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Why Are Black Women and Girls Still an Afterthought in Our Outrage Over Police Violence?

5 minute read
Brittney Cooper is a professor at Rutgers University and the author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.

Breonna Taylor was an essential worker. An EMT with aspirations to be a nurse, she was one of the people whose daily labor of keeping people safe we have come to value anew in the age of COVID-19. In March, Louisville, Ky., police officers killed her after their choice to serve a no-knock warrant in plain clothes after midnight was met with gunfire by her boyfriend, who was startled by the intruders. Investigations are ongoing, but no charges have been brought against the officers.

In a country reeling from being involuntary witnesses to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Breonna Taylor’s death does not fit the spectacular forms of police killing that we have come to associate with America’s nefarious lynching past. As such, the Louisville protests on her behalf after Floyd’s death were belated attempts to rectify and recognize the ways that Black women are rarely the first thought in our outrage over police shootings. But Black women are surely worthy of more than secondary outrage. Rendering Black women as the afterthought in matters of police violence necessitated the creation of the Say Her Name campaign in 2015, a perennial reminder that Black women are victims of state violence too.

Why does it remain so difficult for outrage over the killing of Black women to be the tipping point for national protests challenging state violence?

One argument is that the spectacle of video makes our outrage easier to access. We watched men like Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Philando Castile get killed by police on video while doing nothing that warranted lethal force or any force at all. Those killings, displaying the officers’ clear disregard of Black life and distrust of Black people’s intentions, conjure racial terrors of old–of men hunted, paraded, humiliated and murdered for sport, often by police or with police as willing spectators or participants. But when Black women and girls like Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson and Charleena Lyles are killed, it is often out of the public eye. And in a world where the pains and traumas that Black women and girls experience as a consequence of both racism and sexism remain structurally invisible and impermeable to broad empathy, these killings recede from the foreground quietly.

To blame this lack of public focus on a lack of video is disingenuous given that the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in the wake of two killings for which there was no filmed evidence: those of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Instead, there is an extant narrative that helps us understand, even if uncomfortably, why Black men keep getting killed.

That narrative also allows for other actors besides Black male victims and cops who kill. In late May in Central Park, when Christian Cooper took a video of Amy Cooper threatening to call the cops on him–“an African-American man”–the lynching script of lying white women putting Black men in mortal danger for their own nefarious purposes flashed before our eyes. The murder of George Floyd merely confirmed what Black people have always known, and what Amy Cooper demonstrated that plenty of white people know too: that the cops routinely harm Black people for the thinnest of reasons or no reasons at all.

But at no point in our replaying of the lynching script, what with its accreting Black male victims, overzealous cops and devious white women, do we ever think about how Black women fit into the story. Femininity is a weapon only if you’re white. Black women have no such protections. Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend tried to take care of his partner but could not.

We keep missing the intersection of race and gender when it comes to Black women. But right there at that intersection stands a 17-year-old Black girl named Darnella Frazier. She filmed George Floyd’s murder. Like Ida B. Wells before her, she bore witness to the extralegal killing of a Black man, and made sure the world heard the story. For her trouble, she experienced online harassment from people who wondered why she didn’t “do more.” I wonder why Derek Chauvin’s colleagues didn’t do more.

Like Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s classmate and friend who was forced to listen to him being brutally attacked while she talked to him on the phone–only to be subject to derision and harassment both by white audiences who called her unintelligent because of a speech impediment and Black audiences who were ashamed of her for not being articulate enough–here is another Black girl, calling the nation to account. There is nothing we can do for Breonna Taylor now, save pursuing justice for her family and remembering her life. But for Darnella Frazier, for Rachel Jeantel, there is everything left to do. We must begin by recognizing that they are worthy of care, love and outrage too. But in order to do that, we have to commit to seeing Black women and girls, whether they are sleeping in their beds, chatting with a friend or holding the camera, pleading with the police.

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