Productively and Respectably Drowning: Black Women’s Fight for Collective Freedom

We are all drowning. We are all drowning while upholding a repressive system that can never provide freedom and justice for all women, a system in which a cycle of violence, suffering, and mass incarceration seems inevitable. We are Black women, arguably the most dehumanized and undervalued identity group. To be Black and also a woman places one in a position of endless performance and scrutiny. It’s tiring and so many cannot meet the standards that are set. Even when some of these benchmarks are met, expectations shift. We’re hunted and no matter what steps we take we are failures. So whom should we blame? Is it the lazy women who simply don’t have the capabilities to succeed, or the system that views them as unworthy, dehumanizes them, and resorts to violence to rid them of any thought of freedom?

The entire system is guilty. Capitalism is committed to the racism and sexism that demeans and imprisons Black women. Despite its violence, the system finds the most creative ways to justify its contradictions and injustices. Imagining a world where everyone recognizes this and strives to make amends is a real challenge. At this moment I feel deeply that there are generations of Black women who have never envisioned freedom. I know deeply that we have invested in a system that continues to fail us.

Since Trayvon Martin was murdered, there has been a slow awakening, or revitalization, of a younger generation that forgot the history of racial oppression that has always existed in this country. Their eyes opened, articles were shared, collective actions were planned, coalitions called for justice. But who is deserving of this justice? The #BlackLivesMatter movement was created by Black women and has progressed due to the efforts and outright fear and anger of Black women around the world. Yet, these women, Black women, are continuously erased from the narrative of state brutality. People of color become synonymous with men of color and the strength of the collective is weakened.

There can only be surface level reform if civil rights activists and everyday citizens feel compelled to protest and cry when Black men like Eric Gardner are brutally murdered by the state, but remain silent as women like Rekia Boyd and Natasha McKenna are tossed away. Why is it easier to mourn the loss of Black men than Black women? Are we convinced that when a woman experiences violence she brought it on herself or have Black women been so dehumanized that they are considered undeserving of justice, of freedom?

Last week, I attended an event in DuPont Circle, Washington, DC, entitled “Vigil for Rekia Boyd, Black Women, Trans Women, and Girls,” and then later in the evening attended a Justice for Freddie Gray march. The vigil in DuPont was amazing because it highlighted the plight of incarcerated and marginalized Black women within the civil rights narrative. There exists a narrative that asks Black women to choose their Blackness and align with Black men on every issue or choose their womanhood and go against Black men. That narrative is beyond trite. Black women are always both: Black and woman. Those identities cannot be separated and does not excuse a submission to patriarchal tendencies of Black male leaders. Together, in a space with women of color, everyone flourished. Voices that had been squashed spoke their truths and the need for continual spaces of mutual understand was highlighted.

So, we fight. Once we collect one golden moment and can begin to picture what collective freedom involves, we want more. The fight is not easy. Black women are hunted, disregarded, and divided. Does a single mother working a minimum wage job have the same time to envision freedom as a full-time student whose only real job is to consume knowledge? These are extremes but they must be considered when we speak about the collective and teaching empowerment. Some people live in fear that they have more to lose than others.

It’s all so heavy. What a burden, to be targeted, devalued, yet expected to perform to standards that are always shifting. So we drown, we come up for air momentarily, and then we sink again. Collective freedom will not come instantaneously. It’s a process that will take generations and generations but the goal is to break away from chains that have held us down for centuries. We deserve more than survival. We deserve freedom from capitalism, a system that divides us and perpetuates racism, sexism, and patriarchy. Regardless of status or educational level, Black women have been expelled from the dominant political economy and we must find new spaces of hope. We have been controlled by a violent empire and denied tenderness and understanding.

If more spaces for Black women open up in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Black women may be able to create their own space and discover tenderness as freedom. Tenderness as currency. Tenderness as motivation to collaborate. Tenderness to bring about change. Tenderness that is hard and critical; tenderness that allows all us to inhale and find comfort in each other.


(Image Credit: Black Left Unity Blog

What happened to Natasha McKenna? The routine torture of cell extraction

In early February, Natasha McKenna was killed by six officers in the Fairfax County Jail, in northern Virginia near Washington, DC. McKenna was 37 years old. She was the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She was living with schizophrenia. She was a diminutive woman, 5 feet 3 inches, 130 pounds. And she was Black.

