The Broken System That Killed My Son

On August 21, 2012, 26-year-old Burrell Ramsey-White was shot and killed by the Boston Police in his Tent City neighborhood. While it is still unclear exactly what happened, Burrell was stopped while driving a car and was chased on foot by police. The chase ended with Burrell being shot and killed. The police accused Burrell of having a gun, but the one they produced did not have his fingerprints on it.

As in other shootings in the past and up to the present—like the killing of Usaama Rahim, who was accused after his death of plotting terrorism—the cops’ versions of what happened don’t add up. Yet in response to Burrell’s murder, the officer who killed him, Matthew Pieroway, was given the Hanna memorial award for bravery by then-Gov. Deval Patrick.

Nearly three years have passed, and Burrell’s family is still waiting for justice. Carla Sheffield, Burrell’s mother, talked to Akunna Eneh and Amirah Santos-Goldberg about her struggle for peace and justice.

Who was Burrell Ramsey-White?

Burrell was my second child, my oldest son. He was a funny character. Loved to cook. He struggled a little bit in school, but if you stayed on top of him, he did what he needed to do.

Around 10th grade, things were happening to him. He got a summer job, and then he got robbed. He went to the police, and the police did nothing. My son let that go. He got suspended from school for acting up. The school sent him home without telling me.

He had some enemies. I guess it’s a turf thing with these kids, because when I first moved into Tent City, a kid walked up to my son when we were just getting out of our car, before we had even walked into our building. The kid says to my son, “Do you live here.” My son says, “No, why?” And the kid said, “If you did, you were going to get this.” And he brandished a gun. This was my first day moving in.

I thought moving into Tent City was for the better—that we were moving up a little bit, and I wouldn’t have to worry so much. But that wasn’t the case. All these teens who have these turf wars—it doesn’t make sense. I’ve lived most of my time in public housing. You should be able to walk and go wherever you want to go. And that isn’t the case.

He was hanging out with a lot of kids who were cutting class and not doing the right thing. He was getting himself in trouble. But my husband and I told him, “Look, we don’t know what your friends are doing, but you need to cut them loose.”

Leading up to his high school graduation day, my son was driving me crazy. On the day of his graduation, he was being disrespectful, I told him: you have until midnight to make up your mind whether you want to live in this house and follow these rules, or be on the street on your own. And he decided he was going to follow the rules. That’s when he started smartening up and getting better.

He liked to cook, and he liked to dress. He wasn’t one of the kids with the saggy jeans and the underwear showing. He was more of a slacks-and-shoes kind of guy. He was button-down and a lady’s man. Everything he did, he thought he did the best. He cooked the best, he dressed the best, he talked the best, he rapped the best. He always had you laughing. He had this high-pitched, squeaky voice. He was very helpful.

He went to jail on another issue. When he came home, he had this new outlook: I want a woman, I want to settle down, I want to become a cook. That is what he wanted to do. So my oldest daughter took him to Bunker Hill College to sign up for classes. But that didn’t go very far.

I keep myself busy so that I don’t think about it every day now. I don’t want to cry every day. I don’t want to go to work with these red eyes. And the fact that I have to hold out a bucket and beg for money for a headstone—that eats me up so much. I’m still trying to pay off funeral costs.

And the irony is, I always wanted to be part of the legal system. But this legal system is so screwed up. I spent nearly $40,000 to go to school to be part of a legal system that doesn’t work. That allowed this…well, I can’t say allowed because he hasn’t been brought to justice. That’s my ultimate goal—to bring this officer to justice and make him pay for taking my son’s life.

But I feel like I wasted all this money on my education, working in a legal justice system that is squeezing the hell out of me, garnishing my wages—for a system that is broken and they’re not even trying to fix it. They keep slapping a Band-Aid on it.

What happened on the day Burrell was murdered?

My son was supposed over. He called me at 2 p.m. and said he’d be right over. I got to my house, and I was waiting for him. I decided I would shoot out to the supermarket, and by the time I got back, he’d be here. As I was walking out the door, my daughter’s friend, had made a U-turn. She said that something happened to Burrell, and it doesn’t sound good.

I just panicked and jumped into my car. She said go to Boston Medical. I went to Boston Medical, and they put me in a room, and a homicide detective came in. I thought: what the fuck is he coming in for. He was just standing there. Then the doctor comes in and says, “Hi, my name is so and so, I’m sorry, I took over chest compressions. I did all I could. I didn’t realize until after I got the call.”

I’m losing it at this point. I went numb. Then the detective is trying to tell me who he is. And I’m thinking he’s telling me he’s a homicide detective.

The doctor says she took over chest compressions, but I found out that wasn’t true after talking to witnesses. There was one witness, an 87-year-old woman, who was looking down on the police officer with the gun on my son. She will testify that my son was saying, “No, don’t shoot,” with his hands in the air.

