Jazmine Headley and Mothering While Black

“They’re hurting my son.” That’s the cry heard over and over again in a disturbing and widely shared video showing a mother desperately trying to hold on to her baby.

Jazmine Headley went to a city office for a child care voucher so she could start a new job—instead, she got arrested and her baby was savagely ripped from her arms. She faced a four-hour wait in a crowded Brooklyn human resources office, without any available seating, prompting her to sit on the ground with her one-year-old child Damone. When she refused to stand at the command of a security guard, she was arrested, charged and held without bail on Rikers Island for days.

Her crime? Mothering while Black.

The dehumanizing treatment of Headley by public officials is an all too common experience for Black women. The aggressive policing of our bodies has happened for centuries. Black women and our families have historically been denigrated with the support of the law and law enforcement officials, from slave masters ripping newborn babies from the arms of their mothers to sell at auctions to the women in the civil rights era who were jailed for refusing to give up their seats to white men on public transportation.

We are under constant attack—in our communities, in our schools and even in places where we seek assistance and support, places that should be welcoming and safe. The violence against Black women endangers our ability to live our everyday lives and diminishes our health, safety and mobility.

If a Black mother seeking child care resources from a city social welfare office is savagely attacked, that impacts the ability of all those who seek critical and life-saving services. We get the message, loud and clear, that getting assistance comes with a price and the cost could be losing your child and going to jail.

The fact is that the police endangered and traumatized a child because his mother was sitting on the floor of a waiting room—not sitting in an act of civil disobedience or protest but in an act of exhaustion, sitting as she waited to get a child care voucher so she could take a job to help provide for her family, sitting to make room for herself and her son.

The actions taken against Jazmine Headley are just further proof that New York City has not addressed the racism deeply ingrained in its criminal justice system. We condemn the security guard who decided that this tired Black mother sitting on the floor with her child was somehow a blight on the standard of conduct for those seeking help. We condemn the actions of the New York police officers who violated Jazmine Headley and her child.

Their actions were inexcusable and dangerous. Their attack on the mother and child are only the latest example of police brutality directed against Black people.

The stigmatization and the aggressive mistreatment of Black women must end. Just as the Emancipation Proclamation freed us from slavery and civil rights legislation promised equal treatment under the law, we demand reproductive justice for Black women. That justice includes the right to raise and nurture our child in safe and healthy environments, without the threat of state-sanctioned violence.

Marcela Howell is the founder and executive director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. You can follow her on Twitter at @BlackWomensRJ.

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