04.03.15 nsa

They Were Our Sisters: Feminists Should Not Abandon Mya Hall or Miriam Carey

When I heard the news about how the NSA’s headquarters was supposedly attacked by two “men dressed as women” who tried to barrel through a security cordon around Fort Meade –one of whom was fatally shot I immediately feared the worst. A knot twisted in my stomach, even as I kept studiously silent in public about the issue, waiting for more facts to come out about the two people, each detail seeming to confirm my worst fears. And then, finally, trickles of truth began to flow from Washington D.C.-area media about the identity of the people in the ill-fated SUV. The person killed by NSA’s security forces was, in fact, a trans woman of color and a sex worker named Mya Hall.

The lead-up to that revelation is instructive, however, and should widen the conversation about black women murdered by police, and what our press coverage can reveal about why it happens. The women in question are often posthumously fitted to fantasies about extremism, a peculiar form of the usual justifications for the murder of black Americans by police where “erratic” behavior on the part of black women is quickly construed as a mortal threat. Consider the initial coverage of Mya Hall and the Fort Meade incident:

On March 30th, WaPo had described the events leading up to the fatal crash thusly:

The overnight tryst began in Baltimore, with three men, two dressed as women. It continued at a motel on U.S. 1, and when one of the men woke up Monday morning, his two cross-dressing companions, and his Ford Escape, were gone.

So too wrote the New York Times:

FORT MEADE, Md. — Two men dressed as women smashed a stolen car into a police vehicle after they disobeyed commands at the closely guarded gates of the National Security Agency on Monday, prompting police to open fire.

Or this piece on Tuesday when the legal name of the victim was released, written by CNN and republished by a variety of outlets:

The FBI publicly identified Tuesday the man who died Monday while trying to use an unauthorized vehicle tried to gain access to the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Maryland, as Ricky Shawatza Hall.

Why did the press so forcefully assert and repeat the “men dressed as women” meme? The obvious answer seems to be transphobia, but it’s, as ever, more complicated. The misgendering speaks to the very fears that saw Mya and her companion in the SUV shot at in the first place. We are so inured to fanciful stories about terrorist activity that we’ll believe the staggeringly unlikely — that a group of terrorists dressed up in women’s clothes to crash into an NSA car as some sort of big plot — before accepting a more mundane, far less threatening truth: that someone in distress made a wrong turn, lost their bearings, and panicked when police surrounded them. According to new AP reports that interview those who knew Mya, she was struggling with her mental health and was unable to afford treatment.

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04.03.15 nsaThe idea that male Islamic extremists would launch attacks in the US while dressed as women has been a popular idée fixe for armchair generals and pundits throughout the West for some time now.

One might argue that as vulgar as this impulse toward the fanciful may be, it stems from an understandable place. In the wake of 9/11 our intelligence services were derided for what many were calling a “failure of imagination”– few people imagined that extremists might hijack passenger jets and turn them into missiles, after all.

But in response we seem to have overreacted — not a new observation, I’m aware. It’s so old I could justly say I grew up with that observation lingering in the background of news and opinion I consumed. Yet it bears repeating here, with a twist, recognizing how in the Fort Meade case our trigger-happy society not only put a woman in an early grave but also led the press to sensationalize the story to make it fit with our 24-style narratives about the nature of terrorism.

The story echoes the tragic death of  Miriam Carey, a black mother of an infant child, near the White House in 2013. Carey, with her one year old daughter in the backseat of her car, mistakenly drove into a White House checkpoint. When several Secret Service officers drew weapons on her, she panicked and drove away at speed, prompting a police chase that ended with 8 bullets in her car and Carey slain. Miraculously, the infant was unhurt.

Like the Fort Meade tragedy, we find a situation where a woman of color was interpreted as a terroristic threat to be excised violently when she acted in a way deemed to be unusual.

When we talk about the oft-unmourned women of color slain by police, we would do well to recognize that trans women of color are very often the most forgotten of that already marginalized group. And we have here what I fear will be another high profile case of a black woman killed by police in an incident mistaken for a terrorist attack that is quickly flushed down the memory hole. I remember being nothing short of stunned at the tonal shift in coverage surrounding the fatal wrong turn taken by the late Ms. Carey. As details were still coming in, we were treated to wall to wall rolling news coverage of a capital in lockdown.

Once the crucial detail of Carey’s identity and the fact that it had all been a dreadful accident was revealed, we suddenly stopped hearing about the case–save for notable exceptions like the Mother Jones investigation I just linked, and for Melissa Harris Perry’s recent discussion of the Carey case along similar lines to this article, where she interviewed Valarie Carey, Miriam’s surviving sister.

That same report notes a feature of the Carey coverage that shocked me at the time: the way that post hoc justifications for the killing were supplied readily by journalists like those at CNN who exaggerated the incident to make Carey sound like more of a threat–saying that she rammed a White House barricade deliberately, for instance, or implying that she herself had rammed a Secret Service cruiser that was actually crashed by its driver during the police chase.

Carey’s personal life was strip-mined for every possible failing that could have justified or presaged her death: allegations that her car’s tires were stolen, that she paid too much for her Connecticut home, that she had been fired once from her job, that she was mentally ill.

Similarly, in Mya Hall’s case, although some of the media, like the Washington Post, are making a shift toward gendering her correctly, we see some of the same tropes of reporting on black deaths at the hands of police: the use of a mugshot, an emphasis on past crimes and misdeeds, and so forth, as if to assert that there is some sort of karmic explanation for the tragedy. All as if to suggest that there was something seemly about her summary execution as a suspected threat to national security.

The role of feminists in these cases, then, should be to keep the flame of attention alive for these women that our society would prefer to forget as rounding errors in the machinery of anti-terror. We should be asking how it is it that two black women, whose wrong turns and sudden (if understandable) panics were interpreted as violent attacks, and why the wages of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color and neurotype seem to be death.

In Carey’s case, much was made of the fact that she tried to flee in a panic from the officers who’d drawn weapons on her. (Be honest: how would you feel, especially as a black person, if a police officer was brandishing a gun in your direction?) The death penalty should not be applied to an understandable case of one’s survival instincts being triggered. Erratic behaviour or panicked signs of distress should not warrant a death sentence.

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It is not an accident that this keeps happening, and I fear it will happen again. The noxious mixture of paranoia over terrorism and a law enforcement institution rife with anti-black racism will lead not only to more deaths but more media carnivals that serve to re-sow the seedbeds for these types of killings. For women of color and particularly black women in this country, that is the all too urgent and very real terrorism that breeds here at home. And as feminists, we would do well to not be complicit in leaving these women in unmarked graves where the tragedies that claimed their lives are forgotten.

I naively hoped that the killing of Miriam Carey would touch off a scandal that would shake up our security establishment, with ample and aggressive press coverage asking how something like this could happen– but she has been unclaimed even by many of those (outside of black activist communities) who would call themselves radicals. Mainstream feminism must mend that mistake, and refuse to repeat it with Mya Hall.

 

Edit: Added additional press coverage of the Carey case. Also, at the request of Valarie Carey, the late Miriam Carey’s sister, I have removed references to the suggestion that Carey suffered from post partum depression. This, it turns out, was untrue and has not been corrected in the press coverage I sourced some of the material for this column from; I regret the error.

 

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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