There is a little girl who was 8 years old at the time, who knew my son. She was sitting down, watching TV, and when they were wrestling underneath the window with my son, she could hear my son saying, “No, no, get off of me, get off of me.” And she said, “Mommy, Bo’s screaming, no don’t shoot me. That’s Bo Bo, Mommy.” And when her mother came to the window, she saw two undercover police and two officers in blue on Burrell. She came outside to get a better look, and that’s when she heard the gunshot.

Then you have a witness who will testify that they dragged my son from behind the dumpster, they went through his pockets, and they took his shirt and covered his face and waited for an ambulance to come. When the ambulance came, they picked him up and threw him in the ambulance like he was a dog. Then the police officer in blue got in the ambulance with him.

The doctor said she took over chest compressions. But when was that? She didn’t give him any chest compressions. Nobody did CPR, not even the officers who shot him. And then they transported him to the hospital and pronounced him dead there. You have no right to do that. He didn’t die there.

The doctor also talked about getting a phone call? What phone call? Did you guys realize suddenly that I’m on the same playing field? Was that the phone call? “Shit, we’ve killed a child of one of our own. Do what you can to save this kid.” Was that the phone call?

I was so angry. And then the detective is standing there not to investigate what happened to my son, but to investigate something else. I didn’t get the name of the officer who shot my son for 18 months.

They said it was a routine traffic stop?

They’re saying this was a routine traffic stop because the neighbors were reporting break-ins in the neighborhoods. Even if there was, my son lived there for 10 years. So now, all of a sudden, he’s breaking and entering in a community he lived for 10 years?

I think when my son ran, that pissed them off. So they decided they were going to arrest him. But when they caught up with him, he gave them a struggle, and the gun went off. Instead of saying that, they fabricated a story. And that’s why they have so many stories. And now, because they didn’t apologize then, I’m not accepting it as an excuse. The police should have been transparent then. It’s too late, three years later.

So Officer Matthew Peiroway is the one who killed Burrell?

Yes. Whenever a police officer addressed me, they’d say this officer is from a nice family. So is my son. My son is the most loving kid in the world. Peiroway was put on administrative leave. And I think two weeks prior, his father was in the papers, getting an award from Mayor Menino.

Where is the struggle for justice for Burrell at? What are your demands?

I want the officer arrested for the murder of my son. It was no accident. They can look at their own evidence and know that things aren’t right. If they were truly standing on principles and the laws that they are putting forth and holding everyone else to, then they need to hold themselves to those same laws. If it’s not going to work for everybody across the board, then those laws need to be removed. Laws can’t work for some people and not for others. And there needs to be transparency and accountability.

In my opinion, I think the whole group of people who are in office now need to move on, and the people coming up behind them aren’t the brightest group of people either. They’re selfish—all they care about if their own wealth. They’re playing chess with our lives, and they don’t give two shits about us.

I also think the police need to create a fund to pay for funeral costs when they take a mother’s child. Because the police’s job is to put people in jail, not in a grave. They need to start a fund to cover the costs. If it starts coming out of their pockets for the lives they take, maybe they’ll stop taking them. You can’t keep inflicting the same pain on the same set of people and not expect anything to happen. People are so tired of this—they’re rising up everywhere.

Where do you see the Black Lives Matter movement fitting into this?

I love the Black Lives Matter movement because if it wasn’t for them, I don’t even think my son’s name would be in the mainstream right now.

My son was killed way before Mike Brown. And they were so busy having an election when I cried into the NAACP’s phone. They still haven’t called me, and it’s been almost three years. I’m so tired of these community leaders acting like they care when they don’t.

It’s sad that so many Black children are dying. Mothers’ sons are dying at the hands of police officers. Every time I hear about it on TV, I cry. I’m so tired of watching the news. There’s no compassion. There’s desperation.

If you want the Black-on-Black crimes to stop, give people an opportunity to pick themselves up out of the gutter, because that’s where they feel that they are at now. You can’t say, go get a job, and then use their arrest record against them and hinder the process.

It’s such a vicious circle—if you pay this amount of money, you can get a GED. But you don’t have any money to get a GED because you don’t have a job. And you don’t have a job because you don’t have a high school diploma. They keep sending you around like a dog chasing its own tail.

If these leaders cared, they could make it happen. They make everything else happen. They clean up the road for the Patriots parade, but they can’t clean the snow for pedestrians. There is just so much ignorance out here that is running our affairs.

What are your thoughts about the Black Live Matter activists who shut down the I-93 highway last January? They have obviously faced a lot of criticism from the city for blocking traffic. Even some activists have argued they should not have done it because they were affecting other working class people.

I’m so glad they did it. They need to wake up everybody everywhere. The fact that they were waiting in the courthouse to penalize them pissed me off. If Blacks lives mattered, this little inconvenience wouldn’t have the city in a uproar. The city diverts traffic all the time.

A majority of these activists are white. They were doing this for their Black brothers and sisters.