Last week, Andrea Ritchie, a researcher at Barnard Center for Research on Women, joined thousands of others across the U.S. to take part in a protest demanding justice for George Floyd. She proudly chanted his name outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“But I was shocked that I didn’t hear anyone say Breonna Taylor’s name at any point,” Ritchie said, referring to the black emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed by police in March, just weeks before Floyd’s death. Officers burst into Taylor’s apartment while she was asleep during a late-night drug investigation using a so-called “no-knock warrant.” Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who has said he was worried someone was breaking into the apartment, shot and wounded an officer. The officers have said that they then returned fire and shot Taylor at least eight times in her own home.
Her mother filed a lawsuit against the Louisville Metro Police Department in late April, and people in Louisville started taking to the streets demanding justice in May. None of the officers in her case have been arrested or fired, though the FBI is currently investigating the case.
In an effort to resurface Taylor’s story on social media, users started using the hashtag #SayHerName last week.
But even that, Ritchie noted, has been turned into #SayHisName.
“All black lives matter,” she said, adding that this movement should be striving to address police brutality against black men and women and LGBTQ people, who also face violence by law enforcement.
“We’re not trying to compete with Floyd’s story; we’re trying to complete the story,” said Ritchie, who is also the author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.”
Sen. Kamala Harris echoed that sentiment on Thursday. “We can’t forget about black women in our quest for justice,” she wrote on Twitter.
Things started to shift Friday, on what would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday. Protesters marched in her honor. Some sang Happy Birthday; others released balloons and sent birthday cards to Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, demanding justice. The hashtag #BirthdayForBreonna was used widely on social media.
Still, Taylor’s case remains largely disconnected with the broader national conversation that’s happening around George Floyd — no celebrities have offered to pay for her funeral or taken out full-page ads in newspapers across the country dedicated to her, and few brands have started campaigns in her name.
Perhaps it’s because there was no graphic video footage of the scene or because it all happened back in March at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But her exclusion, and that of other black women, is the latest iteration of a long-standing issue: Black women’s experiences of police brutality and their tireless contributions to mass social justice movements have almost always been left out of the picture, receiving far less media or political attention.
For years, black women have faced a double bind of racial and gender discrimination.
According to a 2017 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, black women remain underrepresented in the political system; black women are more likely to work jobs that lack crucial benefits and protections; more black women live in poverty than any other group; black women experience higher rates of intimate partner violence; and the gender barriers in access to health care are higher for black women than white women.
The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened all of those fissures. The unemployment rate for black women is now 16.4% compared with 15.5% for women overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leaving them in increasingly precarious positions.
When it comes to interactions with police, the same racial biases that apply to black men apply to black women too, Ritchie said. Black women are more likely than white women to be pulled over in traffic stops, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. They are also more likely than white women to be incarcerated and currently make up the largest portion of women in local jails compared with other women of color. Black women also face brutal police violence, which frequently takes the form of sexual assault or harassment at the hands of officers, away from cameras and the public eye, Ritchie said. And, she added, alarmingly, it often occurs when officers are responding to calls for help from domestic violence or sexual assault.
It is in large part because of these layers of inequalities that black women have risen up to form the backbone of some of the largest civil rights movements in U.S. history — from abolition and suffrage to #MeToo.
“Some of our loudest voices against oppression have come from black women,” said Monique Morris, founder and board chair of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. Young black girls, too, have been a big part of “the articulation of our democracy” — like 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on a bus months before Rosa Parks did the same. In fact, it was 17-year-old Darnella Frazier who filmed Floyd’s killing in a video that has since sparked protests across the country.
The Black Lives Matter movement was also founded by three women — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — who were angered by the acquittal in 2013 of George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
“We did want to start a movement,” Cullors said. “Did we know we were going to be successful? No. But we worked hard, for years, making sure that people saw what was happening and how it was happening.”
Yet, movements tend to latch on to a singular ‘face’ or leader and, for many, that ideal image is predominantly still a straight man, Cullors said.
“It’s easier to be seduced by masculinity and the idea that we’re going to be saved by a black Christian male,” Cullors said, noting the appeal around Martin Luther King as an example. “That’s a problem. We don’t fully understand how racism and sexism and patriarchy and homophobia impact our community.”
Without that understanding, any proposed changes in police conduct or laws will be limited in scope, and women’s concerns will continue to be overlooked, Ritchie said. For example, there currently isn’t any official data collection on police sexual misconduct, nationally or at the local level, Ritchie added, and changing that should be a part of the broader police reforms.
America needs an intersectional lens over what all black communities are experiencing and the strategies to address them, Morris said.
“We need to understand justice to be expansive,” she said.