“Say Her Name”: Black Women’s Invisible Struggle with Police Brutality

By Jessica Sutton.
This article is dedicated to Breonna Taylor, killed by Police on 13th March 2020.

Outrage has erupted in the United States and globally in response to the death of George Floyd. George Floyd suffocated to death, while a Police Officer pushed his knee onto Mr Floyd’s neck. One of George Floyd’s final sentences, “I can’t breathe”, has become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Officer concerned, Derek Chauvin, now faces charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.[1]

The United States’ horrendous cocktail of racism, apathy and ignorance has resulted in a society in which Police brutality is rampant, leading to a staggering number of Black Americans being killed.  In the period 2013-2019, United States Police have killed 7,666 people, with Black Americans being at least 2.5 times more likely to be victims than white people.[2] This has been the horrible reality for Black Americans for long before the Trump Presidency, but which has been fuelled by a President who refuses to denounce white supremacy, actively incites violence against those who protest,[3] and then denies any wrongdoing.[4]

It is no surprise, then, that protests against systemic racism are springing up all over the world, first in Minneapolis, the site of George Floyd’s death, then across the States, then London, Berlin, and other main centres. New Zealand is holding multiple events: a candlelight vigil in Wellington for Black victims of Police brutality, and a protest march in Auckland.

Usually missing from this narrative, however, is the harm that Black women also suffer at the hands of violent Police. Too often the issue of Police brutality is cast as a horror that is the domain of Black men, while Black women are perceived as having a level of protection from brutality due to their gender. This is not the case.

Columbia Law School Professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, is the leading voice on this subject. Ms Crenshaw, responsible for coining the concept of “intersectional feminism”, first published a paper highlighting Police brutality against Black women in 2015. Ms Crenshaw notes that, “although Black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality”.[5] Only mothers of men killed by Police were invited to speak at the 2017 Women’s March. Mothers of daughters who had been killed in the same way were excluded.[*] While the names and last words of Black men killed can become a “rallying cry”, Black women killed become invisible victims of Police brutality, their final words forgotten.[6]

Professor Michelle S Jacobs also discusses this issue in her paper The Violent State: Black Women’s Invisible Struggle against Police Violence.[7] “Law enforcement can erase the life of a Black woman with ease and very little accountability”, she argues.[8] The problem is particularly pressing for Black transgender women, as Police violence expresses a potent mix of transphobia, racism, and misogyny. Black women therefore suffer both brutality and obscurity. Deaths of Black women attributable to Police are frequently marginalised, while male victims are centred in discussions about Police brutality.

147 Black women were shot and killed by United States Police in 2017-2020. Sexual violence is the second most commonly reported Police misconduct in the United States.[9] Black women’s experience of Police brutality can be just as extreme as Black men’s, and at times aggravated due to additional sexual violence from Officers. More Black men are killed by Police than Black women, but relative rates of Police violence against Black women are extremely high. Black women are 10% of the population, and yet make up 33% of all women killed by Police.[10] Black women are also “the only race-gender group to have a majority of its members killed while unarmed.”[11]

And yet, we so rarely hear the names of these women, or share their stories. It is imperative that we remember them.

We need to remember Breonna Taylor.
Breonna Taylor was killed by Police in her own home on March 13th 2020. She was shot 8 times. Police had mistakenly believed that Ms Taylor’s home was the house referred to in their search warrant, linked to drugs offences. It was not. Officers had obtained a “no knock” warrant from a Judge (meaning they could enter without knocking), and were not wearing bodycams. Her death has only attracted national attention recently, over two months after her death, in the context of the riots sparked by George Floyd.[12] In early May, thousands of American people went on a memorial run to commemorate the life of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot by two white Americans.[13] “If you ran for Ahmaud, you need to stand for Bre,” an attorney working with Breonna Taylor’s family has said.[14]

We need to remember Atatiana Jefferson.
Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed by an Officer while she sat in her bedroom in 2019. A neighbour had seen that Ms Jefferson’s doors were open, and called the Police. Ms Jefferson was playing video games with her nephew, when Police shot through the window and killed her.[15]

