‘Say Her Name’ Turns Spotlight on Black Women and Girls Killed by Police
“Black lives matter.” For the past nine months, this rallying cry has permeated street corners, protests, tweets, news conferences, and even the cover of Time magazine.
Last August, the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer kick-started the efforts of activists protesting against police brutality and violence. By now, the names Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray have become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. But solely focusing on their stories has come at the expense of another group affected by police violence: black women.
Rachel Gilmer, associate director of the African American Policy Forum, says the reason black women’s stories are excluded from the discussion is simple.
“Across the board, all the way up from the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative down to the grassroots movements that we’ve seen rise in this country in response to state violence, men and boys are seen as the primary target of racial injustice,” she says. “This has led to the idea that women and girls of color are not doing as bad, or that we’re not at risk at all.”
Here’s Why You Should Care: African American women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, and young black girls are suspended from school at six times the rate of their white female peers. Add to that the increased risk of poverty, violence, and sexual assault, and it’s clear that African American girls are not all right.
Indeed, in light of the challenges black women and girls face, the AAPF recently coauthored a policy brief and launched a social media campaign titled “Say Her Name.” The effort aims to amplify the stories of African American women and girls who have been victims of police violence.
“We wanted to launch ‘Say Her Name’ to really uplift the lives and experiences of those who have been killed by police and the many other forms of police violence black women experience,” Gilmer explains, noting that officer-involved sexual assault often garners little response.
Last year, former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw was charged with sexually assaulting approximately 13 black women while on duty. Holtzclaw allegedly raped, sodomized, and preyed on his victims because he believed they were of a “lower social status” and had “reason to fear” the authorities. While his alleged actions are horrific, Holtzclaw’s case has yet to become a national cause in either the Black Lives Matter movement or in the mainstream conversation on police violence. The AAPF’s “Say Her Name” campaign aims to change that.
On Thursday, thousands of protesters took to the streets across the nation to amplify the names of black female victims of state violence. In San Francisco, a group of topless black women took the streets to demand justice for slain black women. In New York City, thousands flooded the streets to uplift women such as Rekia Boyd, Shelly Frey, Yvette Smith, Mya Hall, Kendra James, Natasha McKenna, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was just seven when she was killed by police.
The AAPF report noted that the controversial stop-and-frisk policing tactic, which is used by law enforcement officers across the nation, tends to be associated with males of color. However, in New York City, where the policy has been deemed unconstitutional because it unfairly profiles blacks and Latinos, 53.4 percent of all women stopped by NYPD officers were black, and 27.5 percent were Latino. The number of black women accosted by law enforcement is on par with that of their black male counterparts, yet women are often absent from the discussion about police overreach.
In addition to raising awareness about black women and girls who have been killed by police violence, the AAPF report recommends that policies “be developed using an intersectional gender and racial lens” and that “spaces must be created to discuss the ways in which patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia impact black communities as a whole.” The AAPF also suggests the definition of police violence be expanded beyond beatdowns and shootings to include sexual assault as well.
While some people accuse those who insist on including women’s voices in the conversation of being divisive, Gilmer says situating black women and girls in discussions on police violence will only strengthen the cause.
“When we include girls in the narrative, it becomes much more of a conversation about structural racism,” she says, explaining that the problem of police violence won’t go away until systematic inequality is addressed.
For Gilmer and those who participated in “Say Her Name” protests across the country, it’s necessary to include women in the conversation on police abuse. “We should uplift black women’s names because all black lives matter,” she says.