#SayHerName Week of Action, June 11-17 Matters More Than Ever – Get Involved
By Emelda De Coteau
One minute Nai and I were racing together in a neighborhood park, our cocoa brown arms and legs dodging in and out of the warm summer sunlight, holding hands, loving on one another as only Mamas and daughters do, and then abruptly our intimate silence shattered. I heard the sound of sirens growing louder and louder. Nai’s head turned, full of toddler curiosity, but my heart beat in a steady panic, as it always does when seeing law enforcement – particularly this summer, one year after the untimely death of Freddie Gray in the custody of Baltimore city police.
“Ma’am,” the officer said, stepping out of his patrol car, “Yes,” I replied, my eyes meeting his, while carrying both confusion and a simmering irritation I worked to disguise. “Someone called us out of concern because you and the little one are out in all this heat.” Although I heard the words tumbling matter of factly from his mouth, I struggled to make sense of them. And before long another two police cars pulled up, Nai thought they had come to play; I kept holding on to her little hands as doing so reminded me to stay calm. I can’t loose my baby girl, I repeated over and over to myself as a kind of mantra. Stay calm for her.
As he ran my license I stood quietly, mind reeling with distress, eventually settling on one central question: Why couldn’t this person, whose “concern” drove them to call the police, speak with me directly? Why immediately go to law enforcement when we could have stood, human being to human being, and talked?
Thankfully, Nai and I made it home alive, but there are far too many women and girls of color whose encounters with police end with death or an assault which haunts them for a lifetime. And sadly, not enough of us know their names – Korryn Gaines, Tanesha Anderson, Mya Hall, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseux, and many, many more.
In May 2015, The African American Policy Forum, the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School, and Andrea Ritchie, Soros Justice Fellow and expert on policing of women and LGBT people of color, organized a vigil to honor black women impacted by police brutality and also issued a report: “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” A few months later Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old woman accused of assaulting an officer during a routine traffic stop was found dead in a cell in Waller County, Texas. Because it happened at a moment when the media focused heavily on police brutality, we heard her name, but so many others remained obscure.
Now a growing movement, #SayHerName, highlights the daily injustices and biases women of color face throughout the U.S. According to The African American Policy Forum’s website, “Say Her Name responds to increasing calls for attention to police violence against Black women by offering a resource to help ensure that Black women’s stories are integrated into demands for justice, policy responses to police violence, and media representations of victims and survivors of police brutality. The brief concludes with recommendations for engaging communities in conversation and advocacy around Black women’s experiences of police violence, considering race and gender in policy initiatives to combat state violence, and adopting policies to end sexual abuse and harassment by police officers.”
There is a national week of action from June 11-17, spearheaded by BYP100 (Black Youth Project), and a coalition of organizations such as The African American Policy Forum, Incite, Freedom, Inc., TGI Justice Project, etc. BYP100, a membership-based organization, has chapters across the country (Chicago, Washington D.C., Bay Area, New Orleans, etc.) and was formed in 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. BYP100 members are determined to transform the anger and frustration about the prison industrial complex, state violence, and other daily atrocities experienced by black folks into concrete action.
And as a community, we face a tremendous task of dismantling these well funded oppressive institutions. Social justice activist, professor, and writer Bill Ayers writes in Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto from 1997 – 2014 more than 4.3 billion in military equipment has been transferred to local police departments. Ayers goes on to discuss how police violence is situated in a war culture which normalizes the use of force and uniformed authority now commonplace everywhere from sporting events to schools and airports, and clearly targets specific groups of individuals, based on skin color, for discipline under the law.
Andrea Ritchie, author, attorney, activist and black lesbian immigrant insists the continued erasure and struggle of black women and girls must be understood within a historical framework which from slavery upheld a white vision of femininity, while devaluing and erasing black women and girls. Her latest book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, highlights the work of historian Gerda Lerner who writes: “Punishment was meted out to them regardless of motherhood, pregnancy, or physical infirmity. Their affection for their children was used as a deliberate means of tying them to their masters. . . . Additionally, the sexual exploitation and abuse of black women by white men was a routine practice.”
When one looks at the past, we understand why incidents involving the abuse of black women from Chikesia Clemons at The Waffle House in Alabama to Dajerria Becton in Texas Remain commonplace; they are rooted in a longstanding ideology of white supremacy which renders blackness problematic and devoid of humanity. Ritchie cites historical records from Atlanta which reveal “in each year between 1893 and 1900 more black girls and young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty were arrested than white boys and white girls in the same age group combined. In 1893, Black women were 6.4 times as likely as white women and Black girls 19 times as likely as white girls to be arrested.”
Collectively, we must continue the task of tearing down systems which, for too long, have imprisoned us mentally and physically. The D.C. chapter of BYP100 is kicking off the national week of action by dialoguing with Ritchie on Monday, June 11 at Busboys & Poets about “profiling, policing, and mass incarceration of Black women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming people,” while placing recent incidents (#DecynthiaClements and #ChikesiaClemons) in both a historical and current context, and expanding “definitions of police and gender based violence to include sexual violence by police officers, policing and punishment of pregnant people and parents, discriminatory and punitive responses to domestic violence and women in crisis.”
The coalition building of BYP100 through this campaign gives us all an opportunity to support, whether it’s on the ground or financially. Unfortunately, these issues are not going anywhere soon, but let us stand firm in our commitment to showing up for black women and girls. When I grow weary, I hear the poetry of prolific writer Lucille Clifton, an ever-present reminder of the greatness within us, passed down from generation to generation:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Stay Plugged in to the Movement (this list is a starting point):
Find a local action near you happening this week!
The Woke Pretty aka Emelda De Coteau is a loving wife, mama, creative, and believer seeking God anew in each moment. She is the founder of the faith and social justice blog, Live In Color and (soon to become Pray With Our Feet blog). Emelda is a columnist for Beautifully Said Magazine , Founder of @WomenCreativesChat, Co-founder of Cocktails and Creatives Events http://comingsoon.cocktailsandcreatives.com/, and founding member of Black Womyn Rising <https://www.facebook.com/BlackWomynRising/>, a radical organizing collective for Black womyn and girls.