Black Women Face Police Brutality. Their Stories Matter Too.
Updated September 23, 2020: Only one officer, Brett Hankison, has been charged with 3 counts of wanton endangerment in the killing of Breonna Taylor. No one was charged with homicide and the counts were all in relation to bullets fired into her neighbors’ houses. Below is our July 2020 article on the erasure of Black women who face police brutality.
On July 15, a Chicago police officer punched 18-year-old Miracle Boyd in the face, knocking out her teeth while she tried to document police brutalizing other protesters. Boyd, an incoming freshman at DePaul University, was at the Black Lives Matter protest with an anti-violence group GoodKids MadCity. The officer who assaulted her is under investigation. The DePaul Black Student Union released a statement supporting Boyd.
America gives Black women the short shrift. Black women die in childbirth at 2.5 times the rate of white women; black women face an enormous wage gap, paid from 47 to 67 cents on the dollar compared white men; 1 in 4 Black women are uninsured, and while white women are more likely to get breast cancer, Black women are more likely to die from it.
And Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than white women, though the risk of women dying from police violence is much lower than that of men. Still, we rarely know their names. While Geoge Floyd’s killing by police officers sparked waves of nationwide protests, it took a concerted effort to get people talking about Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT in Louisville shot to death by police in her own home while they served a questionable no-knock warrant.
The lack of attention paid to police violence and brutality against Black women comprises a sad corner in a much larger, deeply disturbing picture. While Black women start, promote, and turn out for social justice, they rarely get credit. Take, for example, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who recorded George Floyd’s murder. The bravery she demonstrated in recording that footage set off a global movement but did you know her name?
Black women are not new to combating police violence. From policing’s origins as slave patrols, Black women suffered physical and sexual brutality in a history intertwined and inseparable from that of lynchings. Over a century ago, famed activist, NAACP co-founder and pioneering confronter of white feminism Ida B. Wells-Barnett advocated for federal oversight to end lynching; a similar approach led to the federal oversight of police departments by the Justice Department. In the 20th and 21st centuries, police departments entered into “consent decrees” in which police departments agree to legally-binding reform, usually prompted by racial bias in policing. Trump and then-Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions released departments from those agreements.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, three Black women, founded Black Lives Matter in 2013, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman. The group is now global, with “Black Lives Matter” the refrain of ongoing protests.
Yet often Black women’s efforts are taken for granted as their issues are pushed into the background, and it’s a problem that has persisted through history. Maya Millett writes for Well + Good:
“Women in the 1800s and early 1900s who laid down the bricks with or for those whose memories have survived, only to themselves fade into invisibility. They spoke out for a broader vision of the future than what their day allowed for. They talked about fear and injustice, about what it means to be Black and female, over a hundred and thirty years before Kimberlé Crenshaw.” [citation omitted.]
Crenshaw, law professor, attorney and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the types of discrimination stemming from this unique experience. From the #AAPF’s #SayHerName Report:
“The erasure of Black women is not purely a matter of missing facts. Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them. For example, although racial profiling data are rarely, if ever, disaggregated by gender and race, when race and gender are considered together, researchers find that ‘for both men and women there is an identical pattern of stops by race/ ethnicity.’ In New York City—one of the jurisdictions with the most extensive data collection on police stops—the rates of racial disparities in stops, frisks, and arrests are identical for Black men and Black women. However, the media, researchers, and advocates tend to focus only on how profiling impacts Black men.” [citations omitted]
In this article, we’ll explore the issue of police brutality against black women, but first, let’s discuss one story not widely known.
One woman’s story: Bettie Jones
Through the constant and extensive efforts of activists, we know Breonna Taylor’s name. We know the very sad end to her life, and we know her killers have not faced justice. But you likely haven’t heard of Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old woman shot opening the door for police after they were called about a domestic disturbance. Her 19-year-old neighbor, Quintonio LeGrier, was suffering from a mental health crisis and carrying a bat when former Chicago Police officer Robert Rialmo shot and killed both LeGrier and Jones, firing multiple shots. Rialmo was fired, but he’s suing to get his job back. He also sued the family of his younger victim for “extreme emotional distress.” Rialmo lost and the jury awarded LeGrier’s family $1,050,000.
Let’s pause. We began with Bettie Jones, an innocent bystander to a domestic situation caused by a mental health issue, and end up focused on two men, Jones herself vanishing into the background of her own death. Did you notice? Did you feel the slip?
