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Recent Opinion Pieces

SayHerName: Police Killings of Black Women

Black Lives Matter protests have focused mainly on African American boys and men killed by police. Now the movement is growing, calling Americans to notice and recognize the many, many women—every one of them unarmed—killed by police. Calling the movement SayHerName demands that we not allow these women to become mere statistics, but remember them as beloved individuals, whose deaths caused great suffering to families and friends, and who rarely if ever realize justice.

As my last column pointed out, we don’t know how many have been killed, neither men nor women. But in 2012, one study showed, police killed an African American every 28 hours. But until recently, protests focused only on men.

Thursday May 21 saw a national day of protests about the killings of black women. A protest I attended, in Union Square in New York City, was one of the most beautifully choreographed and moving I have ever experienced. In addition to poetry readings and some fine singing, seven victims-- Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey, Michalle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore and Alberta Spruill—were remembered with large portraits held aloft on posters. For each woman, a close family member, mothers, sisters, a brother, a niece, walked to the podium accompanied by two supporters. The supporters read aloud the circumstances of the death, and the relatives called for justice, sometimes through tears. The crowd recited each victim’s name in unison, aloud, three times; the moderator asked, “who will carry Tanisha Anderson?” To which we responded, “we will,” as the portrait of the woman was passed by upreaching arms from the back of the crowd to the front.

A lucid and carefully documented booklet compiling a few of these cases of police brutality against black women is now available on the web, at http://www.aapf.org/sayhernamereport/. Published by the African American Policy Forum, directed by Professor of Law Kimberlé Crenshaw—who coined the now widely influential term intersectionality—the report “SayHerName” is analytic as well as factual. (And what is a more perfect example of intersectionality than these attacks on people who are both black and female.)

From it we learn that some black women die at the hands of police for the same reasons that men do. Women as well as men are murdered because they are driving while black. Shantel Davis of Brooklyn was driving erratically, so the police chased her—and shot her in the chest, fatally. Women as well as men are killed “by mistake.” Alberta Spruill, 57 years old Harlem resident, died when police broke into her apartment and threw in a concussion grenade. It was the wrong apartment, not the one they were after. This is only partly a mistake –police burst into homes, with weapons at the ready, often enough to make this a standard procedure.

Men and women alike run greater risk of police killings if they have mental illnesses. The parents of Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old Cleveland woman who suffered from bipolar disorder, called the police for help—what a bitter irony!—when they could not control her in one of her manic episodes. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office found that Anderson died “as a result of being physically restrained in a prone position by Cleveland police," handcuffed with a policeman’s knee on her back. Women and men alike die when they are suspected of minor infractions. An off-duty Houston sheriff killed Shelley Frey because he suspected that another woman in her care had stolen something from a Walmart. As Frey was driving away, with her two small children in the car, he shot her in the neck. She did not die immediately but was left in the car without medical attention for 8 hours. Women as well as men die from being denied medical attention, like 18-year-old Sheneque Proctor. Arrested for disorderly conduct in Bessemer, Alabama, she died in her jail cell of asthma because the police would not help—even though her cries were continually videotaped in her cell. Alexia Christian of Atlanta died from a gunshot while in the back seat of a police patrol car. The police alleged that she had escaped her handcuffs and shot at them with a stolen gun—and defended themselves by saying that they had failed to search her fully.

Some black women get killed for uniquely female reasons. Sometimes because of suspicion of a man they are with. Rekia Boyd was killed in Chicago, shot in the back of the head, because a man she was walking with pulled out a mobile phone—which the police officer thought was a gun. Fifty-year-old mentally ill Michelle Cusseaux of Phoenix was just inside her front door changing the lock with hammer and screwdriver. The police arrived with a court order to take her to a psychiatric facility and one officer said he felt threated “by the look on her face.” Could this have to do with the fact that she was a lesbian? As her mother asked, “What face would you have on if the police broken into your house?” Some are killed because they are trans. Mya Hall, a sex worker from Baltimore, took a wrong turn and ended up on an exit of the Fort Meade, Maryland, parkway that led to the Baltimore headquarters of the NSA. The police opened fire on the car. Every police and media report described her and her passenger as “two men dressed like women,” a means of maligning the victims and hinting at police stereotypes of terrorists. "The men were dressed as females but not in an attempt to disguise themselves from authorities," FBI Baltimore spokeswoman Amy Thoreson said as she confirmed the incident is not thought to be terrorism.

As I write, a Cleveland judge just acquitted a police officer of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. Chasing a car from which the police believe they had heard gunshots—which turned out to be a car backfiring—the police fired 137 rounds into the automobile. Williams had 24 bullets in her body, her face torn almost beyond recognition. On police tapes made public, the voice of a male senior officer can be heard saying, “No cars have permission to pursue,” followed by a woman’s voice saying, “Fifth District cars, terminate pursuit.” An officer in the pursuit can be heard responding, “Yeah, but this is our patch and we’re going to see what’s going on.” Cleveland was also the location of the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on a playground where he was holding a toy gun.

Recognizing this victimization of black women is important for many reasons. One is that an exclusive focus on men may serve to support the false belief that police are just defending themselves. Another is that attacks on women, even more than those on men, undermine the health of whole communities, because women are disproportionally those who care for children and maintain social and family ties. And if I were to include In the many cases of women harassed, humiliated, injured, beaten and raped by police, the particular vulnerability of black women would be even clearer.

There is a long history of protests against police brutality, which the Black Lives Matter movement is now rekindling. Giving equal weight to attacks on women can only strengthen that movement.