The execution of Korryn Gaines at the hands of the Baltimore County Police Department (BCoPD) requires a national call-to-action to defend Black women. Gaines’ story shows us the inextricable links between the struggles to secure Black liberation and reproductive justice in America. In this moment, everyone who believes that Black lives do indeed matter is needed to build a defense of Gaines and all Black women (transgender and cisgender) who are victims of state-sanctioned violence.
The full story of what happened to Gaines and her 5-year old son on August 1, 2016 continues to emerge. What we know for sure is that police came to Gaines’ home at about 9:40 a.m. to execute a “failure to appear” bench warrant connected to a March traffic stop, and about five hours later the 23-year-old, who had a legally registered shotgun, was shot dead and her son wounded.
Speculations about Gaines’ mental state based on a possible history of lead poisoning and her behavior in Instagram video footage she took of the traffic stop and another interaction at the police station should lead us to ask more questions—not further pathologize her choices as a person and mother.
After officers kicked down the door to enter Gaines’ apartment, she made the rare choice to take agency over her life and the life of her son in the moments before her death.
The uncomfortable truth is that Gaines was not a passive or perfect victim. And in a society that teaches us that Black motherhood is inherently inferior, it is tempting to pass judgment against her ability to be a good mother and make smart decisions for her child. Black women live with the harsh reality of not having full control over the ability to 1) choose to parent, 2) choose to not parent, and to 3) parent the children they have in safe and well-resourced environments. These three tenets are the core of what reproductive justice must look like. The failure of politics in America to provide leadership on supporting reproductive justice and the dismantling of policing institutions prohibits the protection of human rights for all.
The connection between policing and reproductive justice is not new. However, this moment tells us that there is more work to be done to protect Black women and children. America’s investment in policing and prisons prevents our ability to create systems of safety and protection for Black families. Given this, we must question the means Black parents have to protect their children. Countless events of Black people attempting to exercise the right to bear arms show us that the right to bear arms is not extended us (regardless of citizenship status).
Gaines legally owned the gun police say she used to threaten the police officers who entered her home. Her right to own and yield her weapon in self defense is not only in question in this moment, it is being completely invalidated by a public jury. Like Gaines, Black women often find themselves trying to defend our bodies and our children—both of which are deemed as indefensible throughout society.
BCoPD officers used Gaines actions to justify their escalation in tactics. Officers behaved as though Gaines held her son hostage, and presented themselves as actors able to keep her son safe. Painfully, Black mothers like Gaines live in a country where the same institutions claiming to create safety and stability show themselves to be the exact opposite in moments when a child is involved. The promise of citizenship, full human rights and safety have never been fully extended to Black people in America. Gaines understood this and decided to bear arms in defense of herself and her son. Her actions demonstrate an aspect of self-defense far too many pontificate about, yet fail to ever do themselves.
Be it Korryn Gaines, CeCe McDonald, or Marissa Alexander – society tells us that Black women have “no selves to defend.” This imperative increases every hour as the media and BCoPD develops its own story about Gaines and the events surrounding her death. In this moment, we are all called to make a choice to defend Gaines, Black womanhood and motherhood. If we choose to not connect our work to end the crisis of police with ending the crisis of reproductive justice, we will fail Gaines, her children and our people.
As we witness the growth of our movement and celebrate the release of the “Vision of Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice,” created by the Movement for Black Lives, we must take stock of our collective responsibility and response to all Black women who experience state-sanctioned violence. Black women consistently place our bodies on the line for our families, communities and this movement. Now is the time for our issues to be placed on the frontlines and not on the margins.
Charlene Carruthers is national director of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and a writer with over 10 years of experience in feminist, queer and racial-justice organizing work. She currently serves as a board member of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.