Biko Gray sat next to Janet Baker as she went on the air the first time to tell all of Houston what happened to her son.
They were in the KCOH recording studio, one of Houston's oldest black radio stations, and Baker, with strong resolve, talked about the night her son Jordan was shot and killed by an off-duty Houston police officer in a strip mall parking lot — he was unarmed and on his way home to his own son. Baker told about how the police officer — apparently mistaking Jordan, a black man in a hoodie, for a robbery suspect — would not be indicted by a grand jury for killing him. And she talked about the pain that followed, which propelled her to go on the air every Friday from noon to 1 at KCOH for a new radio show. She dedicated this first show to her son, calling it Justice For Jordan — the first of many one-hour radio shows in which other family members across the country, who also lost their loved ones to fatal police shootings, will tell their stories.
Gray said that, watching Baker, it was clear that the show wasn't easy for her to get through. "She's crying, but at the same time she's saying, 'I choose to be here. I choose to amplify these stories,'” Gray said.
Following the news of her son's death, Baker bore the pain by herself for at least a year, talking it through on private video logs without realizing that there was an entire web of people like her out there going through the same thing. That changed after she attended a march for justice in Washington, D.C., and she gathered in the White House with 23 other moms whose unarmed sons were killed by police. At that point, Baker said, she realized that what was really lacking was an outlet for the grief — one she found after an old friend who now works at KCOH approached her about doing the show.
“This journey is about somehow diminishing the pain, but pushing through the pain to be a catalyst for change,” she said. “We hope to change legislation. We hope to change laws. I haven't seen things changing in the last two years since I lost Jordan. I know mothers who have been in the same position fighting for change for 17 years. We want to give those families tools to somehow cope.”
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On Friday, Baker will share the story of Yvette Smith, who was shot to death by a Bastrop County sheriff's deputy in 2014. At her home, two men had gotten in a fight, and one had a gun; Smith decided to call 911 for help. When they arrived, they ordered her out of the house, and the second she opened the door, one officer inexplicably shot her twice without warning. He was found not guilty in the murder earlier this month. Baker will be speaking with Smith's twin sister, Yvonne, whose family can barely handle looking at her because she reminds them too much of Yvette, Baker said.
"What Janet Baker's show does is that she humanizes these stories and shows that there is a series of hidden human costs," Gray said. "Criminal justice officials tend not to see those radiated effects as tangible, as real things that need to be addressed as they relate to, for example, police reform."
That no one will be held accountable for Smith's death is a storyline that resonates across the country and particularly in Houston, where officials can't even remember the last time a fatal police shooting was considered “unjustified.” And cops are (almost) never indicted by civilian grand juries, as we reported on months after Baker was shot. "I've been deeply saddened and disappointed by the lack of accountability here in Houston," she said. "These are not isolated incidents — this is real. And it's impacting so many families and their loved ones across the country."
So when she interviews them on her show, she only hopes police and the city are listening.