Say Their Name: The Story of Jamar (Clark) Burns-Hill
Disclaimer: In our exclusive series, Say Their Name, DCP Entertainment takes a deeper look into the impact of the assault and killing of unarmed Black people by the police and in ‘Stand Your Ground’ states. We share the stories of families who have been negatively impacted by these situations, as well as memorialize the lives of the individuals who were victimized. We did not talk to officers or governing bodies—just the families and their support systems. We are not the court of law, nor do we try to be. For legal purposes we are not here to presume guilt or innocence for anyone, because, quite frankly, we do not want to be sued. We simply want to give the families a voice while examining what happens when the hashtags stop and the news unfortunately moves on to the next big story. All we want is to give the families the opportunity to control their narrative and share ways we can all help. While also raising money for the families highlighted in the series.
“Jamar was a type that would take his shoes off of his feet and give it to someone that didn’t have shoes—not on just hot ground, but in knee-deep snow.”
That’s how Jamar’s mom, Irma Burns remembers her son, the youngest of her ten children.
Jamar Burns-Hill (known by some as Jamar Clark) and his siblings didn’t have an easy life growing up in Illinois and Minnesota. But they had each other. The kids spent years in and out of foster care as their mother struggled with substance abuse. Irma ultimately lost parental rights over Jamar and his brother, Mario.
Yet, the family stayed close through it all. Jamar spent a decade with foster parents, but his heart was with his biological family.
“He didn’t want to be with them [his foster parents],” says sister Tiffany. “So I just took the initiative as the years went by to continue to get him as much as I could. And so he stayed with me a lot of the time.”
For much of his childhood Jamar lived in two worlds.
Even as an adult Jamar was never fully sure whether his foster parents, Wilma and James Clark, had officially adopted him. This caused problems for him later in life as he struggled to get the documents he needed from them to prove his identity for work and school.
Still, Jamar had dreams of attending college and taking care of his family.
“[There’s nothing] I would ask of Jamar that he wouldn’t do,” says Tiffany. “If I needed him to do anything, come help me move, set up for a barbecue, or go to the store, take my boys to get their hair cut, or whatever, whatever it is that I needed from Jamar, small or big, he did not hesitate.”
In 2015 Jamar was 24 years old, working two jobs and mapping out the next stage of his life. But on November 15th his dreams would come to an end.
Jamar was shot in the head by Minneapolis police officer Dustin Schwarze after being instructed to do so by his partner Mark Ringgenberg.
“Within 61 seconds, I believe, after stepping out of their [police] car, and having interaction with Jamar, he was killed,” says Tiffany. “They [the police] walked up to him, they put him in this choke hold, slammed him on the ground, and shot him in the face.”
Jamar’s death sparked BLM protests in and around Minneapolis, including one outside the Fourth Precinct police station that lasted 18 days.
When Irma learned her son had been shot, the police wouldn’t tell her how or why it happened.
“On my way to the hospital, it just seemed like doomsday,” Irma remembers. “It was not real...I wasn’t believing anything about him being shot…So, when I get to the hospital, I’m just going to go in and we’re going to get him out of here.”
At the hospital Irma found Jamar on a ventilator and learned he had no brain activity. Days later she made the heartbreaking decision to take her son off life support.
It was a devastating loss for the family.
Jamar’s sister Tiffany initially believed the investigators whom she and her mother had met at the hospital were on their side and knew the police were in the wrong. But the family soon learned that wasn’t the case.
In the wake of Jamar’s killing, activists and outraged citizens in Minneapolis had taken to the streets demanding justice, including an 18-day occupation of the Fourth Precinct, as well as a demand to the County Attorney, Mike Freeman, to do away with the secretive grand jury process, in hopes of transparency into the investigation of the officers who killed Jamar. Freeman accepted this demand, and over the course of four months they conducted their investigation.
But the officers who killed Jamar were ultimately exonerated. Freeman used a narrative that Jamar had been part of a domestic incident with a girlfriend to validate their conclusion. Though days later, that woman held a press conference saying the claim was false, and that not only was she not Jamar’s girlfriend, but Jamar was there to make sure she was okay moments before police killed him.
Jamar had faced abuse at the hands of police before. At the time of his death he had a pending lawsuit against the Minneapolis police involving an incident in which police beat him up to the point he had a seizure.
Jamar’s siblings also had a history of disturbing experiences with the police. Jamar’s sister Tiffany was placed in a brutal chokehold after police pulled her and her family over for a license violation. Tiffany says if it hadn’t been for bystanders at the scene pleading with police to let her go, she might not be here today.
Jamar’s sister and mother describe ongoing instances of harassment by the police and negligence by first responders that ultimately led to the deaths of three family members, including that of Jamar, in a period of less than nine months.
It wasn’t just regular citizens who were afraid of the police. After Jamar’s death, Tiffany found out that even local lawyers were fearful for their lives.
Attorneys working on behalf of Jamar’s family filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis, but it never went to trial.
Instead, James Clark—the man who claims to be Jamar’s adoptive father and whom Jamar hadn’t seen in ten years at the time of his death—settled with the city of Minneapolis for $200,000. For legal reasons around Jamar’s adoption status, only James Clark could legally bring a claim.
It was another blow to Jamar’s biological family.
The night Jamar died, his sister Tiffany asked him to come to her in her dreams. Later, he did.
“He’s just like, ‘You have to do something about it…” recalls Tiffany about her dream. “You got to do something about it. They [the police] going to keep killing us. They’re going to keep killing us.”
Since Jamar’s death, Tiffany and Irma have started two foundations in Jamar’s honor: Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, and Project Jamar Saving Me. Both are dedicated to community outreach and support, and to sharing the stories of those who die at the hands of police.
Activists Loretta VanPelt and Jess Sundin, along with a few others, also founded the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar.
“I just, I miss everything about him, everything,” says Tiffany. “I miss his dancing all over the house. I mean, he was just so funny…And he just always had a glow on him… He loved his family. He loved us. All he wanted to do was take care of us.”
Jamar’s life mattered. We must keep saying his name.
We’ve just scratched the surface of Jamar (Clark) Burns-Hill’s story—what happened to him, and what his family went through after his death. Hear from Jamar’s family members, activists, and attorneys working on the family’s behalf at: https://www.dcpofficial.com/saytheirname. Please also donate to the Say Their Name Memorial Fund to benefit all the families highlighted in the Say Their Name series.