By Mayowa Obasaju
This blog post has been percolating in my mind for a few years. However, it was written after a conversation with some of the core leaders of Standing in Our Power (SiOP), an intergenerational network of social justice movement makers who identify as women and girls of color. Who, through transformational leadership development and capacity building model, radically redefine the status quo to ignite personal, structural and cultural liberation. We were discussing the focus and goals of our Transformational Leadership Institute. I had recently attended a vigil for Rekia Boyd in NYC and I remember, during that conversation, still feeling overwhelmed, upset, angry, and so, so sad about how few people came to support this vigil and the other vigils for murdered Black women and girls. I wondered out loud: where, where was the collective outrage and outcry? And the folks who organized the vigil and continued to do the work of drawing attention to the multifaceted forms of violence Black women and girls face, who was supporting them? This conversation led to our decision to focus this year’s Transformational Leadership Institute on individual and communal level healing, centered on trans and cis women of color working on the front lines of gender justice efforts. Check out the open call for applications for the institute.
Sharing and building with SiOP leaders led to me moving away from having thoughts and questions just percolate in my mind, and to instead, ask them out loud. It led to this post.
”I can hear my neighbor crying ‘I can’t breathe.’”*
Who comes to mind when we think of our murdered neighbors in the movement against state violence?
I am so tired of the pain. The pain of going to the few protests or rallies for Black girls and women murdered by the police and seeing dozens present, if lucky. Of going to movement spaces about police violence and hearing nothing about my sisters, particularly my Trans sisters. And if mentioned, they are decentralized from the discourse. I am tired of feeling the agony of hearing about another death and knowing that another family will be made invisible in their loss and no one will know the names of their loved ones. I am tired of the unspoken mantra that Black women and girls are not really impacted by police violence. I am overwhelmed by how many Black women and girls are leaders of this movement, but the murder of Black women and girls does not appear to be central aspect to this movement against state violence and for our collective liberation. Our labor matters, but not our lives?
Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has worked on issues of state violence and police brutality for years. They have shown us that every 36 hours Black women, children, and men are killed by police, security guards, and other representatives of the state.
We know some of the names; Freddie Grey, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley. Names we should know. Names we should speak and honor. We may even know the faces of the family members who grieve deeply about the loss of people theyF love.
Yet, part of the injustice of state violence and police brutality is the murder of trans and cis Black girls and women. Folks who are also our neighbors. As many have continued to state, our movement spaces need to integrate the murders of Black women and girls into their analysis, strategic planning, and actions. As a movement where is our collective, vocal, and unwavering outcry? For…
- Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7 years old, Detroit
- Rekia Boyd, 22 years old, Chicago
- Yvette Smith, 48 years old, Texas
- Pearlie Smith, 93 years old, Texas
- Kathryn Johnston, 92 years old, Georgia
- Mya Hall, 27 years old, Maryland
- Miriam Carey, 34 years old, Washington DC
- Tanisha Anderson, 37 years old, Ohio
- Kyam Livingston, 37 years old, New York
- Shelly Frey, 27 years old, Texas
- Darnisha Harris, 16 years old, Louisiana
- Malissa Williams, 30 years old, Ohio
- Alesia Thomas, 35 years old, California
- Shantel Davis, 23 years old, New York
This list is by no means exhaustive. Many bloggers, scholars, and people have said these names, however, these names are almost always said in the context of, “we have to speak their names because no one else will.”
“And now I’m in the struggle singing, ‘I can’t leave.’”
Police violence is coded as male violence in the general narrative about police violence and militarization. But we in movement work against state violence can choose to decode this violence in a way that does not minimize the impact on Black men, but includes the impact on Black women and girls. Violence against Black women and girls are not individual incidences. This violence is also brutal, systemic, multi-faceted, and lethal.
So, what does it mean when grief is neither shared nor validated by our communities nor by our societies? What does it mean when our grief is not shared by movements for justice and liberation? What is the message sent about whose struggle we will participate in and whose struggle we will never enter into? Whose loss do we feel? Whose death matters?
“Calling out the violence of the oppressive police.”
Often when we think of police violence, we rightfully think of the murders of black men. However, the police system is not only racist-this system acts from and perpetuate multiple forms of oppression and holds multiple areas of privilege. And it utilizes multiple forms of violence, including murder, to perpetuate oppression. Though these statements may come across as obvious, it does not appear to be fundamentally reflected in the movements for police accountability and against police violence/state violence. The silence and lack of attention paid to the narratives of Black women and girls makes it hard for people to understand the police-and the state violence that informs their work-as deeply sexist, ableist, classist, transphobic, and more. And inclusive of multiple forms of violence-murder, sexual assault, reproductive violence, and harassment, to name a few.
Police violence is about the intersections of oppression and we fall short as change makers when this is not named. We also fall short when these intersections and the lives lost through it is only named by Black women themselves, further adding to the work we do in the struggles for liberation. As Kat Riascos names, stop making Black women mammies, particularly Black Queer and Trans women who are differentially impacted and have their experiences silenced, while still working at the frontlines of movements. We need to name Black women as also part of the loss, part of the struggle, and part of the collective solutions and demands.
The violence is never ending and ever present, it is systemic, and it is intentional. We Black women and girls are murdered in the streets, in parks, in our cars, in our homes, in police cars, in central booking, in hospitals, in other people’s homes, and more. And the violence we face is inclusive of and includes more than race. The second highest number of charges against the police is sexual violence. The CATO Institute 2010 National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project found that the second most reported form of allegations of police misconduct is sexual abuse, second only to allegations of the use of excessive force.
