Her Name is Charleena Lyles

Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother, was shot by police officers in her Seattle apartment on Sunday morning. Lyles, who called the police to report an attempted burglary, was killed in front of her three children after displaying a knife.

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The shooting occurred only two days after the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting of Philando Castile last July, which prompted outrage as one of countless instances in which police officers were not held accountable for racially profiling and killing black men. Lyles’ death both evokes and emphasizes the fact that black women are also disproportionately assaulted and killed by police officers, reminding us once again that police brutality is an undeniable feminist issue.

The details of Lyles’ death tragically exemplify the excessive, and often fatal, use of force that police officers often employ against black people. Family members say that Lyles, who lived in an apartment complex comprised of children and formerly homeless adults, had been struggling with mental health issues. In the police recording of the encounter, the two officers dispatched to her apartment appear to be familiar with Lyles and aware of these issues. Despite this knowledge, and despite being equipped with non-lethal tools, the officers still proceeded to shoot her shortly after she displayed her knife. Both officers were white.

Monika Williams, Lyles’ sister, decried the officers’ actions as completely unjustifiable—as a small woman who was several months pregnant, the officers should not have felt threatened by her, and certainly not threatened enough to shoot her. “Why couldn’t they have Tased her?” Williams told the Seattle Times. “They could have taken her down. I could have taken her down.”

At least 258 black people were killed by police in 2016, and 20 percent of unarmed people who have been killed by police since 1999 are black women and girls. While reports of black men being killed by police have received much coverage and subsequent public indignation—and justifiably so—Lyles’ death tragically recalls the deaths of other black women at the hands of police violence that often go unreported and unnoticed.

A petition at colorofchange.org was recently launched to advocate holding the officers who killed Lyles accountable for their actions. It demands “full transparency in this investigation,” which includes the release of all footage from the encounter and an investigation independent from the Seattle police. It also calls for a restructuring of the laws that currently allow police officers to use deadly force without being held accountable. The petition can be signed here.

As delineated in a report by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), black women’s experience with police and police violence are multifold and frequently hidden from common masculine narratives of racial profiling: Black women are commonly stopped for minor traffic violations. Black women in mental health crises are often killed by biased police officers initially called on for help. Black women are killed merely for being near black men the police are pursuing.

The #SayHerName campaign, launched by the AAPF, documents the black women and girls killed by police in order to bring these names to the forefront of a national conversation that often excludes them. In the wake of the Yanez acquittal and this most recent shooting, it is as important as ever to recognize the women affected by police brutality and to keep saying their names, too.

Her name is Charleena Lyles. And we must include her name—and those of black women around the country whose lives have been taken by police—in this dialogue for racial justice and for women’s rights.

Maddie Kim is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a sophomore at Stanford University, where she studies English and creative writing. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Norman Mailer Center, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada Review and Adroit Prizes. She is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. When she’s not writing, she likes tap dancing and taking blurry photos of her dogs. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Sheila Duane says:

    I think our society has failed Charleena Lyles for many years prior to this shooting. How available is mental health care and support to women in the lower economic sector? Why was she not receiving social / community support designed to uplift a mother who suffers from mental illness? She clearly needed help. The shooting was just more of the same in a society that values very little.

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