Over the last month, the media has blown up with the high-profile cases of racist violence at the hands of the police: the death of Eric Garner in a chokehold by the New York City Police Department, and the shooting death of Mike Brown at the hands of the police in Ferguson — not to mention the ongoing militarization of the protests as well as the harm inflicted on protesters – has had the nation talking once again about racist police violence, and racist anti-black violence more generally. But as coverage of these incidents increases, why aren’t we hearing much about cases of police violence against women and LGBTQ folks?
This increased coverage might make it seem like there has been a huge uptick in racist violence, but really, this is the way it’s been for a while. Social media has just given us alternative ways to communicate with each other about it, and we can see now more easily than ever how systematic the murder of people of color, particularly black people, is — both at the hands of the state and with their complicity through our criminal (in)justice system’s inaction in cases like Trayvon Martin’s.
But media — social or otherwise — is created by humans, and we bring all our shit to it. We bring our internalized racism and our anti-black bias. We bring misogyny, and homophobia, and transphobia, and we bring our desire for an easy narrative of innocence and worth at the hands of an evil system. I want to question the desire for “innocence,” and I want to question the usual ways that we calculate a person of worth.
So much of what goes into these calculations of innocence and worth is about race along with gender, sexuality, and class, and often those who are most at risk of violence at the hands of the state (or with its complicity) do not make the respectability cut: sex workers, black and Latina trans women, immigrants, queer folks, or just kids who weren’t gonna go to college and were doing whatever they had to do to survive in underground and criminalized economies. Their deaths are thought of as inevitable at best, deserved at worst.
The truth is, the death of Mike Brown is not unusual. Black bodies appear to be disposable in the American psyche, and black men are major targets of police violence. Most of the time when a black man is the target of violence at the hands of the police, few of us outside their communities hear about it. But when cases are elevated to the mainstream, they are usually men or boys who are deemed “innocent” — which then is called into question by media outlets who seek to construct them as thugs (see #IfTheyGunnedMeDown). But an important question here is who is even allowed the privilege of being constructed as an innocent, ever?
How are the deaths and beatings of women — cis and trans — at the hands of the police or with their complicity so much less compelling? I think the obvious answer here is misogyny and transmisogyny, not on one specific occasion or by one specific person, but at the systemic level: what tweets get tweeted and retweeted, what events seem newsworthy, and what bodies are deemed to hold value.
I want to mourn the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, and I want to question why the deaths of Renisha McBride and Islan Nettles and Kathryn Johnston haven’t gotten similar traction. Why the beating of Marlene Pinnock isn’t on all of our lips. Why the nation is not familiar with the names of Stephanie Maldonado, or of Ersula Ore. And how many women’s names do we not know because they don’t dare come forward? Because the violence they experience at the hands of the police is sexual, and the shame and stigma around sexual violence silences them?
The truth is that, in the predominantly male-led civil rights organizations who lead efforts to respond to police brutality, in the male-dominated media that covers them, and in the hearts and minds of many people in this country, women who are of color, who are sex workers, undocumented immigrants, transgender (or, god forbid, more than one of those at once) are rarely candidates for “innocence,” and are often blamed for their own deaths, forgotten, or hardly counted at all. Women of color who are targeted by the police, and black women in particular, are seen as so disposable, so far from being moral actors, that their lives and deaths are just passed over by the mainstream — their victimization and murder just another facet of the American landscape. Aiyana Jones’ case is the last time that I can remember a black girl’s murder by the police gaining significant national attention; she was seven years old.
I stand with the people of Ferguson. I see and share their rage. And I want to also see national rage for the deaths of women of color. I want to see widespread rage for the staggering number of trans lives lost. As a nation, we’re at a tipping point on racist, state-sanctioned violence, and we have the opportunity and power to turn our collective rage into systemic change. We must be diligent that demands that come out of this historical moment are for all of us, from all of us.
Verónica is a queer immigrant writer and rabble-rouser.