Irvo Otieno is gone; how many more Black people must die before real change comes?

March 31, 2023 12:14 am

About 400 people gathered at First Baptist Church of South Richmond Mar. 29 to honor the life of Irvo Otieno. Otieno, 28, died of asphyxiation after a group of deputies and Central State Hospital workers piled atop his shackled body following a mental health crisis Mar. 6. (Samantha Willis/The Virginia Mercury)

Within the cavernous sanctuary of First Baptist Church of South Richmond on Wednesday, hundreds of mourners viewed a vignette of Irvo Otieno’s brief life. Photos and videos showed him sporting a wide grin alongside classmates and football buddies. His rich baritone voice rapped lyrics to a song he’d written about his love for his family. Altogether, these elements gave a glimpse of who he was, and who he could have been, had his life not been smothered out of him on the floor of a mental hospital a few weeks ago.

The funeral started almost an hour late; the delay gave me time to ponder how many premature deaths like Otieno’s — the tragic deaths of Black people who perished at the hands of people entrusted to uphold public safety — I’ve covered in the last decade. 

While the choir sang, “God is my rock, hope of salvation, a strong deliverer; in Him will I always trust,” and the crowd erupted in shouts of praise, I saw again the faces of those lost ones in my mind’s eye. Michael Brown of Missouri, Tamir Rice of Ohio, Breonna Taylor of Kentucky, Philando Castile of Minnesota, Eric Garner of New York, George Floyd of Minnesota, Marcus-David Peters of Virginia. I saw Otieno’s mother Caroline Ouko and scores of relatives staring at his casket covered in white flowers, pain painted on their faces, and I asked myself why.

Why was Otieno asphyxiated to death, shackled and sprawled on that hospital floor, 10 people having piled atop him? 

Why did Virginia’s Marcus Alert system not prevent this tragedy that stemmed from Otieno’s mental distress? 

Why was Otieno treated as a criminal and not someone in desperate need of medical help? And, even if Otieno had been a criminal, as some fools on Twitter are quick to allege, why would that justify his indecent, barbaric death? 

Will one of my brown-skinned sons meet the same fate as Otieno one day? Will my husband, father, uncles or loved ones? 

How many more of these tragedies will happen, how many more Black people must needlessly die, before a change comes? 

Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton posed some of these same questions during his delivery of Otieno’s eulogy and asked one directly of Gov. Glenn Youngkin too: “Mr. Governor, on your way to wherever you’re going, what about Irvo?”

Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy at Irvo Otieno’s funeral at First Baptist Church of South Richmond on Mar. 29. (Samantha Willis/The Virginia Mercury)

The governor, who did not attend Otieno’s funeral but sent two members of his administration instead, proposed a $230 million mental health overhaul plan this budget cycle. While sweeping, it includes no specific provisions to address the types of mental health crisis situations that seem to leave a lot of Black folks dead. 

So here’s another question: If legislators fund the “Right Help, Right Now” plan, will it be enough?

Sharpton called for an “Irvo Law” at the funeral that sounded great but brought up a bit of bitterness in me. We already have a law that is supposed to help people like Irvo, but it didn’t save his life. We need a real solution, and it must start with police, medical professionals, lawmakers and everyday citizens seeing, affirming and valuing the humanity of Black people every day, in every way. 

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.