Say Her Name
Roadside assistance. That’s all Corey Jones wanted in the early hours of Oct. 18, 2015. Instead, Nouman Raja — a Florida police officer in plain clothes and an unmarked vehicle — shot him to death. On March 7, a jury convicted Corey Jones' killer of manslaughter and attempted murder, marking the first time in 30 years that an on-duty police officer in Florida has been convicted in this type of shooting. It’s a just outcome that all too sadly is a rarity in these types of cases.
Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of three, was the victim of a burglary at her home on June 18, 2017. She called the Seattle Police Department for help, but ended up dead. Her children were in the home when she was fatally shot seven times. The fate of her killers? They walked free, case dismissed.
The fact that a Black person can ask for help and end up dead at the hands of an American police officer is sickening and surreal. What’s painfully worse is that it happens all the time, in every city. You’ve heard of some of the slain Black men: Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark. But what about the victims who were women? Their stories only rarely receive the same notice.
In this world of instant connection, we use hashtags to spread news and support, grief and outrage. And the data show us the clear difference between the level of public attention paid to Black women compared with Black men killed at the hands of police. Charleena Lyles was killed less than a year after Philando Castile, yet Castile’s story was tweeted almost 7 times more often than was Lyles’ according to data compiled by CrowdTangle, a content discovery and social-monitoring platform. On Twitter, Castile drew more than 180,000 retweets, including tweets by such luminaries as Bernie Sanders, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Hillary Clinton. But Lyles? She got 11,000 tweets and retweets. The prominent voices were silent. In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, started by three African-American women after the killing of a Black man, another rallying hashtag arose after the death of Sandra Bland: #SayHerName. Bland was pulled over for a traffic violation and taken to jail in July 2015. Three days later, the 28-year-old was found hanging in her Texas jail cell.
For Black women killed by cops, it’s a crime of both police brutality and violence against women. Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality,” calls it “injustice squared.”
Black women often operate at the intersection where race and gender meet, experiencing heightened social challenges in today’s society. The potential for discrimination widens with each added intersection. Black women are even further marginalized if they have a disability, identify as LGBTQ+, or are a religious minority, to name a few.
Police violence against Black women is very real. The level of violence that Black women face is such that it's not surprising that some of them do not survive their encounters with police. Black girls as young as 7, great grandmothers as old as 95 have been killed by the police. They've been killed in their living rooms, in their bedrooms. They've been killed in their cars. They've been killed on the street. They've been killed in front of their parents and they've been killed in front of their children. They have been shot to death. They have been stomped to death. They have been suffocated to death. They have been manhandled to death. They have been tasered to death. They've been killed when they've called for help. They've been killed when they were alone, and they've been killed when they were with others. They've been killed shopping while Black, driving while Black, having a mental disability while Black, having a domestic disturbance while Black. They've even been killed being homeless while Black. They've been killed talking on the cell phone, laughing with friends, sitting in a car reported as stolen and making a U-turn in front of the White House with an infant strapped in the backseat of the car. Why don't we know these stories? Why is it that their lost lives don't generate the same amount of media attention and communal outcry as the lost lives of their fallen brothers?It's time for a change. Crenshaw is right. During her speech she mentions the names of some of the Black women whose deaths did not receive the same media coverage as Black men, including Aura Rosser and Meagan Hockaday. Rosser was killed in 2014 by Ann Arbor, Mich., police after a domestic dispute, and in 2015 Hockaday, 26, and a mother of three, was shot by police who were answering a domestic dispute call in Oxnard, Calif.
Over the past 10 years, Black women have experienced police brutality while in their homes, in their cars, and at popular eating establishments. Some of these women were killed at their most vulnerable moments, suffering from mental health episodes at the time of their deaths. Whether these women called the police for help or authorities were alerted by neighbors, surely these beautiful souls did not deserve to die. Black women have been killed because others consider them too loud or too “irrational.” The reasons may have been different, but the price they paid for existing while Black was the same: death.
In the news, the loss of Black women’s lives amounts to little more than a headline, if that. They get their brief article, their words of condolence and then the media are off to the next story. Meanwhile, their families still suffer in anguish. Their children still ache for their mothers. Their sisters still cry for justice.
Too many times, I have seen the shattering impact to families and communities when Black lives are snuffed out. Far too often, the perpetrators are the very law enforcement officers we pay with our taxes to protect and serve us. We have all seen too many unfair, unforeseen, and unforgettable cases of young people who had families and futures until they were cut down. We must not forget these women:
● Latasha Walton, fatally shot during a traffic stop in Miami in 2019. The investigation is ongoing, and my law firm is working to ensure that the truth comes out and justice is served. ● Shukri Said, fatally shot by officers in Johns Creek, Ga., in 2018. Her family called police for help as she suffered from schizophrenia. The investigation is ongoing. ● Charleena Lyles and her unborn baby, fatally shot by police in her home in 2017. The Seattle Police Department database alerted officers of “hazard information” in her file. A judge dismissed negligence claims against the officers. ● Deborah Danner, fatally shot in her Bronx apartment in 2016. The 66-year-old’s neighbors reported her for “acting irrationally.” The law enforcement officer who killed her was charged with second-degree murder but later acquitted by a judge. ● Michelle Cusseaux, killed in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2014 after police were called to assist with a mental health episode. Her killer was demoted and placed on administrative leave. ● Rekia Boyd, fatally shot in 2012 by an off-duty Chicago detective with an unregistered gun. The officer was charged — a rarity — but those charges were later dismissed. ● Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old Detroit girl, fatally shot by an officer in 2010 as she slept on the couch of her home. The officer was charged, but after two mistrials a judge dismissed the case.
These shootings and others show how women’s mental health issues are mishandled by police. Like in the case of Tanisha Anderson, who died after being slammed on the pavement by Cleveland police in 2015. The 37-year-old mother was bipolar. In 2013, 34-year-old Miriam Carey, a dental hygienist from Stamford, Conn., was killed by police in Washington, D.C., after ramming her car into barriers at the White House. Carey was dealing with post-partum depression.
Especially when it comes to cases involving police and Black victims, the legal wrangling and maneuvering seems never-ending. They claim self-defense, create false autopsies and resort to character assassination and other ridiculous cop-outs to save a cop’s career.
We have seen far too many clear wrongs that have somehow escaped justice in recent years. Too often, a claim of self-defense somehow excuses the loss of a human life, obstructing rightful justice. Instead of expecting a conviction, we are now surprised by one, almost unable to believe that the legal system has agreed that a Black life actually does matter. If we blink, we might miss it.
Women are not only the direct victims of police brutality — they also carry the burden of grief. Philando Castile’s girlfriend was in the car with him when he was killed; Stephon Clark’s girlfriend was left alone to raise their children; Michael Brown’s mother is still a prominent voice against police brutality. Grief and anguish alone can take years off a person’s life, and Black women are often left with the burden of picking up the pieces to preserve peace during times of unjustified violence.
The untold, unacknowledged, darker reality is that police brutality and the killing of Black women is a nationwide, societal problem that often fails to generate the same kind of nationwide coverage that Black male victims receive. From where I stand, it’s a crisis that is tearing apart the fabric of our already-frayed communities. As a Black man, the father of a daughter, an American, and a human being, I won’t be silent — and neither should you.
We must raise our expectations and demand more. We cannot allow one correct conviction to erase the collective memory of how serious injustice plagues our nation.
Yes, the Corey Jones verdict is a victory. But we have deserved so many more such victories — and still do — especially for our suffering sisters. — Benjamin Crump is a noted civil rights attorney and activist.