As protesters aligned with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis (BLM-Minneapolis) took to the streets over the past few weeks, the now-familiar message was clear: Jamar Clark did not deserve to meet his untimely death on a North Minneapolis sidewalk by a bullet in his head. His death, another tally in a string of fatal encounters between unarmed black men and law enforcement agencies across the country, was another notch in the need to address the issue of discriminatory police practices and for reform. The formulaic response to yet another police killing also meant a backlash against the narrative of who the real victim was in this fatal encounter.
Victim-blaming and character assassination has become the first response used to validate the actions of law enforcement in these racially charged encounters, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the public discourse following such events. According to this narrative, Clark–as with other victims of police brutality–must have done something to necessitate the actions of Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, the two police officers involved in his death. For those who hold this viewpoint, there is a need to prove that Clark’s actions during the incident warranted the discharge of a firearm. That need leads to an examination of how his behavior in the minutes, hours, weeks and even years prior to the events of Nov. 15 disprove his victimhood. Or to disprove that he had been treated unfairly as a result of his race.
As we look back at other recent victims of police brutality, the narrative continues. For Michael Brown, it was that he had just stolen from a corner store prior to being gunned down. Tamir Rice should never have been playing in public with a toy gun that so closely resembled an actual weapon, and neither should have John Crawford III. Eric Garner was engaged in illegal activity when he was approached by law enforcement officers. Laquan McDonald was high on PCP and wielding a knife prior to the 16 shots fired into his body. But what about Jamar Clark? In what way had he contributed to his own demise?
The criminalization of Clark as it played out on social media boiled down to this: the alleged assault of his girlfriend on the night of his murder, which had been the genesis of his encounter with the police. Further proof that he, not the police, was the aggressor was exhibited through his attempts to interfere with paramedics’ efforts to treat his girlfriend at the scene. These details were trolled out on Twitter, Facebook and in the comment sections of news articles surrounding Clark’s death as evidence that he was not a victim of police brutality, but instead a criminal whose actions had produced an equivalent reaction by officers Ringgenberg and Schwarze.
— Queenie (@YoYouAlreadyKno) November 23, 2015
This attempt to reframe the story by placing the blame on the victim plays into our society’s socialized depictions of black men as violent perpetrators, criminals and thugs in the face of law and order. By reframing the story, it also asserts that, by Clark’s true nature as a “woman-beater,” he is not deserving of our empathy or of marches and protests calling for justice on his behalf.
His yet unnamed girlfriend quickly became the tool by which to demonize a social justice movement, BLM-Minneapolis, and black men like him. These details of Clark’s behavior during the incident were also offered as proof that the local BLM chapter is not truly interested in black lives but instead a divisive movement whose aim is to polarize America on trumped up notions of racial disparities.
Many others in the days following Clark’s death piped in their dissent surrounding the coverage of the incident. Theirs was a more measured call for an examination of all the factors at play in the case. That is, the need to not only call for an end to the extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men, but also to acknowledge Clark’s victim and address the issue of domestic violence. As local writer Shannon Gibney noted on Facebook,
“So, what about the woman Jamar Clark was in a domestic dispute with when the cops were called? Who is she? Is she okay? Are the cops still not letting anyone talk to her? And why aren’t any of US, who are behind the BLM movement and want #Justice4Jamar talking about her, and the crisis of domestic violence in our communities in the very same breath we demand a stop to unchecked police violence against poor black and brown folks?”
Jamar Clark had a girlfriend–this much we know. On the night of his death he had allegedly assaulted her. Like Gibney, many of us do not know who Clark’s girlfriend is, what her story is or even how she is faring in the aftermath of the alleged assault. Which is fair, because victims of domestic assault and abuse ultimately deserve the right to privacy; a right to heal and recover away from the public eye.
— Leah the Boss (@LeahRBoss) November 17, 2015
However, we also need to acknowledge how the narratives of black women are both buried within, and simultaneously used as, tools against social justice movements such as BLM-Minneapolis.There is a need not only to #SayHerName but to highlight the hypocrisy of commentators who are only interested in discussing black women’s suffering if it serves their ends.
In the case of Jamar Clark, it is not just his girlfriend who is been used as a tool to discredit the calls for justice surrounding his death, but also his sister. In a video taken last week, Clark’s sister, who is visibly upset, is seen yelling at #Justice4Jamar protesters through a car window.
In the video she is heard asking the protesters, “What is the goal here? It’s just to piss people off.” This questioning of protesters’ intentions, taken out of context, has been used by some commentators to further discredit the legitimacy and justification of protesters’ actions in shutting down a highway, or occupying the Fourth Precinct police station. If even Clark’s sister sees no point to these direct actions then why are protesters engaging in them and disrupting ordinary civilians’ lives?
