Kimberlé Crenshaw on anti-black police brutality

Kimberlé Crenshaw, perhaps best known for her work responding to second-wave white feminism with work we now recognize as intersectionality (a term she is credited with coining), throws her hat in the ring on anti-black police brutality:

When she speaks at public meetings, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw has a trick. She asks everyone to stand up until they hear an unfamiliar name. She then reads the names of unarmed black men and boys whose deaths ignited the Black Lives Matter movement; names such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin. Her audience are informed and interested in civil rights so “virtually no one will sit down”, Crenshaw says approvingly. “Then I say the names of Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Aura Rosser, Maya Hall. By the time I get to the third name, almost everyone has sat down. By the fifth, the only people standing are those working on our campaign.”

The campaign, #SayHerName, was created to raise awareness about the number of women and girls that are killed by law enforcement officers. For Crenshaw – who coined the term “intersectionality” in the 1980s to describe the way different forms of discrimination overlap and compound each other – it is a brutal illustration of how racism and sexism play out on black women’s bodies.

Anderson is far from alone. Yvette Smith was killed in her own home after the police arrived to investigate a domestic disturbance complaint between two men. Smith, a single mother of two, was shot in the head when she opened the door for the officers. The police first alleged that Smith had a gun, then retracted the claim. The former Texas police deputy who killed Smith was cleared of her murder.

A year ago, Crenshaw, along with lawyer Andrea Ritchie,released a report looking at almost 70 such cases, many taking place in the past three years. But there could be many more. Until recently – when the Guardian launched its database, the Counted – the US had no comprehensive record of those killed by police officers. “More black people [in total] are killed – disproportionately to their rate in the population – and although the numbers are hard to assess, the reality is that black women are vulnerable to the same justifications used for killing black men,” says Crenshaw

One case that did catch the media and the public’s attention was the death of Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over for failing to use her indicator when she changed lanes. A video showed her being pinned to the ground and surrounded by officers after being charged with assault. She can be heard asking why her head is slammed on to the pavement. Three days later, she was found dead in a police cell.

However, unless the way women are killed is taken into account, says Crenshaw, we can’t “broaden our understanding of vulnerability to state violence and what do we need to do about it”. There are many cases, for instance, where women are killed by police who arrive as first responders to emergency calls for mental health crises. “Disability – emotional, physical and mental – is one of the biggest risk factors for being killed by the police, but it is relatively suppressed in the conversation about police violence,” she points out.

Crenshaw points out that #SayHerName also serves to highlight other forms of state violence that impact women. Crenshaw cites the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma police officer convicted of 18 of 36 charges of sexual assault against black women. Despite the number of women involved, the case was barely covered in the media. There is little public discussion of sexual abuse by police officers, Crenshaw says, although “according to some reports, they are the second most-common report of police abuse”.

The conversation around authoritarian behaviour patterns has started to reveal correlations between domestic violence and racist violence. Crenshaw’s work appears to corroborate this. In other words, if someone is willing to engage in dehumanizing tactics to justify violence against one particular demographic, it appears to be justified in assuming they will not stop with their first target.

The numbers are still being investigated in this idea of linking violent acts against one group and prejudice against another group but the idea has been around for a few years, decades even, with the core sentiment present in “First they came…

Perhaps better history lessons are needed.


Edit: Oops! Forgot to actually link Crenshaw’s interview. Fixed.