“A Wound That Will Never Heal”: Organizing After the Death of Daniel Covarrubias at the Hands of Police

Demonstrators on the march to demand justice for Daniel Covarrubias. (Photo: Leela Yellesetty | SW)Demonstrators on the march to demand justice for Daniel Covarrubias. (Photo: Leela Yellesetty | SW)On April 21, Daniel Covarrubias was shot and killed by police in Lakewood, Washington, a community south of Tacoma and Seattle. The 37-year old father of seven had just been released from a nearby hospital and appeared to be disoriented when he wandered into a lumberyard. Employees called 911 and reported that Covarrubias was trespassing, but not that he was a threat. Enter officers David Butts and Ryan Hamilton, who say they believe the cell phone Daniel was allegedly reaching into his pocket for was a gun, and they had no choice but to fire nine bullets at him, five of which struck him. An internal investigation by police upheld their actions, and both officers are back on active duty.

Daniel’s family has been marching and organizing tirelessly ever since to win justice. His sister, Lanna Covarrubias, talked to Leela Yellesetty about her brother and about why she and her family will keep protesting.

Can you talk about who Daniel was, and what the impact of losing him has been on your family?

Daniel was a really kind and gentle person. He would go out of his way to help anybody. He had seven children who loved him. He was involved in all of their lives. They would come over all the time. His oldest is 22, and she’s in college right now. She was so proud of her dad because he had just finished his semester, passing all of his classes this past winter 2015—he was working towards his certification in mechanics.

He wanted to navigate through the school system and earn his degree since he already had those skills. He was a mechanic his whole life. He wanted to go to college to prove to his kids that if he could do it, they could do it.

He was really into our Native culture. He was such a good artist. He would bead lanyards and medallions. He made me a bear claw, since he said that I was the mama bear and I was the strong one. He made his daughter one with our Suquamish Tribe symbol, with the canoes and the water. It was really beautiful. He made really beautiful work, but he would never sell it. I would encourage him to, but he would say no, it was art, and he’d just rather just give it away.

Daniel had struggled, but he had been clean for about a year now. When he struggled with alcoholism, the kids never saw him like that. I believe he could stay sober for long periods of time because his family loved and depended on him. He had a lot of pressure on him, too, because he had to be a role model to everybody, especially the males in the family. His sons and daughters just adored him. He was even like a father to my own children. He taught my son how to ride a bike and a scooter, taught him how to throw a football. He was just always there for everybody.

Family was very important to him, and when he passed, it just crushed everybody. Everyone is having a hard time. His sons are taking it really hard, and I worry, because Daniel was always such a humble and peaceful person, and I don’t want his sons to have a hate for the police for what they did. Because we don’t feel like we’re ever going to get justice.

It’s a wound that will never be healed. Our tax dollars are going to paying them to protect our people, not to shoot unarmed people in our community. Their duty was to protect my brother that day, and they failed to do that.

Can you explain what you know about what happened on April 21?

The case is still being investigated, but I can tell you what I know and what I’ve heard.

What I was told was that Daniel had just left St. Clare’s Hospital and was on his way home, and then he was shot at the Pinnacle Lumber Yard. I’m not sure if he was trying to sleep or what he was doing, but he was two blocks from home. I’m not sure what happened, but I know that he was unarmed. I knew that from the start. My brother didn’t walk around with weapons. He was never dangerous or ever tried to hurt anybody. He never had need for any weapons.

It was just a real shock to all of us. But you know, I was worried that something like this might happen. I was worried for my son, my nephews, all of them. The other day, we were driving, and we saw a police car pass, and then he put his car in reverse because he’d seen a group of Black teens there. The boys were just playing basketball, and two cop cars pull up—they like to ride around in teams—and started talking to them. Right away, those boys put their hands in the air like they were scared for their lives.

So we pulled over, pulled out our cell phones and started recording them, because I worry. I worry for my community. I see it everywhere, and it’s just scary that we have to prepare our kids to worry about the police when there are so many other things they have to worry about in the society that we live in. We should be preparing them for college.

That’s why I want to keep speaking out about this. Because it’s wrong. What happened to John T. Williams is wrong—that’s why I went up and protested for him. I just never, ever thought I would be in this situation myself. I never thought I would be marching for my brother.

What is the likelihood of holding the officers accountable in Daniel’s case?

It doesn’t look good as far as prosecution, which we knew already, but I didn’t realize that the laws were so in favor of the police. Basically they’re invincible. If it did go to court, we would have to prove there was malicious intent before a grand jury, and it would have to be a unanimous vote. The prosecutor would just have to find one racist juror, and the police go free. That’s our legal system.