It’s so normalized, this relegating Black women to non-speaking extras, we may not even realize it happened, not without stopping, planting our feet, and reassessing. Jones’ daughter heard the shots, tried to give aid to her mother while she feared Rialmos would kill her as well. Police officer Rialmos did not render aid to Jones, and, the Chicago Police Board found he could have repositioned himself to avoid shooting her. The city eventually awarded $16 million to Jones’ family, with the city’s Corporation Counsel warning a jury could award more.
And that is the story of the death of Bettie Jones, mother, grandmother, and neighbor. Yet so seamlessly it morphs into the story of Quintonio LeGrier and Robert Rialmo. It takes awareness and effort notice that change and to refuse to allow it.
Police Brutality Against Black Women
A maddening lack of data stymies a comprehensive discussion about Black women and police violence. Even the site MappingPoliceViolence, in providing a tool tracking trends in police killings from 2013-2019, only offers filters for police department, state, geography, race, armed/unarmed and cause of death. Gender is not an option.
Take, for example, a study exploring the impact of police violence on health and well-being in the Black community. It mentions women specifically only once, and not in the context of Black women as victims of police violence or health problems unique to women:
“Society’s predominant underreaction to incidents of police brutality can be stressful as well. Black women, men, and children wake up to another incident of a police killing on the morning news or on social media and are expected to go about their daily activities as though it does not affect them. But exposure to such videos can be traumatic and can affect well-being over the life course.”
Articles abound raising the erasure of Black women and girls in the data gathering and discussion of police violence, but have yet to lead to increased data collection or higher profiles for victims. From Time:
“[W]hen Black women and girls like Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson and Charleena Lyles are killed, it is often out of the public eye. And in a world where the pains and traumas that Black women and girls experience as a consequence of both racism and sexism remain structurally invisible and impermeable to broad empathy, these killings recede from the foreground quietly.”
It’s worth noting that Black women recede from the foreground quietly within that same article, as it veers from talking about Black women as victims of police violence to Black women or girls as observers to violence against Black men and boys. Further on, it discusses Darnella Frazier, George Floyd videographer, and Rachel Jeantel, who witnessed Trayvon Martin’s legally-sanctioned killing over the phone. And just like that, the article is no longer about Black women.
In the meticulously compiled “American Police Crimes Against African Women and Women of Color” from Dr. Olivia Perlow and Women’s All Points Bulletin founder Crista E. Noel, the authors note that in large cities, the percentage of citizen complaints from Black people against police greatly outpaces their percentage of the population. While 30% of Chicago’s population is Black:
“The Chicago Police Department has averaged approximately 9,700 complaints per year against its 13,000 officers. According to the University of Chicago’s, Campus Catalyst Student’s Review of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), of IPRA’s data on female complainants, over 71% of these victims are African women, and over 87% of all complaints by women are from women of color.”
Former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw used his official position to rape 13 Black women, committing some of the rapes while under investigation for sex crimes. He was found guilty and sentenced to 263 years when convicted of 18 of 36 charges. He’s currently appealing his conviction.
Sexual assaults are notoriously underreported; according to the Brennan center, 80% are not reported to police. Says NOW, only 1 in 15 Black women who are sexually assaulted report the assault. Make the predator a police officer, and one can marvel at the courage required to report that assault to police.
According to a study from Bowling Green University, over 9 years, officers were arrested for 405 incidents of sexual assault and 636 incidents of groping. The data, compiled through internet searches, does not break down victim characteristics by race, perhaps because the media reports used to gather the data did not include the information, though the authors didn’t list race as one of the factors withheld by media.
A comprehensive analysis of incidents of police violence against Black women, “The Violent State: Black Women’s Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence,” noted that much of the violence against Black women, and the lack of outrage over it, stems from racist stereotypes of Black women. The study also raises the erasure of Black women from discussions of police brutality, while pointing out how casually Black women can be sexually assaulted and exposed by police:
“An example from the DOJ report that was widely covered in the media involved a traffic stop where a woman was pulled over by the Baltimore police for a broken headlight. The woman was strip searched on the street, and the police went so far as to perform an anal cavity search right out in public. Neither the DOJ report nor major media, such as the Washington Post, mentioned that the woman was Black. However, a small blog dedicated to police brutality issues identified the woman as Black in its headline. Without the blog she would be yet another Black woman sitting at the intersection of race, gender, and police brutality, who would have remained invisible.” [citations omitted]
Sexual assault is about power and control, and assaults by police are no different. Legendary activist Fannie Lou Hamer spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, describing how police brutalized her, ordering Black prisoners to beat her, culminating in a white man pulling up her dress, exposing her.
