On Korryn Gaines and Black Women Who Dare to be Defiant

On August 2, 2016, Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Black woman and mother of two, was shot and killed by Baltimore County police officers during an hours-long stand-off that took place in her home. According to police accounts, officers first went to Gaines’ apartment with an arrest warrant in connection to a past traffic stop. The stand-off ended with Gaines’ five-year-old son being sent to the hospital with a gunshot wound, and Gaines herself killed by police.

As is routine now in the days and weeks following incidents like this, Black people are left sifting through whatever visual evidence is left of the life that was taken—attempting to mourn in some haphazard, sometimes public, often insufficient way, while figuring out how best to keep moving, living, working while being both Black and alive. In this case, Korryn Gaines left behind footage she had taken herself, much of which was removed from her own Facebook and Instagram by Facebook after earlier deactivating her social media accounts during the stand-off.

One video in particular of Gaines’ interaction with police during a past traffic stop, has left me—in all honesty—relatively immobilized. The video depicts several police officers interacting with Gaines after having pulled her over, first attempting to give her a ticket for driving without insurance and later arresting her in order to tow her car. She refuses nearly every single police order. Her resistance is constant and searing. She is defiant, unyielding, and loving. She is earnest, angry, and patient. I had never observed anything like it before—until I remembered, I had.

Gaines (to police): “I’m not afraid of y’all. I don’t know what fuck y’all don’t get. I’m not scared of y’all.”

I read Assata Shakur’s autobiography, Assata, for the first time in full last year. A small part of me (the internalized misogynoir in me) presumed the whole book would read like a vivid stream of militant, somewhat simplistic, pro-Black rhetoric. The issue, I thought, was not that I wouldn’t agree with the politics presented, but that I’d have heard it all before. It was arrogant, sexist, and—put plainly—elitist of me to make those assumptions, and unsurprisingly, I was wrong. Shakur offers us a wide range of emotions and reasoning, thoughtful questions, deductions and sentiments—including a powerful and uncompromising air of defiance.

Gaines: “I’m not complyin’ to y’all criminal fucking ways. I’m not gonna do it.”

Korryn’s demeanor and energy reminded me most immediately of Assata’s: boldness in the face of police and the very real threat of physical violence, in the face of imprisonment, or a lethal outcome—and all the while, maintaining the capacity to love. What a feat. To look at the world around you thriving on the death and disposability of you and your kin and still choose to invest in a radical kind of familial love.

The defiance we observe from Gaines in the video is both a strategy geared toward liberation, and a strategy born out of love. And watching evidence of that love as she interacted with her kids was, for me, the most jarring. I was overwhelmed by the sense of imminent danger in those private moments, the feeling that the interaction with her children still existed in some isolated precious safe space that was being threatened and intruded upon in real time, from every side. The love Gaines had for her children, so apparent and painfully vulnerable, was suddenly exposed in brief, intimate interactions with them, while in the midst of a confrontation that, in countless other cities and similar situations, has ended in the killing of a Black person.

Gaines (to her children): “Hey, mama. Hey.”
Cop: “Ma’am, do you wanna get out of the vehicle?”
Gaines (to her children): “Give me a kiss.”
Cop: “And get your children out?”
Gaines (to her children): “Mommy loves you.”
Gaines (to her son): “Don’t cry. I told you don’t be scared.”
Cop: “Just to let you know, ma’am we have a taser operator coming, okay, that way we don’t have to go hands on with you.”
Gaines (to her son): “Don’t cry. Stop crying.
Cop: “We have to get you out of this car.”
Gaines (to her son): Don’t cry. Stop crying. Hey, look at me. What are you afraid of? Remember what I told you? You stop crying, okay? And you let them know that they stole your mother.”

She loved her son enough to teach him not to be afraid, to know the truth of American anti-Black violence and stand decisively against it. She loved her children enough to model resistance as she believed and understood it. She loved her son so much she taught him defiance, just like my parents loved me so much they taught me to comply. The point is—though some of us may have done differently and some of us may have done the same—it does not serve this movement well to demonize a defiant Black woman for defying the very state we seek to dismantle.

Poster by Emory Douglas, former minister of culture of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Plenty of Black mothers throughout history in this country and across the globe have resisted anti-Black state violence while holding their children on their lap and a shotgun in their hand. Plenty of Black grandmothers slept and still sleep with shotguns underneath their mattresses. This kind of self-defense is neither new nor brash. Respectability is a survival strategy, just like armed resistance is a survival strategy. Korryn Gaines’ strategy may not be your strategy or my strategy, but it is indeed a strategy—and it’s one Assata Shakur and others modeled for us in years past, and many Black women model for us today.

It breaks my heart to say this, but I don’t know how many of us Black “movement folks” would stand alongside Assata if she were actively organizing and resisting in America right now. We quote her book, share her photos, wear her on our shirts and hoodies and declare #HandsOffAssata on social media, but I can’t help but question the public dissonance between the mythos of Assata Shakur, the radically defiant Black revolutionary, and the reality of Korryn Gaines, the radically defiant Black mother from Baltimore.

Gaines (to her son): “Don’t. What did I just tell you.”
Gaines’ son: “Don’t cry.”
Gaines (to her son): “Don’t cry. And you better fight.”

Maybe your strategy for survival differs from Gaines’ strategy dramatically, or just slightly, or maybe your strategy is the same. What we know for certain is that none of these strategies are foolproof. The cycles of dashcam, body cam, and cell phone footage keep coming, relentlessly. The names of the deceased keep flooding in no matter what we do. Some days I wonder what else is left to try? What else can we teach ourselves and our children? What can we tell our kin to keep them safe? When, no matter the advice—the hands up or not, the precaution, the bravery, the multitasking in the moment, the forced calm despite the nerves—they still shoot us?

Header image via Democracy Now.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work is focused on historical and contemporary iterations of black, brown and indigenous resistance. She is also a Callaloo Fellow, and author of "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," published through Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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