Even if I could prove that Officer Butts was a racist, even if people have brought cases against him before, and even if it was found that he behaved in a discriminatory manner, we couldn’t even bring the case to court unless there was evidence of malicious intent in the case.

So I’m not sure how you would prove it. How can you say whether someone has hate in their heart or not when they pulled the trigger?

And even if they didn’t, how does that still make it okay that Daniel was killed?

Yes, exactly – even if it was negligence. In my opinion, it was a little of both.

There were so many things that took place that were so wrong. These police aren’t equipped. They haven’t taken psychology courses, they haven’t taken chemical dependency class. I’m a teacher. I had to take those classes, because I’m working with the community. I’m working with human beings.

These are human lives that they’re supposed to be protecting. They aren’t even equipped to assess the situation, let alone carry a gun. Even if somebody came at them, they’re supposed to restrain them. That’s what they’re paid for.

David Butts is the highest-paid officer in Lakewood. I think that if our tax dollars are going to these police officers and he’s getting paid that much, then he should be getting some classes on mental health and psychology. You’re supposed to be trained to move up to that level. You’re supposed to be getting better at your job. I think everyone would agree with me on that.

That’s the concerning part to me. If he felt like he was in danger, why would he even put himself in that situation? Why wouldn’t he have taken cover? He obviously didn’t think that he was in danger. And the witnesses—they weren’t running for their lives. They obviously didn’t think they were in danger either.

This whole system is just corrupt. For instance, there’s this whole idea that the police are supposed to be investigating the police. Who’s policing the police? That’s my question.

That’s why I march—because I want people to know who we’re dealing with. I wish that I could indict those police, but that’s probably not going to happen. What I want to do is change the laws so we can do that if this happens again. They shouldn’t be above the law that way.

I can’t imagine the pain you and your family have been experiencing. What made you decide to organize and speak out in the face of all that?

I do it – our whole family does it – not because we feel like we’re ever going to get justice, but because this should have never happened.

We want to shout out to the community the injustice that happened here and ask how we’re going to stop it. I don’t want my brother to have died in vain. We do this to protect our community—to make people aware of this injustice, to make them aware that this could be their son walking down the street, or their daughter.

The pain’s never really gone. It just hits you, you know? Every day, I see something that reminds me of Daniel. Daniel was just such a peaceful person. That should have never happened to him. They messed with the wrong family. They messed with the wrong person, because he had so many people who loved him and relied on him. These are families that they’re destroying. These are human lives. This is a father, a son, a brother, a grandson. And they took him from us too soon.

They definitely messed with the wrong family. I know all of you have been out on a number of demonstrations and speaking at meetings over the last couple months. What has the response in the community been like?

People very concerned. They’re tired of this, and they want to take a stand. There’s a lot more people speaking out about it. A lot of people have come up to me. They give me their condolences, but also, they’re very concerned about why this keeps happening. What’s wrong with our country? It’s happened here several times, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of people marching against police brutality here in Lakewood.

Not only are people being killed, but there are even more police beatings that aren’t being addressed. People are being assaulted all the time. People get PTSD from that. You’re traumatizing people. People are scared of the police. They’re scared of them.

My brother was scared of the police. He was traumatized when he was a teenager—beaten by them and discriminated against. He was only a teenager. He didn’t know his rights. None of us did. I was aware of the racism around me, but I was just never really subjected to it as much. But my brother, I can never know his walk. I can never know what racism did to him.

What kind of organizing have you been doing and what kind of support have you gotten from other groups?

The Tacoma Action Collective were the first ones who came up. They didn’t ask any questions, we didn’t have to sit down and discuss anything. They saw an injustice happen in the community, and they came out and marched with us. I love them for that.

Some other groups have come out as well: There’s also the No New Jim Crow Coalition in Seattle. The American Indian Movement has gotten ahold of me. Also Idle No More— the ones who are standing up against the oil companies—some of them have come out too. Black Lives Matter hasn’t come out yet, although I’ve spoken to some of them. I hope that we can stand united together.

What I’ve found is that a lot of groups that are coming together are working on things that all fall under the same umbrella of capitalism. Because it’s all an injustice when you look at it. If my brother wasn’t poor, if my brother wasn’t a minority, my brother probably wouldn’t have been killed. Those are just the facts. You’re not seeing this happening in the nicer communities. He wasn’t driving a Lexus. He wasn’t wearing a suit. He was discriminated against, and he was unarmed.

It’s capitalism. We’re still slaves, all of us. People who believe in the “American dream”? That’s a lie. You can struggle your whole life. Me as a single mom? I will never live the American dream.

