Remembering the Black Women Killed By Police
Aiyanna Jones, age seven.
Eleanor Bumpurs, age 66.
Pearlie Golden, age 93.
Yvette Smith, age 47.
Kathryn Johnston, age 92.
What do these women have in common? All were killed by police. All were Black women.
We're outraged by the killing of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot six times by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. We're outraged by the killing of Eric Garner, who died when New York police placed him in a chokehold, a move that is prohibited by police policy. While we're directing our outrage (and rightfully so) at the individual police who have killed these men, the police departments that have created a culture in which Black lives are seen as dispensable, and the power structures that allow these killings to continue, let's not forget the other people affected by police violence: women and trans people of color.
"Gender is not a separate discussion from profiling and policing," said Andrea Ritchie, the director of Streetwise and Safe, at a panel on policing and gender in May. Streetwise and Safe is a New York City organization that works with queer youth of color who experience criminalization. Ritchie frequently works with people who have been stopped under the New York Police Department's infamous Stop and Frisk system, a policy that allows police to stop and search anyone they deem suspicious. Although the practice is purportedly color-blind, the police overwhelmingly target young people of color, particularly black and brown men. But Ritchie frequently hears stories of police violence from people who do not fit our perception of who gets victimized by police brutality, like women and trans people of color.
She recounted that one young woman was stopped by the police, ordered to remove her newborn daughter out of the stroller and place her on the dirty sidewalk while the police searched the stroller. The police found nothing illegal in the stroller. In another instance, during a stop and frisk, a police officer searched a young woman's phone, copied her number and began sending her text messages which have grown increasingly threatening and violent. In yet another instance, four young women—ages eight, nine, thirteen and sixteen—were stopped. None had anything illegal, but police took them to the precinct where they were held until their mother arrived to pick them up.
But even in or just outside their own homes, women of color aren't safe from police violence. Two incidents this summer demonstrate times in which police have assaulted women in or just outside their homes. Less than two weeks after they came under fire for killing Eric Garner using an illegal chokehold, New York police placed a woman who was seven months pregnant in a chokehold before arresting her. Her crime? Grilling in front of her own house. One week later, New York police—responding to an unrelated 911 call—yanked a woman out of her apartment and left her in the hallway topless for several minutes.
As horrifying as these instances are, at least these women were left alive. Others have not been so lucky. Shortly after midnight on May 16, 2010, seven-year-old Aiyanna Jones was sleeping at her grandmother's house when she was fatally shot by police who raided the wrong apartment. On the second anniversary of Aiyanna's death, police forced their way into her family's new home, verbally berating and physically assaulting them. According to family members, this is not the first time they have been harassed by police since Aiyanna's killing.
Home also wasn't a safe haven from police violence for 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston either. Johnston was inside her home in Atlanta, Georgia, when police broke down her door during a drug raid. Johnston fired a single shot at the intruders, hitting none of them. In response, police fired 39 shots, killing her. Finding no drugs in her house, they planted three bags of marijuana, which they later admitted during trial.
This past May, police shot and killed Pearlie Golden just outside her home in Texas. Police were called after Golden, angry that her nephew had confiscated her car keys, began brandishing her gun. When police arrived, she was outside the house with her gun. One of the officers shot her; she died later at a local hospital. Although Golden had a gun, neighbors asked why shooting the elderly woman known as "Miss Sully" was necessary. "Even if she did have a gun, she is in her nineties. They could have shot in the air to scare her," neighbor Lawanda Cooke told the local news. "Maybe she would have dropped it. I don't see her shooting anyone."
All of these killings are tragedies. But they're not individual tragedies that happen in a vacuum. Police violence—particularly against people of color—isn’t just a problem in Ferguson or in Detroit or in New York City. Police violence, particularly against people of color, is systemic. But women who have been brutalized or killed never become as well-known; their names very rarely stick in public memory and never gain the same traction as Eric Garner or Michael Brown.
"They never become part of the story of state violence," Andrea Ritchie told me this week on the phone. "No matter how many women are in the leadership of the movement challenging police brutality, our experiences are never at the center of the conversation." But Ritchie is working to change that invisibility. She recently received a Soros Justice Fellowship to document, build awareness, and strengthen organizing responses around the experiences of women of color with policing.
Expanding the conversations and organizing to include women's and trans people's experiences of police and violence strengthens our movements to challenge both state violence and deep-rooted racism.
Not sure how to dig deeper? Start here:
• INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence is a great resource on responding to violence in communities of color.
• Read Andrea Ritchie's "Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color" in The Color of Violence (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence)
• Check out this organizer's resource toolkit from INCITE: Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color & Trans People of Color: A Critical Intersection of Gender Violence & State Violence.
Victoria Law is a freelance editor and writer. She frequently writes about intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She enjoys reading dystopic fiction to escape the realities of the U.S. prison system. Photo of the memorial for Michael Brown by Peoples World, via Creative Commons. Stop Police Brutality banner is by INCITE, featuring art by Christy C. Road.
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