“You can’t kill us all!” yells Buggin’ Out – the incendiary nuevo-revolutionary from Spike Lee’s racially charged Do The Right Thing. The 1989 film concludes with an all too relevant police brutality scene. Three white officers besiege a young, black man before a throng of Brooklynites, and strangle him until he exhales his last breath. The fictional death of Radio Raheem bears an eerie likeness to a real life modern tragedy — the 2014 extrajudicial chokehold killing of Eric Garner.
The film scene was less a foreshadowing than a testament to the cyclical pattern of racialized police brutality in America. After Radio Raheem’s death, community members stood in jaded defiance shouting the names of other black lives lost: “MURDER! They did it again — just like Michael Stewart. MURDER! Eleanor Bumpurs. MURDER!”
The recited names of these slain police brutality victims belonged to men, aside from one. Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66-year-old black woman, shot and killed by a police officer in the Bronx. The year was 1984, and at the time, Bumpurs was one of the few female names mentioned alongside the ever growing list of slain civilians. Had it not been mentioned in the hit film, a younger generation might not have remembered her name at all.
Black women who are victims of police brutality are too often overlooked by the media and the public. When black men and boys are profiled, brutalized, and murdered by police it becomes a national issue. But in the age of the Internet and cellphones, it may become more difficult to relegate female victims to obscurity. This week, viral images have directed the world’s attention to the story of 15-year-old Dajerria Becton, the victim seen on video being thrown to the ground in McKinney, Texas, by a cop responding to pool party incident. A seven-minute video captures a white officer dragging the black teen into submission, pressing his knees down on her back, and pushing her face to the ground. The officer is shown pulling his firearm on two unarmed boys who attempt to help the girl. In three days, the YouTube video reached more than 9 million views, and the officer under investigation has resigned. Though the story and shocking footage have captured attention, highlighting the reality of black female police brutality victims, so far Dajerria Becton’s name remains virtually unknown. Will it become a protest mantra, as have the names of male victims, or fall into the pit of obscurity with the names of other black women and girls who have experienced state violence?
A ProPublica analysis of fatal police shootings in recent years shows that the risk of black men being shot and killed by police is 21 times greater than the risk for white men. Stark racial disparity data like this is often limited to data on male victims. A study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that women and girls account for 15 percent of black homicide victims. Between 1993 and 2005, at 61 percent, black men saw a higher decline in the rate of nonfatal violent victimization, where black women experienced less of a decline in violence at 53 percent. Though a noteworthy indication of steady violence against black female victims, our presence runs as a mere blip on the radar.
This May marks the five year anniversary of Aiyana Jones’ passing. The seven-year-old was shot and killed by police in her Detroit home. Forty eight year old Yvette Smith was unarmed when she was shot and killed by a police officer in Texas. Mentally ill Tanisha Anderson was detained and injured by Cleveland police after having a mental health episode. Her death was ruled a homicide. Officers at Fairfax County jail restrained, shackled, and shocked 37-year-old mentally ill Natasha Mckenna to death.
Tanisha Anderson, Miriam Carey, Darnisha Harris, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore. The victims range from young to old to mentally ill, and date back decades, yet female police brutality victims’ names either are forgotten or were never known to the public.
Last month Black Lives Matter NYC organized a rally for Rekia Boyd and other women and girls who have been killed by police. In March 2012, Chicago police officer Dante Servin shot and killed Boyd, a 22-year-old unarmed black woman. Servin was acquitted of all charges, and the public outcry was nothing more than a whimper. Despite the tragedy of the case, no one showed up to Rekia Boyd’s rally. The number paled in comparison to the large turnout for protests and rallies in honor of male police brutality victims. Event organizers estimated a crowd between 50 and 100 attendees, convening in what was later deemed a failed effort to spark a mass movement.
The rally’s turnout reflects a larger narrative on the exclusion of women and girls in the discussion of racialized police brutality. The names of black women killed by police are seldom archived alongside names that ring bells in public memory — names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray.
