LAST YEAR I took my six-year-old daughter to a demonstration and die-in in Hollywood. Across the globe, protestors from every walk of life had converged to express their outrage over the double whammy non-indictments of the white officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.
As a child in the late 1970s, my father took me to my first demonstration after the murder of Eulia Love, an African-American homemaker, by two officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Love’s murder and the groundswell of activism it elicited (the two officers were never charged with any wrongdoing) were some of my earliest lessons about the inhumane devaluation of black lives. Growing up in South Los Angeles, many residents viewed the LAPD as an occupying army, notorious for having violent confrontations with communities of color. These encounters often took place in every day public spaces when folk were walking, driving, riding the bus, or going to school. Love, however, was killed in her home, and that shook my ten-year-old self to the core. Her murder underscored that black women were also routinely victimized by state violence and that “home” was not a safe space. Unlike white women, black women could not expect to receive “domestic” protection nor be shielded by presumptions about their feminine innocence.
This key difference defines feminist humanism of color. Because black bodies are still bound by racial apartheid, our humanist agenda is the same as an anti-racist, anti-imperialist social justice agenda. It’s not sufficient to recognize that “Black Lives Matter” but that they also matter intersectionally—as female, queer, trans, poor, and disproportionately segregated. Yet, while much of the nation was outraged by the decisions in the Brown and Garner cases, and others since, state violence is still not viewed as a critical issue when it comes to mainstream feminist or humanist organizing.
Living in communities where the criminalization of all genders is routine, black female victims are often excluded from public discourse about state violence. For example, in 1999 a homeless fifty-four-year-old woman, Margaret Mitchell, was killed by LAPD officers in an affluent Los Angeles retail district after a dispute over a shopping cart. The officers in the Mitchell case were not charged. In 2010, seven-year-old Aiyanna Jones was murdered by a Detroit police officer in her own home during a botched police raid. The officer was granted a retrial after the jury in his initial involuntary manslaughter trial deadlocked.
Civil rights activists and community protestors routinely invoke Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, Oscar Grant, and Amadou Diallo—and now Brown, Garner, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray—as globally known, unarmed, black male victims whose white killers never saw or never will see jail time. Mainstream representations often minimize lesser known black female victims such as Mitchell, Jones, Love, Eleanor Bumpurs, Alesia Thomas, Tyisha Miller, and Rekia Boyd. Although the circumstances of these women’s deaths were quite different, the lack of sustained national and global attention (relative to black men who have been murdered) unites them.
National civil rights activists and feminist organizations must be challenged on why these names have not become as prominent or high profile in national activism. Yet humanists who invoke the slogan “Black Lives Matter” or believe themselves to be allies to the #BlackLivesMatter movement must also begin to think and act intersectionally. Mainstream civil rights organizations have long had a patriarchal blind spot when it comes to the ways black women are demonized, sexualized, and criminalized in the United States. Historically, much of the language around black civil rights uplift has been oriented toward redeeming black men and pathologized black masculinity. In K-12 education, students are typically taught about U.S. history in general and the modern civil rights movement in particular as though they were merely a procession of events spearheaded by great white men, a few exceptional men of color, and Rosa Parks. From MLK to the Black Panthers, black women’s self-determination was never accepted in the social justice calculus.
Discussing the non-indictments and the impact of state violence on black women with my Women’s Leadership Project students, one young woman disclosed that she’d been handcuffed by the police because she was at the scene of a fight outside school. “If I’d been a white girl I would’ve been given Starbucks and some Uggs,” she retorted as the other girls nodded in agreement. Because black girls are never perceived as being innocent, feminine, and worthy of protection, they are targeted for harsher school discipline and have higher rates of incarceration. Consequently, my students learn that simply “being while black” and female—queer, cis, or trans—are suspicious criminal acts. Raising their voices against state violence, the activism of this generation and my daughter’s may finally change the narrative of who the dominant culture deems to be victims worthy of protection, visibility, and social justice.