When Will Black Women See Justice?

101 days after Breonna Taylor’s murder, none of the cops who shot her have been arrested.

Photo: Courtesy of Tamika Palmer
Photo: Courtesy of Tamika Palmer
Photo: Courtesy of Tamika Palmer

I remember the first time I felt a security guard’s gaze lingering on me. I was in my mid-20s in a museum in Washington, D. C., and each time I moved to a new room, he seemed to be there.

Eventually, he followed me into a smaller, empty gallery. When he approached me, he told me I was pretty and said he liked my curly black hair, and asked where I was from, and grinned when I said “the Caribbean.” Then, he propositioned me for sex. I felt a jolt. I was a trans girl who had not as yet come out to anyone; my ID still said a male name on it, and I began to wonder if reporting him would actually make things even worse: would someone at the front desk decide that I was lying or that I’d “tricked” the guard by dressing like a woman? And even if they believed me, I would have to face him again. I remembered that frightful hunger in his eyes. I felt paralyzed.

I left the museum without saying anything, fearing, as I walked through the flurrying snow, that his shift might be over — it was near closing time — and that he might be behind me. Some months later, I felt a similar dread when a policeman in Tallahassee, where I went to grad school, pulled me over because I had forgotten to update my license plate. I felt helpless, at this man’s mercy, and I was still shaken even after he let me go with a warning.
Since then, I’ve come out and updated my identification with my correct gender and name, but the same basic fears — being hunted and followed, being made to feel objectified and powerless — have stuck with me. I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also learnt to fear such men, especially those in uniform whose job it is to police and control and subjugate, with a particular fervor. To know that at any moment if they wanted to hurt or torment or fuck me, nothing, really, would have stopped them.

When most people in the mainstream media discuss police brutality, the image that comes up first is almost always that of a murdered Black man. In some ways, this is unsurprising; too many Black men have had their lives cut short by police officers who seemed intent on nothing less than demeaning, dominating, and destroying their Black bodies. It is rarer, however, for the media to focus its attention on the Black and brown women who have been attacked, assaulted, or killed by the police. Real justice for acts of racialized police brutality has historically been slow to come, and it seems like it will take even longer for women of color.

A striking example of this disjunction is the case of Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by cops 101 days ago in Louisville, Kentucky. It was after midnight on March 13, and she was in bed with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Without warning, their front door burst open, and three officers flooded into the dark of their apartment. Understandably thinking they might be under siege, Walker fired a warning shot with his legal firearm. The police, who had not identified themselves in this unceremonious no-knock raid, sprayed a hail of bullets through the apartment. In seconds, eight bullets pierced Taylor’s body. The police didn’t even have the right house: they had been searching for a drug dealer, Jamarcus Glover, who had already been captured somewhere else, and neither Taylor nor Walker had any criminal record, rendering her death even more heartbreakingly absurd.

Even now, months after her senseless killing, Taylor still has not received anything like justice. It took the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and subsequent protests that roiled on across America, for her case to be more seriously reexamined.

And yet, despite marches in her name, an outpouring on social media (hearkening back to the #SayHerName campaign), and overwhelming and sustained pressure on the state’s attorney general, the officers who killed her have not been arrested. It took two months for the Louisville council to pass “Breonna’s Law,” which banned no-knock warrants, yet at the time of the legislation, her killers had still not been held accountable professionally or criminally. (The Mayor finally announced on Friday that one of the three officers, Brett Hankison, is being fired, and the other two have been placed on administrative reassignment, but there has been no indication that arrests will follow.)

The glacial march of justice has been the norm for so many Black women hurt by the police, like Sandra Bland, was found hanged in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, three days after an aggressive police officer pulled her over for a lane change; like Tarika Wilson, who, like Taylor, was unarmed and fatally shot by cops targeting her boyfriend; or Rekia Boyd, who was shot and killed by an off-duty cop as she walked in a park near her home; or Natasha McKenna, a 37-year-old Virginian who, was tasered to death in jail while she was experiencing a mental-health crisis in 2015; or like the 13 Black women who accused a white cop, Daniel Holtzclaw, of repeatedly raping and assaulting them. He was known to seek out Black girls that he could threaten with arrest unless they gave him sexual favors.

For Black trans women, the situation is even more tenuous. I think of Breona Hill, who was punched by two white policemen, then had her head smashed into the concrete twice, her face left with a serpentine bloody scar across the bridge of her nose; a cop pressed his knee into her neck in the same way that George Floyd was fatally restrained. If trans women are not beaten by the cops, they are often still harmed in police reports by being misgendered and described as flamboyant gay men, like Chanel Scurlock. Even the smallest justice — being gendered correctly — is often too much for these women to receive.

This, then, is the quieter epidemic sweeping our nation: the execution of Black women whose names, historically, have tended to be overshadowed by those of the Black men lost to the horrors of police brutality. When women of color are killed by law enforcement, they are so often remembered differently, if they are remembered at all. By contrast, the murders of Black men are often compared — rightly — to the public lynching spectacles of the 19th and 20th centuries, and when state-sanctioned violence against women appears in mainstream media at all, the stories that are given the most sustained attention are about injustices done to white cis women. As a result, crimes against Black women, which fit neither model, are frequently relegated to the sidelines, or go completely unnoticed.

The nation is used to failing Black girls and women. It always has. Their deaths deserve no less fire and fury than those of Black men and white women, and affecting change means also challenging the more discreet forms of violence they face. But the country cannot help those who it fails to see or hear or name.

But when women of color — Black women most of all — react to these abuses with anger, we are all too often reduced to stereotypes; when trans women specifically show anger, we may be criticized for acting “masculine,” as if rage is an emotion exclusively reserved for men. But, as Audre Lorde knew, indignation is a natural response to inequality. “Women responding to racism,” she declared in “The Uses of Anger,” a keynote she delivered in 1981, “means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.”

All too often, Lorde noted, white listeners would ask her to soften her tone, so as not to come across too “harshly”; her rage itself was something that white audiences could only accept in curated, acceptable doses. We are asked why we did not speak up in fury about our traumas immediately after they occurred; we are criticized, in turn, for being too strident, too furious, when we do. If it is not our bodies being policed, it is our tones.

Still, there’s hope. Women’s anger is in the air — and its power is sublime. I think of the recent spectacle of thousands of protesters standing in solidarity in Brooklyn for Black trans women. I think of the enormous rallies this month that have chanted Breonna Taylor’s name, demanding justice for her. I think of the startling power in these protests against anti-Blackness, which have swept the nation and even the globe like never before. From our rage comes hope.

But I still remember the fear, always, when I see men in the uniforms of cops or guards. I feel that visceral uncertainty that a cop will let his gaze, too, linger on me too long, and then I will hear his footfalls behind me, and if I run or resist, my life will be on the line. This fear makes me wonder if I can ever fully trust one of those men with my life. The only option seems to be to keep chanting those names, in the hope that they will finally, one day, be heard and dignified — no matter how fruitless it might seem — even if we know it is only a matter of time before another name will be on our lips.

When Will Black Women See Justice?