The Names We Need To Talk About When We Talk About Police Violence
Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, among others, excessive police violence towards people of color is finally getting some much-needed attention — but there's a large part of the story missing. Black women and girls in America also die at the hands of police and face harassment from cops at alarming rates, yet their stories go largely unheard. When you think of black individuals killed by the police, the names of black men typically come to mind — not the names Natasha McKenna, Yvette Smith, or Rekia Boyd.
Unfortunately, precise statistics on the number of people of color killed by the police each year in the U.S. don't really exist. The F.B.I. collects data, but the incidents are self-reported by police stations and reporting them isn't mandatory. Analysis by ProPublica found that black males between the ages of 15 and 19 are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than young white males; however, black female teenagers were not factored in.
According to New York magazine's research, about 20 percent of unarmed people of color killed by cops from 1999 to 2014 were women. Thanks to the tireless work of activists and women across the country, several women's stories are finally being told in the public eye. Right now, however, that spotlight on female victims of police violence isn't enough to change the way Americans think about police violence.
Natasha McKenna, 37, died in February after being restrained and repeatedly Tasered while being transported from a Virginia county jail to Alexandria, where she was wanted on a warrant for assaulting a police officer. McKenna had been diagnosed with schizophrenia since she was 12, and according to WUSA, the warrant was issued so she could receive treatment in jail. A statement from the Fairfax County Police Department said that during the "struggle to restrain McKenna," an officer Tasered her and placed a spit net on her to prevent spitting, and a nurse was present to clear her for transport.
McKenna's death was ruled an accident, despite the fact that the medical examiner said four shots from a Taser contributed to her death.
In 2014, Yvette Smith, 47, was shot to death by a police officer responding to a disturbance, which didn't involve Smith, at a house in Texas. According to KXAN, police initially said Smith was armed and ignored an officer's command when she came out of the house, but the sheriff’s office retracted the statement the next day, saying they could not "confirm at this time that the female victim was armed with any type of firearm or other weapon at the time of the incident or that she intentionally disregarded any type of officer commands."
And back in 2012, there was Rekia Boyd, the 22-year-old woman who was fatally shot by an off-duty Chicago police officer. Police detective Dante Servin claimed he heard gunshots before he started shooting at a group of people in an alley. Servin was found not guilty for involuntary manslaughter in April — but merely because the judge thought prosecutors aimed too low — that Servin did not act "recklessly," as the charge required, but seemingly intentionally — and Servin should have been charged with a more serious crime.
The narrative that police violence is only an issue for black men and boys is deeply entrenched in how Americans view and talk about the issue for two main reasons: women's lives are generally valued less than men's and women face different types of police violence.
"We don’t hear about the loss of these lives, in addition to them not being valued by broader structures, because the way in which black women and girls experience police violence is not only when we are killed," Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), tells Bustle. "More black men and boys are killed by police, but black women and girls are not only killed, but raped, harassed, and beaten by police officers. So, if we’re really interested in talking about police violence against black women and girls, we have to tell a bigger story."
After excessive force, sexual misconduct is the most common form of police misconduct, with more than 10 percent of reported allegations against officers in 2010 involving sexual misconduct. We already know that people of color are more likely to experience police violence, and being female automatically puts black women and girls at a higher risk for sexual harassment and rape.
One Oklahoma City police officer is currently awaiting trial for allegedly sexually assaulting 13 women — the majority, if not all, of whom were black. The officer, Daniel Ken Holtzclaw, faces 35 felony counts and one misdemeanor, including forcible rape, burglary, and felonious stalking. All but one of the reported assaults allegedly happened while he was on duty. Holtzclaw's attorney has said that he denies the allegations.
There are numerous aspects to police brutality against black women, and there are groups of black women who get even less attention — namely, the black LGBTQ community. Black transgender women are at an extremely high risk of being targeted by the police, and 32 percent report being sexually assaulted while in police custody or jail.
Elle Hearns, central region coordinator for GetEQUAL, an organization fighting for legal and social equality for LGBTQ individuals, tells Bustle: "We are on the margins of the community, so what happens to us isn’t really amplified as it is for our counterparts."
Of her personal experience, Hearns tells Bustle:
"That’s just the reality that black trans women know — that we won’t be protected by the police."
So, where do we go from here? Andrea Ritchie, co-author of "Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States" who works closely with INCITE!, a national organization for women of color against violence, believes the first step is altering the way we discuss and think about police brutality. Even when talking about it, she says, we need to specify that we're talking about all black people — men, women, and the transgender community.
"Changing the way we think about it needs to drive our analysis, not just of the problem, but of the solution," Ritchie tells Bustle. "We need to make sure our solution is gender inclusive."
The next step, as always, is coming up with a solution. While a viable answer may not be clear yet, one thing is certain: everybody must be included.
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