While the tone of today’s call for social justice has sparked a much-needed conversation about violence against black life, the voices of black women and girls often go unheard. Though the routine killings, abuse and assaults at the hands of police are increasingly indisputable, the experiences of black women and girls are pushed to the margins of today’s fight for social justice, garnering significantly less media attention and public interest.
“Sometimes it’s hard knowing very well that the names of black girls and women who have suffered at the hands of police brutality will fade into oblivion,” says activist and artist, Synead Nichols. The 24-year-old New Yorker organized Millions March NYC, the largest protest this movement has seen so far. “I see woman after woman after woman standing on the front lines, spearheading these movements, putting our bodies on the line without really ever expecting acknowledgement … There is most definitely more of a focus on male police brutality victims because we live in a patriarchal society.”
Women in the social justice and activist world are working to prioritize the experiences of black women and girls. Violence against women and girls at the hands of law enforcement is rarely hailed as a center talking point in the discussion of social injustices. Our experiences are peripheral, not pivotal — anecdotal tales, not national headlines. The goal is to recognize that we are more than just secondary victims of racialized police brutality — we are targets.
The hyper-visibility of men and boys is met by the invisibility of women and girls. According to a Washington Post analysis, since the start of 2015 at least 385 people have been shot and killed by police nationwide, but last March, a Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis estimated that the federal tallies are under-counted, as over a quarter of police-caused deaths go untracked. Additional findings reported blacks being killed at three times the rate of whites and other minorities. Twenty of the reported 385 people were women.
“A conversation on how women are impacted by the prison system isn’t gender oppression olympics, it’s setting the narrative straight,” says activist and community organizer, Cherrell Brown. Brown’s work revolves around police and gender violence, shedding light on the conditions endured by black women in particular. “We have all these stats showing how black women and girls are impacted and yet most of the program is for men.”
The Sentencing Project found that between the years 1980 and 2010 the number of women in prison increased by a hefty 646 percent – an incline nearly 1.5 percent times the rate of men. In addition, black women were incarcerated at three times the rate of white women. According to an NAACP finding, one of every 100 black women is in prison.
“There are other ways black women are impacted by the criminal justice system that’s often not talked about,” says Brown, charging that women are being profiled, harassed, beaten, and killed in some of the same ways as men.
In New York City, for example, identical patterns of stop and frisk profiling reveal that racial disparities are the same for black men as they are for black women. In 2011, out of almost 700,000 stop and frisks, NYPD stopped 46,784 women. Nearly 16,000 of those women were frisked, and over 50 percent of women stopped were black. A complication arises for women in that male officers are permitted to conduct their body searches — a rule that in some cases breeds harassment, humiliation, and sexual assault.
Sex-related police misconduct is a persistent problem for men and women alike. However, documented patterns in abuse show numbers that lean on the side of more vulnerable members of society — women and children — and that pervasive policing disproportionately affects black women and girls. According to the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, sexual assault is the second most commonly reported form of police misconduct. Around 40 percent of these cases involved minors. A 2007 United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination report unveiled the seldom foregrounded issue that “rape and sexual abuse by police [in the United States] are primarily reported by women of color.”
“The female body is constantly oppressed by societal expectations of what women should be: silent, complacent,” says Synead Nichols of the media and public attention given to police brutality victims in terms of gender. “What I believe is the cause of this disproportionate media is our indoctrination into our patriarchal society. You cannot expect a group of people who have been taught that ‘men come first’ or that everything starts with ‘the man’ to perpetuate anything different.”
The gender and sexuality specific police violence black women and girls experience transcends profiling and frisks, and manifests itself throughout the criminal justice system. “Women in prison face both higher rates of sexual abuse, mental illness, and chronic or communicable medical problems than men,” says Cherrell Brown.
Women in prison are also more likely to be victims of staff-inflicted sexual assault, as over three-fourths of reported misconduct involved women being victimized by male prison staff. According to the Sentencing Project, compared to 43 percent of incarcerated men, 59 percent of women in prison have chronic and/or communicable medical problems, including HIV, Hepatitis C, and sexually transmitted diseases. Seventy-three percent of women in state prisons, compared to 55 percent of men, had symptoms of mental health disorders.
