We’re Dying Too

By Andrea J. Ritchie May 20, 2015

On March 21, 2012 a group of four young black people—two women and two men—were standing in an alley on the West Side of Chicago talking about how they were going to get home from the party they had just left. It’s a scenario so common almost any one of us can remember a similar moment in our lives. 

But on that night a white off-duty Chicago police officer, Dante Servin, took it upon himself to tell the young people to quiet down. After a verbal altercation with one of the men, Servin fired his department-issued gun in the direction of group members who, at that point, were standing with their backs to him. One of five bullets struck Rekia Boyd in the back of the head, killing her. Servin later claimed that he mistook a cell phone one of the young men took out of his pocket for a gun. 

In the popular imagination a victim of a police shooting is almost always that of a young black man. Media headlines, presidential speeches, and rally chants all paint a picture of police violence as a problem plaguing black communities, but really, we’re only talking about young men. This time, the life of the unarmed black person taken was a young woman’s. 

Boyd is one of hundreds of black women killed by police whose name has not grabbed national headlines or galvanized national movements. Chicago alone has witnessed the killings of Frankie Perkins, who police choked to death because they erroneously believed that she had swallowed drugs; LaTanya Haggerty, whose cell phone was mistaken for a gun; and Angelique Styles, who police fatally shot after coming to her home to address a domestic dispute. 

A Day to Stop Police Violence Against Black Women

On April 21 a Chicago judge acquitted Servin of involuntary manslaughter in a widely criticized decision. In response to the lack of attention and accountability in Boyd’s case, along with those of countless other young black women, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) teamed up with Ferguson Action and #BlackLivesMatter to declare May 21 a National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls. 

Tomorrow—two months to the day after the anniversary of Boyd’s death and one month after Servin’s acquittal—the Chicago chapter of BYP100 will stage an action at the monthly Chicago Police Board meeting at the city’s police headquarters.

Protestors will also take to the streets of New Orleans. The city has a long history of police violence against black women that includes an NOPD officer putting a hit out on Kim Groves, a black woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a blistering report [PDF] on the city’s police force that included findings of racial profiling, sexual extortion, and discriminatory and abusive policing of black women. The NOPD, it charged, was also not protecting black women, both transgender and non-transgender. 

Tomorrow’s New Orleans rally will take place fewer than 100 miles from the state capital in Baton Rouge where police raped 19-year-old Clementine Applewhite after picking her up for a curfew violation. While Applewhite’s case took place decades ago, recent studies show that her experience was far from unusual. According to the Cato Institute, sexual misconduct is the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct. Black women and women of color, young women, female drivers and women believed to be involved in the drug and sex trades—like the dozen black women targeted by Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holzclaw—have all been found to be more vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault by police.

Emeryville, California, will also answer the call for increased attention to police violence against black women tomorrow. They will rally for answers in the case of Yuvette Henderson, a black woman police gunned down on February 3rd after she was accused of shoplifting at a Home Depot. Police claimed she pointed— but never shot—a gun at them. Yet, mysteriously, none of their newly outfitted body cameras were on at the time, and no footage from nearby security cameras has been produced to confirm their story. 

One town over, in Berkeley, Kayla Moore’s family is still awaiting justice for their daughter’s 2013 death by asphyxiation at the hands of local police. The black transgender woman was experiencing a mental health crisis, but instead of helping her, police arrested her on a warrant for a man 20 years her senior. Officers piled on top of Moore until she stopped breathing. Her case, while the subject of local organizing, did not make national news. Moore’s family is traveling to New York City to join in a vigil on the eve of the National Day of Action for Black Women Killed by Police to be held this evening in Union Square.

Tomorrow in New York City, organizers are planning a day of commemoration, community outreach and marches to honor black women the NYPD has killed in recent years. There’s Shantel Davis who was fatally shot by police in Brooklyn after she crashed the stolen car she was driving into a minivan; Kyam Livingston, who was left to die in a cell in Brooklyn Central Booking despite her repeated pleas for medical attention; and Shereese Francis, who was asphyxiated by police who were at her house because she was in a mental health crisis and her family had called them for help. 

Sadly, these stories are not unique—although each black woman killed was. There are literally countless others we’ll never know because there is no official data about the number of police killings being collected and because black women’s stories rarely gain media attention. 

