Last Saturday I took my six-year-old daughter to a demonstration and die-in in Hollywood. Across the globe, protestors from every walk of life have converged to express their outrage over the double whammy non-indictments of the white officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City.
As a child in the late seventies, 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. Love’s murder and the groundswell of activism it elicited (the two officers were never charged with any wrongdoing) were some of the earliest lessons I learned about the inhumane devaluation of black lives.
Growing up in South Los Angeles, many residents viewed the LAPD as an occupying army. It was 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 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 of color humanism. For humanist feminists of color, it’s not just 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 is outraged about non-indictments in the Brown and Garner cases, state violence is still not viewed as a critical issue when it comes to mainstream feminist or humanist organizing.
One young woman disclosed that she’d been handcuffed by the police just 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.
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 54-year-old woman named 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 in the Jones case 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 and Garner—as globally known black male lynching victims whose white killers never saw 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 under similar circumstances) 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 Black Lives Matter movement must also begin to think and act intersectionally.
Mainstream civil rights organizations have long had a patriarchal blind spot when it comes to critical consciousness about the specific gendered and racialized ways black women are demonized, sexualized and criminalized in the U.S. 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 American 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 civil rights movement’s social justice calculus or platform.
Discussing the non-indictments and the impact of state violence on black women with my Women’s Leadership Project students this week, one young woman disclosed that she’d been handcuffed by the police just 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.
My students learn very early on that simply “being while black” and female—queer, cis and trans—are criminal acts. Raising their voices against state violence, the activism of this generation and my daughter’s may finally change the civil rights and feminist narratives of who the dominant culture deems to be proper victims, worthy of protection, visibility and social justice.
Republished from The Humanist with the author's permission.