We need to remember Natasha McKenna.
Natasha McKenna was killed in 2015, when she was pushed to the ground and repeatedly shocked with a stun gun. She reportedly cried out, “you promised you wouldn’t kill me”. This was meant to be a routine transfer from her cell to another prison facility.[16]

We need to remember Tanisha Anderson.
Tanisha Anderson was killed in 2014 after Police Officers restrained her and hit her head against the concrete pavement in her own driveway. She was killed in front of her family, including her 16-year-old daughter. Ms Anderson had mental health issues, and chronic heart problems, but Officers refused to listen to the pleas of Ms Anderson’s family.[17] The Officer responsible was suspended for 10 days without pay.

We need to remember Miriam Carey and Mya Hall.
Miriam Carey took a wrong turn on a dark night, and was shot and killed in her car by Police. Her baby was on the back seat. The action of the Officers was contrary to Police policies which prohibited firing into moving vehicles.[18] Mya Hall was killed in similar circumstances, when she made a wrong turn into a White House checkpoint. Both women were unarmed and made the traffic breaches unintentionally, yet both were fatally shot. White male armed intruders had previously gone as far as to fire at the White House, and had been arrested rather than shot, yet traffic breaches led to the death of Ms Carey and Ms Hall.[19] 

We need to remember Meagan Hockaday and Janisha Fonville.
Meagan Hockaday and Janisha Fonville were killed by Police during domestic violence callouts. Police had been called to protect these women, instead, Officers killed them.[20]

We need to remember those women who have been unnamed in media, their deaths reported only as statistics. We need to remember the unnamed Black woman from Chicago, who was strangled to death by Police in 2007. Officers claimed they were trying to prevent her swallowing contraband.[21]

The list goes on.
These women matter. They had lives and potential and the right to not have that taken from them. The very least we can do is fully include them in narratives around Police brutality. The very least we can do is respect their memories by giving equal importance to Black women and Black men in our activism.

Anger at George Floyd’s death is necessary and righteous. And these women deserve the same level of national grief, outpouring of rage, and desperation for change. Breonna Taylor is not an afterthought. Violence against Black women cannot be side-lined. Their losses in the fight against Police brutality have been invisible for too long. Their deaths cannot be met with silence any longer. Allies need to self-educate about systemic racism at home and overseas, confront racism and misogyny in daily life, recognise the complex web of racism and misogyny that Black women must face every day, and use any personal privilege to raise up the voices of Black women.

As Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw says, Black lives matter, so say her name.

[1] https://www.stuff.co.nz/world/americas/300024611/wife-of-derek-chauvin-charged-with-george-floyds-death-files-for-divorce

[2] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2020/05/mapping-police-killings-black-americans-200531105741757.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/technology/trump-twitter-minneapolis-george-floyd.html

[4] https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-05-30/la-na-pol-trump-tweets-george-floyd-protesters-20200530

[5] https://www.nfg.org/news/sayhername-resisting-police-brutality-against-black-women

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/05/black-women-police-killing-tanisha-anderson

[7] https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1462&context=wmjowl

[8] The Violent State, p 55.

[9] https://www.aclunc.org/blog/california-say-her-name

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/28/opinion/police-black-women-racism.html

[11] https://sites.wustl.edu/fips/

[12] https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2020/05/31/breonna-taylor-shooting-curfew-ignored-louisville-protests/5291066002/

[13] https://www.news4jax.com/news/local/2020/05/08/memorial-run-planned-for-jogger-shot-and-killed-on-what-would-have-been-26th-birthday/

[14] https://www.vox.com/2020/5/13/21257457/breonna-taylor-louisville-shooting-ahmaud-arbery-justiceforbre

[15] https://www.insider.com/fort-worth-police-officer-indicted-murder-charge-atatiana-jefferson-2019-12

[16] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/28/opinion/police-black-women-racism.html

[17] https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2018/03/cleveland_cops_suspended_for_r.html

[18] The Violent State, p 56.

[19] The Violent State, p 58.

[20] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/05/black-women-police-killing-tanisha-anderson

[21] United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination In the Shadows of the War on Terror: Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse of People of Color in the United States (2007).

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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