“When we say black lives matter, it isn’t just about police violence, but all the ways in which black lives are devalued,” says Brown.
Activists are calling for an all-inclusive approach to the Black Lives Matter campaign, one that acknowledges the intersectionality of the black community — which includes support for the disabled, queer, and transgendered. Violence against black trans women is widespread, underreported, and overlooked.
According to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 53 percent of all LGBTQ homicides were of trans women. The study also found that transgender people of color were almost three times more likely to experience police violence than white cisgender people.
With her work on and offline, Brown makes an effort to highlight the experiences of trans women as well as black women and girls, bringing awareness to their lived experiences as critical components of a more inclusive, realistic, and holistic representation of today’s fight for social justice. Her efforts are often met with disapproval, disbelief, and even hate-mail, but her message remains clear:
“Stop elbowing us out of the way every time we decenter cishet men. I get that you don’t have it easy. But erasing us won’t get you there.”
Brown is one of many women leading the push for change — whether that is spreading information and awareness across social media, hitting the front lines at rallies and protests, or disrupting the narrative of mainstream media coverage.
Author, social worker, and activist Feminista Jones is among that stronghold of women as well. Like Brown, Jones pushes the movement in highlighting the uncomfortable reality of struggles specific to black women. Jones devotes part of her work to unpacking the social conditioning of a system that brushes these issues under the rug. For Jones, it’s deeper than police brutality, or the criminal justice system as a whole. The muffled public outcry for black women and girls is just one example of deep-seated misogynoir.
“We live in a patriarchal society that values the bodies and lives of men and boys ahead of those of women and girls … The truth is that more black women are killed by black men every year than by the police … when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault … and that’s a hard accusation to hear and a hard truth to accept. So, I think it leads to near-silence.”
For some, the disproportionate media and public attention given to police brutality victims in terms of gender spawns a national talk on violence against blacks that emerges as more of a one-sided debate rather than an inclusive conversation.
“The media doesn’t care about black women and girls, at all … About 3 percent of the black female population just vanished, and it isn’t considered an epidemic or state of emergency. Our value isn’t much to society outside of the labor we provide–still,” says Jones.”
In 2013, the Black and Missing Foundation reported 28 percent of the nation’s missing adults and 37 percent of its missing minors were black. Since 2010, around 270,000 people of color have gone missing — 135,000 of them were black, and 64,000 were black women.
The lack of news coverage on these reports is telling of a stark racial and gender-based divide. National headlines are reflective of the same few male names and cases that remain in the public memory. Protest signs and rallies have become spaces where new names are added to the same old story.
“When I go to these marches and organized protests, I see mostly cis and trans women and queer/trans men, with a few sprinkles of cis gender heterosexual men,” says Jones, who frequents these organized movements and urges a communal shift in awareness and action.
“We need more of the same brothers who say they feel like they’re being targeted to come out and support the movements…We need more of them contributing financially, helping us push for legislation … There’s a lot of talk but not enough action, and that needs to change, especially since the women are less likely to get any credit for the work they do and our only repayment is erasure from the narratives.”
There are hopeful signs of change, however: A new vigil and national day of action were organized under the banner “Say Her Name.” These initiatives seek to assure that the names and stories of black women and girls nationwide are learned and remembered. May 21st has been deemed the National Day of Action to end state violence against women of color. The online world is following suit with the hashtag #SayHerName, spreading awareness and elevating black women and girls’ position in the movement to protect black lives.
“We have to teach our children at very early ages that all black lives matter. Not just cisgender heterosexual men and women, boys and girls, but also trans men and women, queer black people, the poor, the unemployed, the drug-addicted. We have to teach compassion and acceptance of all persons’ humanities …We have to remain vocal and vigilant. We have to keep protesting and making demands for change. We have to keep educating each other and standing up for ourselves … And anyone who suggests that black women don’t suffer from racist violence must be taught the truth.”