The jailhouse death of Sandra Bland has her family and activists asking a lot of questions—which don’t seem to have good answers. Bland’s case is the latest example of police violence against black women, joining many other women and girls of color who have been harassed, abused or killed at the hands of law enforcement.
The Ms. Blog spoke with Kimberlé Crenshaw, founder and director of the African American Policy Forum and co-author the #SayHerName report, which aims to highlight the policy violence that black women experience, about Bland’s case.
What was your immediate reaction when you learned of Sandra Bland’s death?
Deeply disturbed that this kind of tragedy continues to happen. [It makes me hopeful] that her death would prompt the media and activists alike to pay more attention to the vulnerability of black women. We may never know what exactly caused her death, but the fact that she was pulled over, manhandled and arrested for something that was so minor in the first place is itself an indicator of how vulnerable black women are. I don’t want that vulnerability to disappear if we, in fact, never do find out what actually caused her death. The thing is, she wouldn’t have been in the jail had she not been pulled over, and the entire possibility is that had she been white, she would not have been in that jail cell in the first place.
Why is the police brutality that black women experience never foregrounded in conversations surrounding police use of excessive force?
You rarely, if ever, have black women at the center of how we imagine and politically resist racism. And that’s especially the case when we deal with questions like police brutality, excessive force and mass incarceration, things that are widely understood to be particularly salient when it comes to racism and its efforts to contain and police black masculinity. Black women and black girls are, in general, marginalized in the way we think and imagine race discrimination. When it comes to matters of force and punishment, in which black men are so disproportionately impacted, there’s scant attention paid to how black women are impacted by some of these same dynamics.
What do you think Sandra Bland’s death could mean for the #SayHerName movement?
It has so far raised awareness and attention to her case and her vulnerability in particular. Our hope is that justice is served by the attention that her case has generated. There’s vulnerability that all black women face and that vulnerability will still be there even if we never know what really happened to Sandra. Or if it turned out that Sandra did commit suicide, the fact of the matter is that she was abused, she was manhandled. We saw it, we saw her last words to the public and that cannot be the image of policing that we’re satisfied and happy with. My hope is that we build from the tragedy to a proactive movement that actually does put black women in the middle of our concerns and that we build policy and accountability structures that respond to the specific ways that black women are made vulnerable to police violence.
Where does this dangerous social narrative of black women being inhuman, superhuman or unrape-able come from and how does it contribute to these tragic cases we see over and over again?
We just have to start with acknowledging that black women came to this country as forced labor and forced engines of capital reproduction. They were worked for both their capacity to create more workers and they were worked themselves. That exceptional way in which black women have occupied womanhood has long, long, long been one of the justifications that has always been given for how the treatment of black women has diverged wildly from how women are supposed to be treated or understood.
Even the idea of access to womanhood has been compromised by race, by blackness in particular. Their race, their blackness, in of itself being a masculinizing trait, undermines the ability to perceive black women as women. For instance, the police officer that killed Michelle Cusseaux busted into her house to take her to a mental facility and she was standing there with a hammer. He shot her through the heart, saying that it was a “look on her face” that made him fear for his life. It’s almost unimaginable that a Christie Brinkley would have prompted a police officer to fear for his life just from her look. So it is a clear example, in my mind, of the racialization of black women as superhuman, less than human, and definitely less than female, makes them subject to this kind of punishment and abuse that we see with Michelle Cusseaux or with Marlene Pinnock—who was filmed on the side of the road being beaten full-force by a state patrolman, straight in the face. Who does that to women? What women is this done to and why is it seen as a legitimate way of treating them?
It’s because black women have traditionally not been seen in the same light as women, and their blackness, their race, makes them to be seen as less female and more of a threat. There is a disproportionate level of violence that is being used to enforce petty code violations. That is in essence what we saw with Sandra Bland and with the 15-year-old girl who was straddled by the police. When police [who have killed black women] make these claims that they were in fear of their lives, what they’re really making is a racial claim. And being to see it in how black women are treated may actually help us understand how it plays out across the board with all black people.
What do you see happening in the coming weeks concerning Bland’s death? Will attention only escalate?
I think it depends on whether activists and the general public demand accountability, not only for Sandra but for the many, many other cases that we talked about in the #SayHerName report. We have to remember that this time last year, Eric Garner had just been killed and it was before Mike Brown was killed and there was a sense that this was intolerable and outrageous. There was a sense that these cases were exemplary of the many different ways that black men were vulnerable to police abuse. The question is whether the anger and the grief over this young woman’s loss of life will sustain a kind of righteous indignation around the vulnerability of black women and turn into an active demand for inclusion and accountability. It’s not just about one case, it’s about hundreds and hundreds of cases that have never seen the light of day. If [the national dialogue] moves into that broader understanding and conversation, it could very well put black women in the center of our concerns.
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.