None of the cases we do know about have driven our national understanding of what police violence looks like for black women beyond our roles as grieving mothers, sisters, and daughters of slain black men. Yet, as is the case for fatal police violence against black men, police killings of black women are driven by perceptions of black people as superhuman threats. These killings are also the result of narratives specific to black women, who experience endemic racial profiling and policing for drug-, prostitution- and poverty-related offenses.

A History of Unheeded Calls

The demand for public attention to state-sanctioned violence against black women is not new. It dates back to enslaved women’s narratives of the unspeakable brutality of slave patrols, to Ida B. Wells shining a light on black women victims of lynching. Angela Y. Davis called for attention to police violence against Fannie Lou Hamer and other women in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements. She also issued a call to action around the killing of Eleanor Bumpurs, a mentally ill 67-year-old New York public housing resident. Officers broke down her door and shot to death during a 1986 eviction. INCITE!, a national organization formed in 2000 to end all forms of violence against women of color, published an organizers’ toolkit on law enforcement violence against women and transgender people of color in 2008. And in early May we witnessed the outcry of Baltimore’s transgender community about Mya Hall, a black transwoman police shot to death after she made a wrong turn onto a parkway that led to National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Still, the increased traction of demands for attention to and justice for black women survivors of police violence is relatively new—and a product of the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s insistence that all black lives matter.

Say Her Name

One response to the intensified demand for attention to cases of police violence against black women comes in the form of “#SayHerName,” a new report I co-authored with law professor and African American Policy Forum executive director Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. The report, released today, May 20, in anticipation of the National Day of Action offers activists and media makers frameworks for understanding where and why black women have deadly encounters with police. The frameworks are illustrated with the names and stories of black women who have been killed by police. The report also points to nonlethal forms of gender-specific police violence against black women including sexual assault, strip searches and “gender searches” of transgender and gender nonconforming people to declare them male or female based on anatomy. . 

“#SayHerName” illuminates how black women are excluded from current narratives of policing such as racial profiling, “stop and frisk” and the War on Drugs. It also demonstrates how expanding our analysis to include sexual assault by police, violence against pregnant and parenting women, policing of prostitution, deadly responses to domestic violence and interactions with transgender and gender nonconforming people will bring black women’s experiences with police brutality in sharper focus. While much more research remains to be done, the report lifts black women’s stories out of the shadows, such that conversations from kitchen tables to the White House can no longer ignore them.

A Federal Government Response

Released on Monday, May 18, the final report [PDF] of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing includes a number of recommendations that are responsive to the growing call for justice for black women survivors of police violence. Based on input from state anti-violence coalitions and women’s organizations the report urges local, state and federal police departments to adopt and enforce measures that would prevent, document and penalize sexual violence by police. The report also calls for an end to gender-specific forms of racial and gender profiling such as police officers using condom possession as evidence of prostitution, and unlawfully searching transgender and gender nonconforming people to assign gender based on anatomy.

Another response to the growing demand for gender-inclusive approaches to police brutality against black people is legislative. Earlier this month, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced the expanded End Racial Profiling Act of 2015. If passed, the law would restrict police profiling of gender identity and sexual orientation alongside race, ethnicity and religion. A gender- and sexuality-inclusive law is an important recognition by policymakers that as leaders in the fight against racial profiling in their communities black women deserve protections on as many fronts as they are policed. 

Keep on Pushing

Of course the National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls, the “#SayHerName” report and the federal government responses don’t mean that we can rest. We must ensure that our movements recognize and center black women’s experiences of police violence.

This will require our movements to pursue solutions that are both gender-specific and -inclusive—whether it’s demanding that special prosecutors investigate police rapes just as they do killings; that police no longer use Tasers on pregnant women and children; or that civilian oversight be trained to and make it known that they take complaints of police sexual assault and homophobic and transphobic abuse seriously. Our work is far from over but we are no longer crying into the wilderness. #SayHerName. Because #BlackWomenMatter.

To find out more about National Day of Action events in your area, go to www.byp100.org/justice-for-rekia and follow #SayHerName and #BlackWomenMatter on Facebook.

Andrea J. Ritchie is co-author of "#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women." She is a Soros Justice Fellow, a member of INCITE!, and co-author of “Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States.” She has been organizing, advocating, litigating, writing and agitating about police violence against women and LGBT people of color for the past two decades.