At a WinCo grocery store in a suburb outside Los Angeles, a black woman is attacked by police officers for recording them on her cellphone while they held and handcuffed her husband. A police officer then pulls this unnamed woman by the neck, throws her to the ground and kneels on top of her in a terrifying scene that has become eerily and tragically familiar: “I can’t breathe,” she said.
We don’t know this black woman’s name. We do know that she had no guns. We know she didn’t attack the police. We know she was standing with a cell phone. And we know that she was brutally attacked for that.
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We’ve seen this clip before — a black girl thrown across a high school classroom, a black teen in a bikini thrown like a rag doll, a black woman on the side of a road being thrashed by a Los Angeles deputy, a black woman dragged out of her car for refusing to put out her cigarette. We may not know her, but we do know her.
In America, we should be wondering how a black woman who started out as a bystander to an incident of police brutality became the center of it. We should be asking why so many others like her have been assaulted, beaten, tasered, shot, and some murdered, and yet as a society we don’t ask those questions. The reality is that this issue is barely registered in the public discourse.
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The confluence of factors that make black women and girls the most vulnerable of all women to state violence also conspire to erase their loss of life, both in individual cases and as a group.
Black women and girls are more likely than any other group of women to be killed by police. Black women make up about 10% of the female population in the US, yet they account for one-fifth of all women killed by police and nearly one-third of unarmed women killed by police.
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Black women have been killed by police in their homes, in their cars, in the company of parents and in front of their children. Girls as young as 7 and women as young as 93 have been killed by the police. That they are women and that the group was most likely unarmed when they were killed does little to diminish the universal excuse that officers feared for their lives when they used deadly force.
Tragically, of the more than 200 cases of black women murdered by police and profiled in “Say Her Name: Black Women’s Stories of Police Violence and Public Silence”,a new book published by the African American Policy Forum, virtually none of the officers involved have been held accountable.
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The invisibility of black women as victims of police brutality is widespread and spans the social and political spectrum. You may know the names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille or George Floyd as victims of police brutality, but do you recognize India Kager, Michelle Shirley, Kayla Moore, Michelle Cusseaux or Tanisha Anderson?
For those who consider themselves racial justice advocates, not knowing that these women lost their lives at the hands of police is not a personal failure, but a conceptual failure. The stories about black women and police brutality do not fit the prevailing male-centered frame of reference, including when it comes to racial trauma. When the facts do not fit into available frames, they become superfluous and easily forgotten.
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Resisting black women’s encounters with police being erased requires an intersectional way of seeing the causes and consequences of police brutality. From its inception, the #SayHerName campaign has sought not only to recognize and commemorate the deaths of black women killed by police, but also to expose the interconnected ways in which black women’s vulnerability to state violence has normalized.
Since the summer of racial reckoning in 2020, right-wing extremists have redoubled their efforts to erase black history, black voices, and black lives. They have also tried to censor black feminism, black queer studies and intersectionality itself – caricatured attempts to bring to the forefront the experiences of black women and others who have been relegated to the margins of anti-racism and feminism movements.
There is a twisted method to this madness.
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Intersectionality is a prism to see more clearly the injustices that demagogues like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would rather gloss over. Not surprisingly, he tried to ban instruction on intersectionality, even demanding that the concept be dropped from the Advanced Placement African Studies course. But understanding how racism, sexism and other forces intersect is critical to the survival of black women and girls, just as thinking critically about race is a necessity for all black people.
I’m not naive enough to think that the end of police brutality can be brought about by the #SayHerName movement. But what we can do is testify against the policies and practices that systematically abuse black women, with almost no consequences.
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Women like Korryn Gaines and Shelly Frey and Atatiana Jefferson made more. Women like the unnamed woman in the WinCo parking lot who could have died earn more. Our society deserves more.
The first step in acknowledging the value of these women’s lives may seem simple, but it’s essential: say her name.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a law professor at Columbia University and UCLA and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.