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Lithium Breonna and brutality: why aren’t Black women receiving justice?

Nov. 11, 2020
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Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman and medical worker from Louisville, Kentucky, was shot and killed by armed police officers during a botched drug raid on her apartment. Only one of the three officers involved in her murder was indicted on charges of “wanton endangerment”—a decision that has prompted an outpouring of grief, frustration, and fury from the Black community and its allies. Though the shooting occurred in March, it didn’t garner widespread attention until May. This is a pivotal piece of information, especially when comparing Taylor’s case to that of George Floyd, wherein the officers involved were promptly released and charged. Though Ms. Taylor’s family was awarded $12 million in September to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit, the slow progression and ultimately insufficient ruling of the case begs the question: why is the plight of Black women often left largely undiscussed, especially in relation to police brutality?

I recently attended a Zoom event run by Columbia University and Barnard College called “Policing America: Andrea Ritchie, Invisible No More; Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.” Ritchie is an attorney, feminist, vehement activist, and nationally recognized expert on police issues. She champions many marginalized groups, specifically Black women and women of color who have been victims of police violence. Her 2017 novel, Invisible No More, includes a foreword by Angela Davis, and is the first full-length publication to tackle these topics through the female perspective. 

Ritchie’s talk began with an acknowledgement that she is a Black, lesbian immigrant as a way of contextualizing her unique position on the policing and criminalization of Black women and Black LGBTQ+ women. While I was aware of many of the grossly unjust atrocities Black women face, I was appalled by some of the facts. Black women, for example, are one of the most likely demographics to be killed by police officers while unarmed. This is largely due to the fact that Black women have been historically positioned in racist narratives that posit them as deranged, dangerous, and sexually deviant. Being forced into a racialized trope has not only placed Black women in a position of inferiority, but also of eminent physical danger. 

Ritchie’s argument centered on how the War on Drugs has waged its own war on Black women. She impressed upon her listeners that “if we need to ‘say her name,’ we need to say ‘end the War on Drugs’ in the same breath.” Drug raids, the use of Black women as informants, and overt sexual violence by officers (i.e., rape and “necessary” strip/cavity searches) are just a few of the atrocities that characterize much of the relationship between Black women and law enforcement. The number of Black women who have suffered from some form of police brutality, be it blatant or subtle, is unsettlingly large.

The goal of ending the War on Drugs becomes complicated, however, when taking into account the rhetoric of political leaders such as Donald Trump. As the President continues to modify his campaign to mirror the “tough on crime” platform of the 1980s, he is turning a blind eye to the ongoing problem of police brutality being waged against the Black community, as well as the egregious issue of mass incarceration. The latter has been aggressively exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, exposing public-health risks associated with overcrowded prisons, as well as general apathy by many governmental leaders for the state of these prisons and the lives of those who reside in them. 

Ritchie also noted the role gentrification plays in police violence against Black women—in the case of Breonna Taylor, the police were there to “clean house” in Breonna’s neighborhood as a way to prepare it for gentrification. How can it be that one community can simply usher another out on the grounds of fiscal rehabilitation? In considering questions like these, it becomes clear that the injustice of the decision made in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing—a case which becomes a microcosm for the case of Black women more broadly—must be countered by a collective decision to place blame not on the victim, but on the system that enables these injustices and allows them to endure. 

Photo by Xavier Burrell for The New York Times