In My Own Words: Justice For Herbert Hightower Jr.

by Castill Hightower

The year 2004 was one of the hardest years my family ever faced. That September, we lost my brother Herbert Hightower Jr. and our lives instantly changed. He was tragically killed by Seattle Police (SPD) just a few feet from our home while experiencing a mental health crisis. I remember waking up to chaos and thinking I was still sleeping — that the sirens weren’t real and my mother’s grief wasn’t real. To this day, I struggle with accepting that I won’t ever see Herbert again — that he won’t get the chance to become the amazing father we knew him to be, the one that made everyone laugh and smile and cared about each of us deeply. And because SPD chose to kill him, we as a family are left to pick up the pieces and still, 16 years later, have to fight for the truth of what exactly happened that night.

SPD’s account of what led to my brother’s killing changed many times. We were told at various times that he was both walking and running toward police when they shot him — the account changing with almost every visit. Similarly, the level of remorse and SPD’s supposed access to “non-lethal” weapons varied.

Police stated they found a note in Herbert’s pocket detailing that he was suicidal. It talked about how much he loved and would miss his family and holding his son, and it said he didn’t see any other way out from his pain. Like so many working-class people who don’t have access to adequate mental health services, his needs were met with a police presence that ultimately murdered him.

To be clear, none of the scenarios we were given justified police shooting my brother and refusing to implement any de-escalation tactics that could’ve saved his life. And the lack of accountability or a consistent answer from SPD only added to the destructive ripple effects not only felt within his family but his community. His humanity wasn’t honored, and he was deprived of the compassion he needed to get him the help he deserved. The level of pain and trauma we’ve endured for 16 years was compounded by the systemic lack of accountability and community support that followed.

For so many Black and Brown communities, the police have historically acted as an occupying force within our neighborhoods, unnecessarily escalating encounters that too often end in brutality and killings in lieu of real solutions like defunding and reinvestment into mental health and other community support services.

After my brother’s murder, headline after headline absolved the officer of any wrongdoing and painted my brother as violent and aggressive. The coverage focused on the weapon the police stated Herbert had rather than the excessive force used by the officer. Sixteen years and 120+ days of public requests later, we’re still fighting for the answers SPD continues to deny us.  In response, we’re circulating a petition demanding the records be released now, and we ask that you sign, share, and help build the movement for justice. We have a new fire driving us — one inspired by the Justice for George Floyd and BLM movements and so many organizations and activists determined to rid this nation of systemic racism once and for all.

We’ve been fortunate to have the support of Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who put forth legislation to defund SPD by 50% and create a community oversight board with powers to fire and discipline officers — a preventative step for stories like ours — that her Seattle City Council colleagues rejected. We were also fortunate to have local Seattle artist Takiyah Ward choose Herbert as one of the people featured on Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s customized cleats during the NFL’s #MyCauseMyCleats initiative, bringing our fight to a national stage.

We hope, like so many other families who’ve lost loved ones to police murder and whose names we still don’t know, we’re nearing closer to justice on this arduous journey.

Currently we are circulating a petition demanding his records be released and a GoFundMe to raise money for Herbert’s son Andre’s college expenses and to support the family in this fight. 

Castill Hightower is a dedicated advocate for police accountability and mental health. She is an impacted family member of police murder and devoted her work to uplifting and shining a light on the many victims of police violence whose names and stories have yet to be told. Through written word, imagery, and her own personal experiences regarding the impact on underserved communities, with an emphasis on police repression, she continues to fight for a world free from inequities, breaking the chains of historical disenfranchisement and the many intersections of oppression. Her advocacy has led her late brother, Herbert Hightower Jr., to be featured in the NFL’s #MyCauseMyCleats initiative, elevating his lesser-known tragic story to a national stage. She has also contributed to publications such as the South Seattle Emerald, The Stranger, Real Change and other local media.

Featured illustration by Alexa Strabuk