I could care less now. I feel like my dreams have been taken from me because they killed my brother. I will always have that hole in my heart. But I will continue to fight, until we can live in a just society. Until I see the equality that we’re supposed to be promised.

But instead we’re discriminated against. There are more Blacks, Mexicans and Native Americans in prison than any other race. To me, it’s all been covered up. I would rather have someone come up to my face and tell me they hate me rather than have it disguised like that. The racism is just hidden better now. It’s hidden behind our judicial system.

How do you think the people in power have been able to get away with this for so long, and what can we do to stop them?

They want to keep people on the defensive. They want people to be egocentric and just have individualistic thinking: “I’ve just got to take care of my family.” “I’m too busy.” “I can’t deal with it.” We could fight for justice, if we only took a stand.

I take a stand for my children. I’m showing them a way. It’s not just about working and doing the day-to-day. Yes, we do need to go to college, we need to educate ourselves so that we can fight the fight. But some kids aren’t even able to go, you know?

It’s hard to go to college when you work full time and you’re only making minimum wage. My daughter is struggling with that right now. That’s why I also stand for a $15 minimum wage now. People say the cost of living is going to go up—well, it’s already been going up. And when it goes up more, we’ll fight again. We’ll keep fighting for more. The playing field can be leveled.

There’s enough money. There’s enough money for everybody, even for the people with eight children. There are enough jobs, too, if they would create them instead of outsourcing them. There’s enough money for us to be self-sufficient even in our own communities, if we could take ownership and reinvest in them. But because of gentrification and the 1 Percent privatizing everything, we’re all fighting and blaming each other.

That’s what people don’t see: That Blacks and Mexicans and whites and all of us at the bottom are blaming each other. And then the race situation just muddles everything. Muddles the truth.

We keep giving in little by little over time, and it’s insidious. We just keep giving and giving, and pretty soon, we’re not going to have any rights left. That’s what I’m trying to prevent. We should all be able to think for ourselves, we should be able to provide for our families and be happy. That’s all I want. I want to be free. I want my kids to be happy. I want them to be able to walk down the street without worrying about being shot.

That’s all anybody wants. We all want the same things. Yet we blame each other and people of different cultures or beliefs when we should all be standing united. Realizing who the real enemy is: It’s not each other. Who are the oppressors? It’s not each other. When I see people saying ignorant things, when people want to call me names or something, I just ignore it because I feel like they have no power over me.

The ones that I worry about are the ones at the top who are making the laws, the ones who are able to oppress me by not offering us jobs, by taking our rights away. The ones who are in office. The ones who have the power to make these decisions that are going to affect the lives of my family and my community. The ones who have the power to gentrify and tell me I can’t live somewhere because I don’t make enough money or I’m not the right skin color.

Those are the ones that I want to change—or rather, that’s the situation I want to change. That’s what I have a problem with.

Prejudice and racism are two different things. Racism is hate. Prejudice is people who are ignorant, and they’ve got a lot to learn. Racism is harder to change. It’s all about greed and hate and fear, and that’s the ones at the top. My mom says they’re like a monkey with its hand caught in a jar. They don’t want to let go. They’ll spend their whole lives fighting for what’s in that jar. It’s all about money.

What can we do to support you in this struggle?

Show up to the marches. Keep reading and educating yourself. Do some research. Even if the most you can do is just repost the marches and educate your friends, help them open their eyes. Take time to look around and take a stand for your brothers and sisters. Take a stand for justice.

If people want to send donations, they can send them to the Tacoma Action Collective. We need money for signs and flyers. We were making some bracelets that said “Justice for Daniel,” but we bought out Shipwreck Beads. So even if people wanted to just donate beads, that would help because we need those letters.

Would it be helpful for people to call or write the police or district attorney?

Definitely! Even writing our legislature and our senators and telling them about the injustice that’s happening helps. I plan on lobbying to get a bill passed so that we can prosecute the police. But I’m still just learning about it. It’s kind of a grassroots thing. I’m still learning, and I appreciate all the community coming together. We’re getting stronger through each other, realizing all our strengths.

Maybe there are a lot of people out there that don’t know how they can help, or they feel like they’re helpless. I thought like that, too, for a long time. But then I started marching more. It always starts small. It only takes a few people. First, you have to recognize the injustice and be willing to stand up for the truth. Sometimes, it’s scary. You’re not sure what you’re getting into. But as long as you know you’re doing the right thing, that’s what matters.

I know that marching is very important because there’s power in numbers. And as we’ve seen in our history, it only takes a few to start. I’m going to continue to shout out about what happened to my brother and what could happen to your children or your brother.