For many African-American women, like myself, Sandra Bland’s death, possibly resulting from police brutality, doesn’t feel like news. The national attention it’s receiving is, however.
The reality of unarmed African-American women being beaten, profiled, sexually violated, and murdered by law enforcement officials with alarming regularity is too often ignored — especially with the focus of police brutality on African-American males. My wife, who would drive her BMW to and from work, was often stopped by police for the classic offense of “driving while black.” She now takes the bus or walks to work as much as she can because of the constant shakedowns.
A new report and campaign called “Say Her Name” addresses the lack of reporting, documenting, and accounting for the violations and deaths of African-American women and girls at the hand of law enforcement officials.
Just last July, California Highway Patrol Officer Daniel Andrew was caught on video beating 51-year-old Marlene Pinnock. With Andrew straddling Pinnock on the ground and pummeling her with his fist, Pinnock told CBS News, “He was trying to beat me to death … take my life away. For no reason. I did nothing to him.”
While it’s not shocking that African-American women are arrested more often than white women in any given city across the country, what is shocking is the rate at which we are. A new report from the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice reveals that while African-American women in San Francisco make up approximately 5.8 percent of the city’s female population, they represent 47 percent of female arrests. And these arrests too often result in death.
African-American sisters like Rekia Boyd (March 2012, Chicago), Kimberlee Randle-King (September 2014, St. Louis), and Natasha McKenna (April 2015, Fairfax County, Va.), to name just a few, are lives cut too short at the hands of law enforcement officials. While the country was reeling from the news of Bland’s death of July 13, 18-year-old Kindra Chapman of Alabama was found dead in her jail cell the following day.
Oddly, the deaths of Randle-King, Bland, and now Chapman are all explained away as “self-inflicted asphyxiation,” though black women are the least likely group to commit suicide in prison even though they are the largest demographic group of females incarcerated.
The perceptions and stereotypes of African American women — combative, mouthy, angry — can lead to deadly repercussions. Bland’s crime is what’s described as “contempt of cop.” She wasn’t obsequious or subservient enough when the officer asked her to extinguish her cigarette. And for something as minor as a traffic signal violation, the incident spiraled out of control. But when the dominant culture doesn’t see and hear African-American voices speak about our pains, fears, or vulnerabilities, our humanity made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. So too is our suffering.
When Bland was found hanging from a noose made of plastic bags in her Waller County, Texas, jail cell, the coroner’s report corroborated the claim stating there were no obvious signs of such a violent struggle. But like Bland’s family and friends, I too cry out foul play. And it’s because of Waller County’s long and prideful history of keeping blacks in their place, including lynching.
If Bland did not in fact commit suicide. then clearly it was a lynching. The Equal Justice Initiative states that Waller County saw some of the highest rates of African-Americans lynchings in Texas between 1877 and 1950. The memory of family and friends lynched still lives on in the collective oral history of Waller County’s African-Americans. “In this county, they’ve been hanging and killing Negroes since the Civil War,” an old buddy of Bland’s, Holice Cook, told The Washington Post.
Just two hours south of Waller County, a gay man, Jesse Jacobs, 32, died while in custody at the Galveston County Jail. While serving a 30-day DUI sentence, Jacobs was deliberately denied his Xanax medication for anxiety. By the time Jacobs was rushed to the hospital after suffering a seizure — something common for those forced to abruptly go off Xanax — he was dead on arrival.
With the number of LGBTQ people and African-Americans battered or killed while detained in police custody now being reported with regularity, the abuse at the hands of law enforcement officials has sadly not abated. Places like Waller and Galveston counties remind us that no minority group is immune to police brutality. With the recent deaths of Randle-King, Chapman, Bland, and now Jacobs, there’s a pattern evolving, one in which lynching remains alive and well in this country.