However at the 0:15 second mark of the video, Clark’s sister utters a sentiment that speaks to the defeatism that many Black Americans feel about the policing of their communities. “Go to the people that matter,” she says, “these officers can’t do anything for you.”
In that phrase lies the lived realities of many more Black women who have learned through their experiences that the police “can’t do anything for you.” Black women–as victims of a systemic violence that is rooted in both racism and misogyny–do not receive the same scrutiny within the larger fight for social justice. Because of this, they have learned that the police cannot be counted on.
Take for instance the case of Lakisha Briggs from Norristown, Penn., a domestic violence victim who, after repeatedly calling the police for protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend was told by the police that “one more altercation at her rented row house … one more call to 911, and they would force her landlord to evict her.” The message to Briggs was clear: To the people intended to protect her from such violence, she was a nuisance, not a victim. In her own words, “If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted. If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted.” So Briggs did not call the police when her ex-boyfriend returned to her home to victimize her, even if she feared for both her and her 3-year-old daughter’s life. The result: her ex-boyfriend returned to assault her in June 2012, resulting in the injuries that required Briggs to be airlifted to a hospital. Her neighbors called the police during this final attack and, in the aftermath, the city of Norristown attempted to forcibly evict her before attorneys, including from the ACLU, intervened on her behalf.
Then there is the case of Marissa Alexander, from Jacksonville, Fla. In August 2010–nine days after the birth of a daughter–Alexander’s estranged abusive ex-husband assaulted her in her home. Alexander fired a warning shot from a gun legally registered in her name in an attempt to get her ex-husband to leave. The warning shot was fired upwards into a wall and did not cause any injuries to anyone. Alexander faced criminal charges for firing this warning shot. She appealed for immunity from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, arguing that she had acted in self-defense because she feared of her life.
The Stand Your Ground law is the same defense that George Zimmerman would use in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Where Zimmerman would later be acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Martin, Alexander was convicted on three counts of aggravated assault with a weapon in May 2012 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. She served 3 years in jail before a successful campaign to release her saw her walk out of prison this January. Briggs’ and Alexander’s stories are just two stories that sit behind a large wall of societally sanctioned silence. Even though these two women suffered at the hands of domestic violence, the public never saw them as victims.
Because these women’s experiences overwhelmingly fail to gain much public interest unless it is in service to the maintenance of dominant narratives–as in the case of Clark’s girlfriend–they also mistrust that their experiences as victims will be subject to fair treatment. Or that much like Alexander, Briggs and now Clark, they will bear the blame. The erasure of these women’s stories from public discourse and within the judicial system has consequently meant a failure to address the systemic violence that black women experience. It also partially accounts for failure to address the issue of domestic violence within Black communities. But even more importantly, why Black women who are victims of domestic and sexual violence do not call the police to intervene.
An August 2015 ACLU article notes that “domestic violence-related calls constitute the single largest category of calls received by the police,” which means how police officers respond to these calls is crucial in stemming intimate partner violence. Alarming statistics when it comes to the victimization of black women in intimate relationships also point to the urgent need to create a safer space within which these women can call the police without fear of a further escalation in institutionalized violence by interacting with law enforcement.
“Intimate-partner homicide is (also) among the leading causes of death for black women ages 15 to 35,” according to experts. Furthermore, they said, “(black women) are about three times more likely to die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner than members of other racial groups. ” This disturbing facet of black women’s lives is not limited to the experiences of cis black women, but extends to black trans women, whose deaths at the hands of partners and acquaintances have seen a recent sharp rise while failing to garner much public attention or debate.
When all the pieces come together, you have a culture that says aggressive and law-breaking black men are “asking for it” during confrontations with police, a culture that says black women cannot be considered victims unless the victimhood also discredits a violent black man. Such a culture in which black men and women receive disproportionately unfair treatment within the judicial system has meant that many women in abusive relationships do not come forward because they lack confidence in the fair treatment of their experiences as victims, and that of their abusers within the system.
Even when they do attempt to engage the judicial system, they are subject to gender and racial bias that too often results in police misconduct. The same August 2015 ACLU article cites how “improper, and often illegal, police responses to domestic violence and sexual assault cases” serve to endanger women’s lives and subvert efforts to ending domestic and sexual violence, while creating a climate that allows abusers to continue to “commit crimes with impunity.”
We need to examine how the current discriminatory policing of black communities asks women to be silent victims and how we can elevate the untold stories of these women. Much like Clark did not deserve to meet his death on a sidewalk, victims of domestic violence do not deserve to suffer in silence. We need to give not just the black men in our lives justice, but also the black women among us.