And use of sexual violence as power was evident during the George Floyd protests in Indianapolis, when a white officer blatantly groped the breasts of a young Black woman. When she shook him off, other officers fired projectiles at her from close range and viciously beat her:
Different angle on 1️⃣1️⃣1️⃣ out of Indianapolis
From this view you can see the cop grope the woman he’s restraining, that’s why she breaks away
Then of course a half dozen cops beat her for not wanting to be groped
— T. Greg Doucette (@greg_doucette) June 4, 2020
The four officers involved in the beating of that protester and another woman not seen in the video were reassigned pending the outcome of an investigation into the beatings.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Why isn’t there more data about Black women facing police brutality?
Police brutality itself lacks data, and even more so when it comes specifically to Black women. In society’s complex web of bigotries, Black women, caught on multiple fronts, get pushed to the back in social justice movements. This devaluing of Black women, their struggles, and their contributions happen in movements for gender equality, for racial equality, and for economic equality. CNN on the intersectional invisibility study published by the American Psychological Association:
“The study also revealed that prototypes of groups made up of various race and gender intersections continuously erase and exclude Black women, which is likely the reason why feminist and anti-racist movements often fail to address the concerns of Black women.”
The needs of Black women, and Black women themselves, are often marginalized in discussions of brutality. How that happens is complex and upsetting, and underscores bias even within social justice movements themselves. Writes Treva Lindsey for Bustle in a stunning piece that should be read in its entirety:
“Black folks of all genders take to the streets to protest the stark reality that Black men and boys are disproportionately victims of police killings. The comparative lack of mobilized outrage for the killing of Black women and girls is an injurious erasure. It also begs the soul-crushing question: Why does killing Black women and girls warrant only a footnote in how we understand and reckon with police violence?”
White feminism obscures the issue
If we want to do the work, we have to roll up our sleeves. “White feminism” doesn’t refer to feminists who are white, but rather feminism evolved through the lens and priorities of white women. Take, for example, the white suffragettes who, after working with Black women for decades pursuing the right to vote, took up with white Southern women while turning a blind eye to racist brutality, the lynchings, and the disenfranchisement, all vociferously detailed by Ida B. Wells.
White feminism “normalizes” whiteness and the white female experience for aims that largely benefit white women. It’s not a micro term, but a larger one, and one that impacts policy and priorities in feminist organizations. It also impacts the environment of those organizations, with many former staffers decrying rampant racism.
Like most things adapted from academic disciplines to popular culture, the meaning of “white feminism” has shifted, with white women using the term to center themselves in introspective discussions and sometimes essays on their awakening to issues that have plagued Black people in America for 400 years.
Which brings us back to Crenshaw’s intersectionality. Rather than referring to overlapping disciplines, intersectionality looks at an individual’s multiple identities and the way they are affected by different bigotries and forms of discrimination. Crenshaw writes:
“Contemporary feminist and antiracist discourses have failed to consider the intersections of racism and patriarchy. Focusing on two dimensions of male violence against women-battering and rape-I consider how the experiences of women of color are frequently the product of intersecting patterns of racism and sexism, and how these experiences tend not to be represented within the discourse of either feminism or antiracism.”
Taking an intersectional approach to police violence against Black women prevents its marginalization. When society views Black women’s issues holistically, those issues become their own unique discipline, without other lenses to blur the edges. Crenshaw told Columbia Magazine when asked why Black women are marginalized in movements against police brutality:
“I think there are a couple of obvious reasons. Black women are not valued. It’s not that the violence is invisible; it’s that it isn’t seen. One horrifying example is the death of Natasha McKenna at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. There is a video showing Natasha McKenna being violently extracted from her holding cell, naked, by five sheriff’s deputies in hazmat suits, who then tase her four times in the process of moving her to a restraint chair. It is incredible that this video has prompted very little response across the country. There are other videos showing Black women being beaten on the sides of highways in plain sight, hauled out of car windows, hogtied, and dragged across the floor — grandmothers stripped down and thrown — it’s there for anyone to see. The question is, when it is seen, why doesn’t it become a problem? Why aren’t we incited to say their names?”
