Say Her Name: State-Sanctioned Violence Against Black Women

(Ieshia Evans, a mother and nurse, is arrested by law enforcement in Baton Rouge, La. on July 9, 2016 during a protest following the killing of Alton Sterling by two Baton Rouge police officers. [Jonathan Bachman])

The murder of George Floyd set the summer of 2020 ablaze. For eight minutes and 46 seconds the country watched in horror as he was murdered before our eyes. Two months earlier the murder of Breonna Taylor received almost no national attention. Why did Breonna’s state-sanctioned murder take so long to enrage the country?    

When we assert that Black Lives Matter, it is because far too often Black lives are treated as worthless. When looking at the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I wonder why the murder of a Black woman was not deemed as important as the murder of a Black man.  If we are to judge by how each horror story was treated, there is an argument that Black women are some of the most unprotected humans on the planet.  You do not have to take my word for it. History, recent and distant, offer numerous chilling examples of statesanctioned violence against Black women.   

On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her Louisville, Ky. home when police officers in plain clothes kicked in her door to conduct a drug raid. Startled because their home was invaded, Taylor’s boyfriend opened fire on the intruders. Police returned fire, shooting Taylor eight times. The police later revealed they were seeking a suspect who was not a resident of Taylor’s home and that they Raided.The.Wrong.House.   

Of course, no drugs were found. None of the three officers who fired into Taylor’s home were charged by a grand jury in her death.   

Breonna Taylor’s story teaches us that even in the safety of our own homes, Black women are not safe. Protect Her. Breonna Taylor; Say Her Name.   

On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Tex. after failing to signal for a lane change. Bland complied when asked for her license and registration. When the officer returned to give her back the documents, he asked her to put out her cigarette. Bland refused to put out her cigarette, and the officer asked her to exit the car. Bland asked why she needed to exit the car. An argument ensued. Although at that point only words were spoken, the officer drew his weapon. Bland was arrested and two days later she was found dead in her cell.  

The footage from the arrest was tampered with, the booking practices were unorthodox, and Sandra’s treatment and actions while in custody are questionable. Bland’s death was ruled a suicide but her phone conversations with family and friends while in custody did not indicate that she was having suicidal thoughts, in fact they pointed to the fact that she was being mistreated by the officers.  A grand jury found that the sheriff’s office was not liable for Bland’s death while the arresting officer was indicted for perjury for making false statements concerning the arrest.  

Sandra Bland’s story shows how white supremacy tries to steal the value of the words and the experiences of Black women. Believe Her. Sandra Bland; Say Her Name.  

In June of 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi’s own, was traveling on a bus from a Southern Christian Leadership Conference with other activists. The bus stopped at a café in Winona, Miss. where the activists were refused service which led to a state trooper assaulting the activists.  Hamer was still on the bus. She got off to try to de-escalate the situation but was arrested.  While in custody, Hamer was beaten within inches of her life and sexually assaulted by officers.   

Unlike Taylor and Bland, Hamer lived to tell the story, but her injuries left longlasting physical and mental injuries. Although badly scarred, Hamer continued to use her voice to bring attention and change to injustices in the South. Hear Her. Fannie Lou Hamer; Say Her Name.   

So how do we protect, believe, and hear Black women?  

We do so by first acknowledging that the problems of police violence Black women experience did not just begin. Policing began in the South as slave patrols. These patrols were supposed to stop slaves from escaping, overthrowing their captors, and as a form of punishment.   

After the Civil War ended, police forces were created with predominately white, male officers for the purpose of keeping Black people in line rather than as a response to crime. Once slave patrols ended, Black people in the South had to deal with Jim Crow laws making lynchings, the denial of voting rights, and separated public spaces legal. Note Taylor, Bland, and Hamer were murdered or assaulted in the South with no justice. Remnants of Jim Crow still exist.   

Police violence against Black women has also been normalized by how we are viewed. Black women are stereotyped as angry and aggressive. This form of subtle aggression against Black women has allowed white supremacy and male misogyny to view us as a monolith that must be treated as a threat. One of the greatest mistruths about police violence is that Black men are the only recipients of it. Black women also experience violence at the hands of the state, but violence against Black women is not always reported or physical.    

Black women deserve so much better. Simply put, we only ask that you protect us, believe us, and hear us.    

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