fight or flight reaction and Michael tried to run because he didn't trust the police and he had no reason to based on the treatment he received before."
Ramirez says the "Mikey" he knew was a family man, a carpenter who strapped on his work boots each day to "go to war and get dirty for his family."
A federal judge has set a trial date for the civil case filed by Nida's family against the city for May 7 in Los Angeles. Until then, the family intends to continue its weekly protests at the intersection where Nida was killed and has promised city officials that they will continue speaking at city council meetings every second and fourth Tuesday of the month.
"We can't bring Mikey back, but we can use his death as an opportunity to change the Downey Police Department's policies and inform the public of the prevalence of police brutality. That will be his legacy," Ramirez said.
********** Published: October 25, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 28