Violence Against Black Transgender Women
A National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) report from 2013 found that trans people of color were six times more likely to face police violence than white, cisgender people. Trans people overall face 3.7 times the risk of police violence than cisgender people.
As reported by Vox, due to a confluence of factors including discrimination in housing and in employment and the astronomical costs associated with transitioning, black trans women may find themselves trying to earn money by means like sex work. That, in turn, leaves these women vulnerable in a system that, even now, places them in men’s jails.
In an interview with NPR, police misconduct attorney and “Invisible No More” lecturer Andrea Ritchie spoke about the way police violence against Black trans women increases all violence against Black trans women:
“The thing that happens with Black trans women that I really want to lift up is that the way in which police violently attack or criminalize or arrest or harass Black trans women translates into a greater likelihood of the kinds of community violence and deadly violence that we’ve seen. So I want to lift up the name of another Brianna, Brianna Hill, who went by BB Hill, who was violently beaten by police officers outside a nail salon. And it was brutal. And then she wound up being killed several weeks later. And the connection between the two is an important thing, that police are signaling by violently beating and abusing a Black trans woman in public that they certainly are not going to protect her and that violence against her is completely permissible and state sanctioned.”
Dehumanizing headlines like “Black woman killed by police” were the norm before we were extolled to “say her name,” giving full identities to the women harmed by brutality within the justice system. Perhaps the first name many of us deliberately took care to say, Sandra Bland was arrested after a traffic stop for failing to use a turn signal. Three days later–again, it was a traffic stop–Bland “was found” hanging in her cell.
Her death was ruled a “suicide.” Sandra Bland recorded her aggressive stop, though the footage wasn’t released to her family until after litigation, in 2019. The documentary “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland,” is available on HBO.
“We have to exercise agency, we have to actually look for the stories of Black women and girls. Once we see them, we cannot unsee them. If you say the name, you’re prompted to learn the story, and if you know the story, then you have a broader sense of all the ways Black bodies are made vulnerable to police violence.”
In 2014, a joint effort from AAPF and Columbia University Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) created the #SayHerName campaign, bringing awareness to police violence against Black women:
“Our goal is not to offer a comprehensive catalog of police violence against Black women— indeed, it would be impossible to do so as there is currently no accurate data collection on police killings nationwide, no readily available database compiling a complete list of Black women’s lives lost at the hands of police, and no data collection on sexual or other forms of gender- and sexuality-based police violence. Moreover, the media’s exclusive focus on police violence against Black men makes finding information about Black women of all gender identities and sexualities much more difficult. Given these limitations, our goal is simply to illustrate the reality that Black women are killed and violated by police with alarming regularity.”
In addition to its extensive report on the brutalization of Black women by police, the group expanded into direct advocacy and has hosted lectures as well as vigils for the many Black women killed by police. It also provides a plethora of tools to get involved in ending police violence against Black women. From hosting town halls, to sharing the stories of women so we do learn their names, to contacting local and federal government officials to urge changes in policing to offering organizing ideas, the site provides a range of ways to educate ourselves and others on this life-or-death issue.
The Rantt Rundown
Despite a number of Black women bringing attention to police brutality, despite the female founders of #BlackLives Matter, despite the AAFP and #SayHerName, and despite all the recent work on police violence, the paucity of information on police brutality against Black women is appalling. And brutality is but one issue Black women face.
Police brutality underscores the marginalization and erasure of Black women in discussions of justice. Media and researchers alike ignore Black women; even the major movements intended to raise awareness of brutality, whether motivated by race or by gender, leave out the people who experience both.
We cling to our societal “back-burnering” of Black women, where, whether for lessening complexity, for ease of understanding, for lack of consideration or simply from lack of interest, social justice movements tend to make the issues specifically faced by Black women secondary issues. Issues to work on “later.”
After all this time, “later” still hasn’t come.
Social justice relies upon Black women, as for generations they’ve worked to improve lives, and yet their unique struggles are treated as their unique burden. It cannot escape notice that Black women do most of the heavy lifting on police brutality against Black Women.
We can do so much better as a society, and we owe so much more than we’re giving. We must be the people keeping Breonna Taylor’s name from sinking into the mists of internet time; we must be the people who spare a thought for BB Hill. We must be the people who are not passive at the dehumanization of Natasha McKenna; we must be the people who know the story of Bettie Jones, the woman who lost her life to an officer who thinks so little of taking it, he wants his job back.
We must be the people who fight to ensure there will be no more names to say. It’s later now.