After Patrick Lyoya was killed by a Grand Rapids police officer, the Congolese community on edge
The man killed by a police officer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had just moved into his home and was ready to settle down
The Lyoya family had come a long way in search of stability. After fleeing violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, they spent more than a decade in a refugee camp in Malawi. In 2014, they gained entry to the United States and landed in West Michigan, where Peter and Dorcas Lyoya worked odd jobs and shared a modest apartment with their six children.
Patrick, the couple’s eldest son, worked full-time as a laborer at a vehicle manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids. While he had sometimes struggled to find his way after arriving in the United States, he had big goals for himself, such as buying a house for his mother.
But if he fought for the American dream, it would become an American nightmare. On April 4, Lyoya was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer who pulled him over after noticing that his license plate did not match the car he was driving. the Detroit Free Press reported that it belonged to his former roommate. Video of the encounter showed a chase on foot and a struggle for a taser. Lyoya was face down in the grass when the officer, later identified as Christopher Schurr, fired a single shot in the back of the neck.
“That’s why the family is so broken up. Because he represented hope for them.
— Patient Baraka, fellow Congolese refugee and family friend
Minutes after being arrested, Lyoya – who loved teaching traditional Congolese dances and was calm around strangers but a comedian for his friends – was dead.
“His biggest dream was to be able to buy a house for his mother or to build a house for his mother so that she could say, ‘Son, I brought you to America and now -‘” said his countryman. Congolese refugee and his family. friend Patient Baraka. “And that’s why the family is so broken up. Because he represented hope for them.
That violence found them in America, the place that was supposed to offer safety, rocked the Lyoyas and the largest Congolese refugee community in Grand Rapids, a city of 200,000 less than an hour from the shores of the Lake Michigan. In a steady stream of protests and press conferences held since the shooting, Peter and Dorcas Lyoya have spoken of their shock at losing their son to a US police officer.
In an interview in their Lansing apartment, where photographs of Patrick hung on the walls, mourners invaded the living room and Congolese meals simmered on the stove, Peter Lyoya spoke about it again.
“When we came here to the United States, we knew we [ran] away from war and violence, and we have come here to America, to a safe haven,” he said through Israel Siku, who served as the family’s interpreter. “What is so surprising and amazing is that I lost my son here in America.”
That sentiment is shared by many in Michigan’s growing Congolese refugee community.
Robert S. Womack, a commissioner for Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, brought the family to meet with the police chief days after the shooting and has been with them ever since. Womack, who co-chairs the Governor’s Black Leadership Advisory Council, described the Congolese community as “hurt and shocked” by what happened, noting that many refugees “never really had the chance to be told by us about our experience as black people with the police” .
The Grand Rapids Police Department has been accused of bias, and a city-commissioned study found that black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers. After a series of high-profile incidents involving people of color, Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights began investigating the agency in 2019. Lyoya shooting is investigated by Michigan State Police; the Kent County prosecutor will decide if criminal charges are warranted.
Police killing of Patrick Lyoya comes after past review and change
Womack said the African-American community was “shocked” that Congolese “didn’t believe the police would do something like this.”
A friend of Lyoya’s who is also a refugee from Congo, Jonathan Mukendi, said he was now more afraid of the police. After Lyoya was killed, he said, an officer stopped him in nearby Allendale and asked him to look at his cellphone to prove he was going where he said he was.
Mukendi wondered if the police had the right to search his phone. But, thinking of his dead friend, he was afraid to argue.
“What if I start arguing with him and there’s no camera, nobody there?” He asked. He added: “When this happens to someone close to you, you’re like, ‘Okay, this is real’.”
There were calls for change at Lyoya’s funeral, as well as pleas that his death would not be in vain. He was praised by the Rev. Al Sharpton, called an American of Great Distinction by Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), and mourned by a crowd of more than 1,500 who were often on their feet, some with their fists raised.
“This is not just an issue that affects Grand Rapids,” said civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the family. “This is not just a problem that affects the state of Michigan. It is a problem that affects all of humanity. Because Patrick was a human being and Patrick’s life mattered.
His body lay in an open white coffin draped in the blue flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was dressed in a white suit with black lapels. A banner under the coffin read “We have the right to live! in several languages. A long line of people waited to pay their respects before the service; at least two leaned in to kiss her.
In the front row, her mother rocked back and forth, tears streaming down her face, and her father sat with his head bowed. Sometimes loved ones would slip to the ground in their grief.
“Patrick came to America looking for a better life,” Sharpton said during the eulogy, “and found himself in an America we know only too well.”
Born in 1996, Lyoya came to the United States in his late teens and attended high school in Lansing before moving to the Grand Rapids area, about an hour away. There, his family says, he worked in a turkey business and then got the job manufacturing auto parts.
On Facebook, he shared photos of himself posing in stylish outfits – black jeans, studded shoes, colorful shirts. “Life is good without stress,” he captioned a photo. “Happy with my life,” he wrote in another post. He loved football, music and dancing, and attended a church where he occasionally helped perform, said Mukendi’s brother Daniel, also a friend of Lyoya, who described him as “a good person” and “a cool guy”.
But Lyoya also ran into legal trouble, sometimes serving time in county jails. In 2015, a year after his family arrived in America, he was arrested for driving under the influence. He ultimately pleaded guilty, records show. Further run-ins with law enforcement followed. These were generally driving offenses such as driving without a license, failure to stop at the scene of an accident, and illegal use of a vehicle.
Lyoya has also been arrested twice for domestic violence. In 2017, he was charged with one misdemeanor count and convicted. On April 1, another misdemeanor domestic violence charge was filed against him. The traffic stop that would end his life occurred three days later.
Lyoya appeared to hint at his issues in an August 2020 Facebook post. He wrote that he wanted to get it right, saying, “I’m the first son and I’m used to it. [expletive] it’s rising.
“This year I’m trying,” he added.
Family and friends remember Lyoya as generous and loving. The Mukendi brothers had known Lyoya from their childhood together in the refugee camp in Malawi, but lost touch when Lyoya’s family left first. Years later and a world apart, they crossed paths at a bus stop in Lansing.
“How amazing to see someone you grew up with,” reflected Daniel Mukendi. “We almost missed the bus.
The Mukendi family was still unfamiliar with America, unsure how to navigate their new home. Lyoya gave them cell phones the next day and later bought them clothes, showed them where to shop, introduced them to American cuisine, and taught them how to drive. He continued to live with the Mukendis for years and called them a “second family”.
Lyoya’s father described him as a hard worker, a “family helper”.
“Every time Patrick got paid, he would call his siblings and say, ‘What would you like me to bring you?'” says Peter Lyoya. “Patrick was the person who really took care of his siblings, his parents.”
He had thought that his eldest son would one day take his place as patriarch of the family. Instead, as a cold rain fell, he, his wife and children watched as two gravediggers lowered Patrick’s coffin into a vault and placed it in a hole in the earth. Mourners formed a circle around the grave, chanting in Swahili. One by one, friends and family approached carrying flowers.
His mother looked into the cavernous pit and wept as she remembered her son telling her about the house with three bedrooms. She asked, “Is that the house you told me you rented?”
“Patrick,” she continued, “I just want to tell you to go in peace.”