It Could Have Been Me: Korryn Gaines and the Criminalization of Black Women

In a matter of hours, it is possible for an individual with no prior criminal record to find themselves with a criminal warrant out for their arrest for a minor violation. If you are black and a woman, this is a potentially life-threatening situation. There is, without a doubt, a violent trend in state-sanctioned violence against black women. The way in which we are seeing police officers quickly escalate from stern orders to a violent arrest mirrors the polarity of our judicial system. Small violations such as failure to pay a fine or to transport one’s body to a courtroom to appear before a judge can potentially make one a criminal. We saw how this can carry out in the recent killing of Korryn Gaines in her Baltimore home on August 1st. Gaines did not have a criminal record. She did have traffic violations and a warrant for her arrest. Every bone in my body tells me that I could have been Korryn Gaines.

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This past May, on my way home from a class in Newark, New Jersey, I ran to catch the light rail, a local train that travels through the city of Newark. As I ran down the steps, the train was approaching. Although I had a ticket in my purse, I didn’t stamp it as is the general rule before boarding the train. When I exited the train there were transit officers there checking tickets. I showed my unstamped ticket and after some back and forth with the officer about whether I was telling the truth or not about what had transpired, I asked him to please get things moving and either issue me a fine or let me go home. He issued me a fine. The officer refused to explain to me how to pay it when I asked. He was belligerent and rude. Shortly after the ordeal, I followed the instructions on the ticket and mailed in a check for $74 to address indicated. The ticket indicated that I did not have to appear in court. Relieved, I put the whole thing behind me.

A few weeks later I received a “second notice” to appear in court. I was confused—I had never received a first notice. I called the number on the letter and the woman I spoke to scolded me for following the directions on the ticket which indicated how to pay by mail. “No one does that,” she told me. I should have paid the fine in person. She told me that it takes a long time to process payment by mail and so it was as if I had never paid it. She suggested I call back on the morning of my court date to see if my payment had been processed. She also told me that if I failed to appear in court, a warrant would be issued for my arrest. I could hardly believe that this was the line of consequence for an unstamped light rail ticket.

My court date came along and I called the courthouse again to see if my payment had been processed now two weeks after I had sent it in. It had not. And so I went to Newark, appeared in court and paid the ticket a second time. Just before paying the ticket again, I sat before a window where a woman told me to run upstairs to the court room to see a judge. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when she that if I did not, in a matter of hours there would be a warrant out for my arrest.

“Criminal” is a category made up by the state to decide which actions are punishable and the terms of said punishment. I tell this story of my personal experience to show just how easy it is for the state to make a black woman like me into a criminal. I could have been the woman with an arrest warrant whose life was snatched away on a summer afternoon. I could have been Korryn Gaines.

About a week after I had appeared in court and paid the fine a second time, I received a letter saying that there was a warrant out for my arrest. I called the court house yet again. They told me there was no record of this in their system. I can only pray that the police won’t come knocking on my door too.

The tragic link between women like Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland and Imani Perry is their blackness, their femaleness and the swift criminalization of their noncriminal offenses. Each of these women had warrants issued for their arrest and they had horrifying, for some deadly, experiences at the hands of police. What happened to Korryn Gaines was not just a case of a black woman being belligerent; Gaines got caught up in the violent and oppressive wheels of bureaucracy and systemic racism. She was an intelligent and assertive young black woman. She documented every step of her process, the web of bureaucracy and the red tape she had to navigate.

In footage posted on Heavy, Korryn can be heard at the police station where she showed up to ask for hospital discharge papers and a court order from her two-day detainment in police custody. It appears that Korryn may have had a miscarriage while in police custody, yet another layer to the trauma she may have experienced. In the video, she explains very clearly that she needed this documentation in order to work with her lawyer on fighting her case. She explains the time-sensitive nature of her situation: Korryn had meetings with her lawyer and upcoming court dates. In this exchange with a Baltimore police officer, Korryn very clearly rejects the bureaucratic process of the middle man, a process that she knows will not serve her need for timely action. When the officer failed to provide her with a timely course of action so that she could obtain the documents needed for her to make legal steps forward, she said what so many of us black and brown folks know: that the system is not out here for us. “This is the time when I should be sitting with my lawyer and discussing how we’re going to go about this case. You guys are—you’re basically sabotaging my case doing this.” In this sobering moment, Korryn spoke directly to the built-in bureaucratic barriers to justice that precluded her from rightfully defending herself in court.

No one deserves to die because of traffic violations or for not appearing in court or for failure to stamp a light rail ticket or for being difficult or belligerent or non-compliant. No one. The killing of Korryn Gaines and the injury to her son is not unfortunate or sad; it is outrageous. It is a feminist concern, it’s a civil rights concern, it’s a human concern.

When I watched those videos of Korryn saying “They are going to have to kill me,” I heard the voice of a young black woman who has suffered through the trauma of racism and sexism in this country. I heard the voice of Earledreka White shouting, “I’m a woman!” as she is violently assaulted by a police officer. In Korryn’s voice I heard exhaustion and the desire to preserve one’s integrity in a world that tells black women that our bodies are not sacred and that our lives do not matter. There is no way to justify what happened to Korryn Gaines or to the countless other black women who have been harmed at the hands of police officers, friends, or intimate partners. It is time to rally around black women and to fight with vigor.

Systemic injustice is real and it has effected the lives of black people in startling ways. The city of Newark, for example, has large pockets of poor and working class people, many of whom are black and brown. If you receive a parking or light rail ticket and are poor or have unstable living conditions or are forgetful, you can easily find yourself with a criminal warrant for your arrest merely by missing a letter in the mail or not having the money to pay fines. What’s more, the bureaucracy in cities like Newark make it difficult to pay fines. In my case, I had the time to run off to the courthouse on a whim in the middle of the day. I also had the money to pay my ticket twice. I can only imagine how many poor and working class black and brown people have been affected in Newark and beyond by bureaucratic red tape and the unfair process of issuing criminal warrants.

Racism is not only embedded in government policies and practices, it determines how those policies and practices are carried out. On the day that I was fined by the transit officer in Newark, there were two officers checking tickets. Both let several people go unfined before they got to me, some with unstamped tickets and others without tickets at all. I cannot say for sure why I was singled out to receive a ticket but I do know that none of the people they let go were black women. This is one of the ways in which racial injustice works—it takes already problematic policies and applies them unfairly. There has to be an alternative.

Among our many fights is one to push our local and state governments to change the process of issuing criminal warrants for noncriminal offenses. There is an urgent need to challenge the terms under which criminal warrants may be issued and arrests are made. This is something we can and should make noise about. And as we move forward in this fight, Korryn’s life and experiences must be hoisted at the very center of our consciousness as feminists and as advocates for social justice.

This post originally appeared on Weird Sister. Republished with permission.

unnamedNaomi Extra is a freelance writer, poet and doctoral student in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. In both her creative and scholarly work she explores the themes of agency and pleasure in the lives of black women and girls. Naomi is also a Cave Canem fellow and contributing writer to the feminist publication, Weird Sister. You can find her writings in The Feminist Wire, Bitch, Racialicious, Apogee Journal, The Paterson Literary Review and elsewhere.

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