Americans have gotten used to seeing black men die on camera phones. Many of those deaths have inspired anger and protests across the country. The men have often been named in Hillary Clinton’s stump speeches. But it is rare that we hear about black women who experience state-sanctioned violence or who have lost their lives to police.
On Monday a 23-year-old black mother, Korryn Gaines, was shot to death by Baltimore police. Her five-year-old son Kodi was also shot, but survived. Court documents released Wednesday say Gaines was shot after pointing a shotgun at police during a seven-hour-long standoff. Gaines uploaded the interaction with the officers to Facebook, but after the Baltimore police requested Facebook take the livestream down, the social media company complied.
Her death has not received the same level of coverage as others who have died at the hands of police: Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Walter Scott. It has not inspired a national outcry, or even much of a local one, like the police-involved death of a fellow Baltimore resident, Freddie Gray. Instead, the response to Gaines’ death has largely flown under the radar. Black women have always been the backbone of black communities. They bear the sons who are harassed and killed by police. They’re the ones who tearfully attend press conferences and funerals, the ones who publicly mourn on behalf of all of us. But contrary to what we are used to seeing in mass media, black women also experience violence and die during police encounters.
Last July, America watched a familiar video: Black person interacts with police officer, situation escalates, black person gets arrested. But there was something different about this video. The subject, Sandra Bland, was a woman. Bland died in her jail cell three days after her arrest. Two months prior to Bland’s death the African American Policy Forum, a think tank, published #SayHerName, a report featuring black women who lost their lives during interactions with police.
The reaction and press from the report are certainly a large part of why we know Sandra Bland’s name in the first place. In that same month alone, four other black women died in jail. But we don’t know their names, a fact that reveals how little collective regard society has for the lives of black women. #SayHerName became a rallying cry, but no women’s name took ahold of the nation’s conscience in the way so many black men’s names have.
According to the Guardian’s site, The Counted, nine black women have died this year in police encounters so far. But relative invisibility of black women’s deaths has endured for years. In 1991, a 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head by a store clerk in Los Angeles after she had already walked away from an altercation. Thirteen days earlier, Rodney King was brutally beaten by police. Though Harlins’ death wasn’t the result of police violence, it did reflect the country’s racist attitudes towards black women. Harlins’ death partly inspired the L.A. riots a month later; her name was often invoked by protesters. But 25 years later, Rodney King is often credited as the sole catalyst for the L.A. riots, while Harlins’ name has all but faded from national consciousness.
This week showed us once again something we’ve always known and haven’t talked about: black women are also killed by police. Gaines died with her young son sitting next to her— a son that, if we’re being honest, even the most liberal Americans seem to have a lot more compassion for than we do his mother. The past few years have shown us that to be true and so has history.
The missing last minutes of her life on video present a paradox: Watching black Americans die on video is disturbing to say the least, but has become crucial in highlighting the problem of over-policing and racism in policing. America hasn’t witnessed black women dying on camera. A macabre thought: Maybe if we saw more of these women die, people would care more.