She was killed during a so-called cell extraction, when six deputies tackled her and took care of business: “She was handcuffed behind her back, shackled around the legs, a hobble strap connected to both restraints, and a spit mask placed over her face.” Natasha McKenna continued to `resist’. An officer shot Natasha McKenna at least four times with a Taser, at point blank range: “Ms. McKenna … stopped breathing shortly thereafter, and her heart ceased beating. Although her heart was restarted, she died a few days later without regaining consciousness.”

Natasha McKenna was arrested by Fairfax County police on a warrant from Alexandria, for an incident that begged for help rather than punishment. Both Alexandria and Fairfax County police knew of Natasha McKenna’s mental illness history. Because Natasha McKenna was officially Alexandria’s prisoner, Fairfax couldn’t petition to have her placed in mental health care. Fairfax says it called Alexandria police three times, trying to have them pick up McKenna, but no one came. Now, Alexandria is “doing [its] own investigation on [its] practices on picking up inmates in other jurisdictions.” Alexandria, Fairfax County, and the local media are investigating, and Natasha McKenna is dead.

Hers was a violent death, as indicated by two black eyes, a badly bruised arm, and a finger that had to be amputated. But more than a violent death, Natasha McKenna’s death is just another typical day in the empire of cell extractions. Last year, San Diego faced street demonstrations and court proceedings for the routine violence meted out to juveniles during cell extractions. Earlier this month, a judge re-opened the case of Charles Jason Toll, who was killed in a cell extraction last year in Riverbend Maximum Security, in Tennessee. Last week, a judge dropped all charges against prisoner Louis Flack in the Knox County Jail, in Tennessee, in large part because of the beating he’d received during a so-called cell extraction.

Natasha McKenna joins Aura Rosser, Kyera Singleton, Shae Ward, Shirley Beckley, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, and a slew of other Black women killed by the State’s peacekeepers. Black women whose lives and violent deaths are covered in public and even more national silence.

These are the layers of silence: “Officials in Fairfax … have stonewalled and balked in Ms. McKenna’s case… The six sheriff’s deputies at the jail have been neither identified nor removed from regular duty… Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, who runs the county jail, has issued no new directives to her deputies regarding use of force, deployment of Tasers or procedures for cell extractions. She says a policy review is under way; there is no evidence of it… In Fairfax, where the state medical examiner has still not issued a cause of death for Ms. McKenna, the police investigation is frozen.”

It is time. It is way past time for the Justice Department to step in. It is time to break the silence surrounding the violence of cell extractions. How many more must die before we realize our part in the deaths? How many more must suffer excruciating pain before we realize our role in the commission of torture? How many more Black women must endure the assault on their bodies and persons by the State before we realize that we are that State?

What happened to Natasha McKenna? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Just another day in the killing fields.


(Photo Credit: Legal Momentum)

Dying for Justice: Joy Gardner, We Remember You

Last week, the Institute of Race Relations launched Dying for Justice, an account of Black and Minority Ethnic persons’ suspicious deaths in custody between 1991 and 2014: 509 dead; 0 convictions. The geography of suspicious deaths is 348 in prison; 137 in police custody; 24 in immigration detention. “Only two people have died following restraint in the deportation process itself in the UK, the first was Joy Gardner in 1993, the second Jimmy Mubenga in October 2010.” Only two? This is the story of Joy Gardner.

Gardner died four days after going into a coma following a deportation raid. During the raid, an immigration official and five metropolitan police officers gagged her with thirteen feet of adhesive tape and applied a body belt and handcuffs. She had come to the UK in 1987 on a six-month tourist visa, and given birth to a son. In 1990 when she married, she applied to regularise her stay on compassionate grounds, but was refused.

A deportation order was issued in 1992 but she was not located. Then, in 1993, when she had been, her lawyer was told of her proposed deportation in two letters dated 26 and 27 July. On 28 July, before the letters had even been opened or Joy had any idea of what was planned, three police officers (from the alien deportation Group/ So1(3)), two uniformed local police officers and an immigration officer called early in the morning at her home in Crouch End to put her and her son on a 3pm flight to Jamaica. A struggle ensued, part of which was witnessed by her son. Joy apparently removed her t-shirt and began shouting that she would rather die than go back, and was shoved to the floor where the two local police officers sat across her legs, the female ADG officer across her midriff and another near her head. One of the ADG officers placed the body belt around her waist, her wrists were secured to the handcuffs which were in turn secured to the body belt. Her ankles and thighs were further bound with two leather belts. Thirteen feet of elastic adhesive bandage were then wrapped around Joy’s head and across her mouth as she was ‘still shouting or screaming’ … A post-mortem ordered by Joy’s mother found that she had died as a result of oxygen starvation. Other post-mortems also found that the lack of oxygen in combination with being gagged led to her death.”

