Russell Wilson was on the receiving end of an unlikely Hail Mary effort last Sunday when he drew attention to one family’s journey toward justice by wearing a pair of custom-designed cleats.
Castill Hightower and her family have been searching for over 16 years for answers in the Seattle Police Department shooting death of her brother Herbert Hightower Jr., and sought an artist to create a digital portrait using Herbert’s image. She never imagined that a simple social media post would reach the Seahawks’ huddle.
But there was Wilson on Sunday, Dec. 6 at Lumen Field donning a pair of neon-green Black Lives Matter cleats in a game against the New York Giants — part of the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative. And there was Castill’s late brother, Herbert, his face emblazoned on one side of Wilson’s left shoe — the same one that also honored George Floyd. Wilson featured Breonna Taylor and Charleena Lyles on his right cleat.
“It was a very big moment for my family, but one that is so much bigger than us,” said Castill, who watched part of the game via Zoom with her father Herbert Sr., who viewed from Kansas City, Missouri, along with Herbert’s Seattle-area mother Paula Woods, and her brother Paul Hightower.
“The moment highlighted that so many families who have been made silent do deserve justice no matter how long they have waited and prayed for it,” Castill said.
The prayers of the Hightowers date back to Sept. 8, 2004, when Herbert was shot and killed by police. Reportedly, the 25-year-old Herbert suffered a mental health crisis and sought to end his own life by approaching police officers while wielding a knife. The commonly used police term for these sorts of incidents is “suicide by cop” — language the family believes gives police officers incentive to kill.
“If someone wants to commit suicide, we should be attempting to prevent them from that act, not enabling them,” said Paul, Herbert’s brother. “The fact that someone knows approaching law enforcement is a suicidal act is a major issue and speaks to the dysfunctional relationship African Americans have with law enforcement.”
If protests are the language of the unheard, Seattle artist Takiyah Ward has become the city’s visual interpreter. Amid Seattle’s summer protests, Ward organized a Black Lives Matter mural that garnered much attention — including Russell Wilson’s.
Wilson reached out to Ward in October with the idea of recognizing George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, while Ward pushed to include local representation as well. She thought of Charleena Lyles, a mother of four who was shot and killed by police officers in her Seattle home in 2017.
Soon, she would also think of Herbert.
Castill had been reaching out to the Seattle activist community on Facebook, and her requests bounced around until they serendipitously landed on Ward’s canvas.
“I wasn’t as familiar with Herbert’s story, but learning about how his family has been pursuing public records on his death for 16 years was a huge part in making sure his name is recognized,” Ward said. “The world knows the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but more people should know names like Herbert Hightower.”
Herbert’s family has been unable to completely reconcile his death, in part because they have never received a definitive explanation of it.
Castill has intensified her pursuit of closure in recent months. She has worked to compile more than 1,850 community signatures demanding the release of police records, created a “Justice for Herbert Hightower” Twitter page, and reached out to elected officials.
On Nov. 30, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant produced a letter signed by the entire City Council that urged the release of all Seattle Police Department records regarding the death of Herbert.
Following multiple delays from the SPD and Wilson’s cleat showcase on Sunday, the Hightower family on Monday received an installment of police records on Herbert. They do not include a definitive report on his death or clarify varying accounts the SPD had previously provided, according to the family.
The Hightowers are encouraging community members to continue signing the petition for the release of more records. They have set up a Go Fund Me for Herbert’s surviving son Andre, 18, who lives in Oakland, California, and plans to attend college next year.
“I want people to take hope away from our pursuit of justice,” Castill said. “I want them to know that there is still hope when you take a fighting approach to what you believe in.”
Ward, whose company T-Dub Customs offers a range of customized clothing and art that advocates for racial justice, knows she is a vessel of that hope. The powerful cleats she designed are up for online auction until Dec. 18. The proceeds will go to King County Equity Now, a coalition of Black-led organizations fighting for racial equity, and to directly support the Hightower family.
“Art communicates things in a way that words cannot,” Ward said. “Seeing the cleats on the field and the reaction to them is just special. I just hope that Herbert and each person we honored was looking down on them and smiling.”
The Emerald reached out to a Seattle Police Department spokesperson for comment for this story, but SPD did not provide a statement by the time of publication.
Jahmal Corner is a Los Angeles based writer/reporter whose work has appeared on Yahoo, Reuters, ESPN, and major networks across the country. A Seattle native, he is a graduate of Washington State University.