There has been one officer in recent times, Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer, who has received limited coverage in the media for the violence he has engaged in against Black women. Daniel Holtzclaw was charged with raping 8 Black Women, with prosecutors charging that he stopped and sexually assaulted Black Women between the ages of 38 and 58,”and threatened to arrest them or physically harm them unless they exposed themselves, allowed him to fondle them or had sex with him.” One media report from Michigan Live states that “he researched his target victims and tracked them down before assaulting them.” He is charged with over assaulting 8 Black women; I believe that it is highly likely that there are countless more that he assaulted and that are currently being assaulted by the police. Why isn’t there a collective outcry?
Our reproductive lives are also threatened by the police. In NYC, 27 year old Rosan Miller, who was pregnant at the time, was filmed struggling with the police. In the video an officer is shown to have an arm around her neck, a chokehold procedure prohibited by NYPD. Why were the police at her house? Because she was grilling on the sidewalk in front of her home. Where is the cry to indict the system?
Miriam Carey, with her 1 year old in the car, made a wrong turn into a White House checkpoint. Secret Service officers drew their weapons. She likely panicked. She drove away as quickly as she could. She was chased by police and 8 bullets entered into her car, though 26 bullets were fired. Ms. Carey was killed, though her child survived. Initial media reports said that she “rammed” her car into the White House. That she tried to go past police barriers. That she had mental health concerns, which her family denies. And if she did have mental health concerns, that is no reason to shoot at someone 26 times or for the public to minimize the loss of her life. Why are there not more public expressions of collective pain?
Mya Hall also was in a car that took a wrong turn. She was in the car with her friend, Brittany Fleming. They ended up at the Baltimore headquarters of the NSA. Security fired on her car and killed her. Afterwards, the media misgendered her, used mugshots for her image, and routinely brought up her criminal history. Media outlets also used terms such as “men dressed as women,” “crossdressers,” and “transvestites”, continuing the violence against Ms. Hall after her death. Where is the national rally or march in her name?
And we are killed, with all of our intersectional identities, we are killed by the police. The mother of Tanisha Anderson called 911 because her daughter was having what her mother termed a “mental health episode.” Her family reports that when police came to take Ms. Anderson to a mental health facility, they slammed her to the pavement, and placed a knee on her back. Her death was eventually ruled a homicide. Why isn’t there collective outrage?
The child welfare system is part of the state and can be connected to issues of state violence. Alesia Thomas was arrested in her home in response to allegations of child endangerment. Charges levelled at her because she chose to leave her children in a police station, because she could not care for them. After a struggle with police officers, Ms. Thomas was handcuffed and placed in a police car. A dashboard camera shows a police officer kicking a handcuffed Ms. Thomas. She lost consciousness and died in a hospital shortly after. The cause of death is listed as undetermined. Where is the horror?
“We’re not gonna stop till our people are free.”
It must be named and honored that there have been acknowledgments of and calls to action against the systemic nature and number of murders of Black women and girls. Articles have been written, predominantly by Black women, asking people to pay attention, stop marginalizing our narratives, and show that movement people care, because we already know that the world does not. Organizations like Girls for Gender Equity in NYC, Streetwise and Safe in NYC, Black Women’s Blueprint in NYC, INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, Trans Women of Color Collective, Af3irm, and #BlackLivesMatter routinely name the intersectional nature of state violence along with other organizations across the nation. Authors found on Black Girl Dangerous, The Huffington Post, Colorlines, The Root, For Harriet, and more have also delved into this reality. The African American Policy Forum, the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia University and Andrea Ritchie, Soros Justice Fellow have released the #sayhernamereport that highlights the murder of Black women by police.” However, this intersectional viewpoint still has not become part of the dominant narrative surrounding police violence and murder. The push of almost all the work from the above individuals and groups has been “Remember us!” “Why aren’t you publicly devastated about our murders too?” “Why don’t you care?” and “Our lives matter.”
I do not write this in attempts to minimize the work that has been done against state violence or to participate in cultures of shaming. I truly want to know why the reactions of the murders of Black women and girls do not elicit national, galvanizing reactions. Because it hurts when it does not, contributes to feelings of trauma and hopelessness about our ability to make significant change for all of us. It disconnects us from one another, and I believe it weakens the work.
Our names are now sometimes called during rallies and marches, but I, we, demand more. “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it…The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” (Toni Morrison, Beloved). Over yonder, they do not love our flesh. But what happens when over here, within our work, within our movements, our flesh is still not loved? Where is the outcry? The galvanizing outrage?
I want our struggles against state violence and for liberation to be rooted in love for Black women and girls. Love like Maya Angelou speaks about, *“Love that recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” This love helps us to push against barriers that say we need to only focus on one segment of those being murdered and that discussion of others are “distractions” or “not the real problem.” A love that helps to create another world where we have the capacity to hold all of the pain, loss, and trauma of all our murdered ones. A love that moves, shakes, and dances to galvanize our organizing and subsequent demands in a way that includes all women and girls. A love that lets us know that we have to hold hope for transformation of systems of oppression, for all of us.
So we need to keep on going and not stop, until all our people are free. However, part of what that will take is the use of an intersectional lens when engaging with police and state violence work. We need to experience outrage at the injustice of the murders and assaults on Black women and girls, all of them, with all of their intersectional, social identities, some of which are privileged, some of which are oppressed. We need enough love and outrage to strengthen movements, populate marches and rallies, know and speak their names, offer public support to their families, and develop demands that include us all. We need to fight for transformative change for our people, all our people, all the victims of state violence. We also need to support the individuals and organizations that have been at the front lines of this movement. Who wants to join in this struggle?
* I Can’t Breathe – Original Lyrics by: Darlene McCoy; Lyrics & Melody by: Francois N. Bessing, Copyright 2015
*“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” -Toni Morrison, Beloved