Three officers were charged with manslaughter. In 1995, all were cleared.

Joy Gardner’s mother, Myrna Simpson, has campaigned ever since to secure something like justice. She describes going into the hospital to see her dead daughter: “I asked one officer there ‘Why didn’t you all get her solicitors? Why did you do her bad? She’s not a criminal, she’s not done any crime. She’s a mother of two children. Why did you do that?’ I spoke and said I wouldn’t like it to happen to no one else but police is killing people and more so black people … we are not bad people. I’ve come to this country and I’ve worked in this country, myself, my husband, my brothers, my sisters. My father came to this country and we build up this country. We have worked hard to make this country what it is today. We are the ones who have worked and built up this country to what it is so that people can come here and be free in this country. I am now a pensioner. I came here when my first born was in this country and I’ve worked hard in this country and I’ve not got in trouble with the law and I’ve abided by the law of this country and they’ve killed my daughter. They have taken my daughter from me, my first child that I had. The most time I had with her was when she came to this country because I left her in Jamaica to go to send back for her, but things didn’t work out the way I’d planned it because things were very cheap then. Labour was cheap, we was cheap labourers and we laboured from eight o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the evening. On Saturday we went to work as well until one o’clock just to make up the money maybe for five or six pounds a week and we had to work and sacrifice ourselves and still there’s no justice. But we need justice for our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.”

Joy Gardner, 1993; Jimmy Mubenga, 2010; Christine Case, 2014. How many more Black women and men will have to die for justice?


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Aura Rosser, Kyera Singleton, Shae Ward, Shirley Beckley: Black women’s lives matter

A year ago, Aura Rosser moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor to start a new life, and by many accounts, she was succeeding. On November 9, however, she and her partner were fighting. Her partner called the police. Two police officers arrived. One of them shot and killed Aura Rosser, who apparently held a knife in her hand. Then the police department went silent. The ACLU and the Ann Arbor Independent filed Freedom of Information Act applications. Students and townspeople organized. The officers were named. The Ann Arbor City Council voted to equip police with body and car cameras. The lack of cameras did not kill Aura Rosser. A man with a gun killed Aura Rosser.

Students, led by Kyera Singleton, have mobilized communities across Ann Arbor and beyond. Singleton explained, “It’s really important that we break the silence about who’s a victim of police violence. We can’t be silent when it happens to a woman and then go out and march when it happens to a man. … These national movements often take place around the bodies of men, and then black women may get erased.”

Aura Rosser’s sister, Shae Ward, agrees. She knew Aura Rosser and doubts that she would have actually attacked anyone, much less someone with a gun. Who was Aura Rosser? According to Shae Ward, “She was very artistic. She was deeply into painting with oils and acrylics. She’s a culture-type of gal. She was a really sweet girl. Wild. Outgoing. Articulate.” She was also the mother of three children.

Now, communities are trying to raise money for the funeral and for the children. Many are asking where the State is in all this. They argue that the State, in this instance Ann Arbor, killed a young Black woman, and the very least it could do is to bear the expenses of her funeral. Ann Arbor has opted to purchase cameras for police bodies and cars.

Shirley Beckley, 71 years old, went to the City Council and demanded a different kind of payment. Respect. Dignity. She asked for three minutes of silence. This request actually confused the City Council, but finally, after the Mayor laughed, they allowed for three minutes, three whole minutes, of silence.

Black women’s lives matter. Cameras will not stop the State assault on Black women’s lives. They will only record and document the assaults. In the same way that prisons have not reduced crime, because they never were intended to, cameras will not reduce State violence against Black women, people, or communities. Only a fundamental change in policing practices and cultures will begin to do that, and that change begins with this: Black women’s lives matter.


(Photo Credit: Huffington Post / Alejo Stark)