Marienna Pope-Weidemann, 18 June 2021

"Our stories aren’t just matters of private grief but of public concern."

With a decade of experience in social justice work, I was in an unusually privileged position to make my voice heard when my worst nightmare came true and someone I never thought I’d have to live without was killed.

Gaia was my cousin but I loved her like a sister. She was a force of nature, passionate and creative and like all our loved ones, utterly irreplaceable. A young woman living with epilepsy and a survivor of sexual violence, Gaia was let down by the police and mental health system. She went missing on 7 November 2017 and her body was found eleven days later. The coroner ruled her cause of death as hypothermia. I call it a death by indifference.

While Gaia was missing we turned to community organising to find her. Her story made national headlines, hundreds joined the search and thousands more took action in an enormous grassroots effort to #FindGaia. When we learned she was never coming home, this online community became #JusticeForGaia. We won the right to an Article 2 inquest with a jury but it’s been struck by delay after delay. Afraid to lose momentum I’ve continued speaking out, writing for the Guardian, Independent and the Wellcome Trust, and giving interviews for outlets like BBC South, ITV News, BBC Radio 4.

I know this is an enormous privilege but it has left me frustrated and exhausted by the way the mainstream media reports on state-related deaths. Our struggles are reduced to a soundbite and the systemic injustices too often at work in our loved ones’ deaths are redacted. At worst, stories are twisted or sensationalised; at best they are individualised, tragic tales told in a way that implies they are exceptional; that implies we are alone; that implies anything other than the truth, which is that we do not live in a society where all lives matter.

My first year grieving Gaia, everything fell apart. I lost my job, my flat, my partner and a lot of friends. I was isolated and struggling with my mental health. It felt like there was a pane of glass between my family and the world; that no one else could understand, was even real anymore.

Gaia's family: Clara, Maya and Marienna Pope-Weidemann on the second anniversary of Gaia's death

Clara, Maya, and Marienna on the second anniversary of Gaia's death

In my second year I started trauma-informed counselling, which changed my life and enabled me to take a few more vital steps. Reading Justice for LB by the incredible Dr. Sara Ryan who campaigned for change after her son was killed, showed me that even from these dark depths of grief, speaking out and fighting back was possible. That planted the seed. I started writing about my own experience and found it didn’t have to be re-traumatising, that it could help me feel strong. The final step was connecting with other families. This was the humbling, inspiring game changer. As I started to rediscover my sense of purpose, it dawned on me how powerful our stories really are. Not just the stories of those we lost but our stories.

A recent example is the stunningly powerful The Louder I Will Sing by Lee Lawrence. Lee’s mother, Cherry Groce, was shot in front of him by police in her own home in 1985. The event triggered the Brixton Riots and sparked the beginning of a thirty year story of racism and redemption that changed the country. It is at once a beautiful memoir, a hard hitting expose and a shining manifesto for change. Many of our stories are all these things because the forces we are up against, they aren’t just matters of our private grief but of public concern.

The damage done to public services by a decade of government cuts have amplified older inequalities. The consequence of this is that people - our people - are dying on the frontlines of a fight the government doesn’t even want to acknowledge. Disproportionately these are the people in our communities who already face oppression and exclusion: black and brown and working class people, women, LGBTQ+, the differently abled or neurodiverse. And even after a death, these same inequalities continue to shape our struggle for justice, amplifying some stories and silencing others.

When they break the silence, our stories have incredible power. Both Sara Ryan and Lee Lawrence won victories in their inquests that resounded across the country and forced lifesaving investigations and policy change. They are by no means alone. If one story can achieve that change - what could we achieve by bringing our stories together? I want to find out.

As inspiring as they are devastating, this collection will paint the stark portrait of a state getting away with murder and platform some of the people whose resistance, resilience and courage are driving forward change. Justice For All Of Us will tell our stories in a way that empowers us, honours our loved ones and helps us win justice and change in their names.

More than anything, it is that desire for change, for “the prevention of future harm” that brings us together. It is the link between our private grief and the public interest. It’s about justice for all of us.

You can find out more information about the project here. If you are interested in contributing to Justice for All Of Us you can fill out this expression of interest form.


To learn out more about #JusticeForGaia, find us on facebook, twitter, instagram or via our website. The author is on twitter @MariennPW