2016 has been a brutal year. This is not any less true when it comes to the number of people killed by police this year. Close to 900 people have been killed by police this year. These people come from all walks of life and may only have the fact that their lives were ended after a run-in with law enforcement in common. But out of those nearly 900 people, we can only name a few of them. Only a handful of people garnered enough interest for hashtag campaigns to emerge, but there were a lot of other lives taken that still deserve justice.
Before I dive into the meat of this piece, I need to pause for a moment and discuss what this is not. I want to be very clear that this is not an All Lives Matter piece or work that is meant to demonize the efforts of Black Lives Matter. All Lives Matter is a racist dog whistle that is meant to silence the voices of the oppressed from speaking out against a system that continues fail them. Black Lives Matter has done much to shed light on the very specific issue of police brutality in Black communities and against Black bodies, but it is time we expand that narrative to ensure that we are calling for justice for everyone, not just those that fit neatly into a specific box.
Hashtag Black Male
Social media is how we communicate, especially on issues that do not garner “mainstream” coverage right away. All of the high-profile deaths have been hashtagged—such as those of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These are only two of many Black men killed by police officers in the past year, however. There are some obvious reasons why they were hashtagged. For example, Castile’s death was broadcast live as it was happening, garnering public attention. But also, he wasn’t someone like Dazion Flenaugh, who was shot and killed in April while brandishing a knife and had multiple run-ins with the police.
Unlike Castile and Sterling, Flenaugh was a criminal who was killed while doing criminal things. Was the use of deadly force necessary? Could he have been brought down by other means? We will never know, and his story was not told because he failed to meet the standards that we’ve adopted in our protests. He was not a model victim.
We want to draw attention to the violence against Black men, but we tend to pull toward only our very best. This is because we know that once the news gets out, they will be ripped apart the media for every single infraction, so it’s better not to serve someone up who is so clearly flawed.
But this doesn’t solve the issue. The people who are invested in destroying the character of Black men killed by police aren’t swayed by clean records. It’s time we stopped catering to them and instead of saying, “No, he’s a good one!” say, “So what? He still didn’t deserve to die like that.”
#SayHerName—If You Know It
Still, there are many Black men who have found their way into the public consciousness. Though many Black women have been murdered by police or died in their custody, only a few of their names are easily called to mind, including the name Korryn Gaines.
Gaines’ story was widely spread after she was murdered in her home by police when they went to serve a warrant for a traffic violation. She was fierce and beautiful, so it is no wonder why her face was plastered all over social media.
But what about Jessica Williams? Williams was killed on May 19, 2016, and although she, too, was a mother like Gaines, she was a very different person. She was a homeless mother of five, and she was shot after she was discovered in a stolen vehicle and failed to comply with police orders, which is another thing she had in common with Gaines. Her story was important to her local community, but there was no national outcry about her death.
Nor was there a widespread outcry over the death of Gynnya McMillen, a 16-year-old girl who died while in police custody at a juvenile detention center. She too was noncompliant. The police used brute force against her, and she was later found dead in her cell on January 11, 2016. She was a child. Upon further investigation, it was found that a “rare genetic disorder” was responsible for her death. That being said, an internal investigation into the matter resulted in suspensions and firings.
McMillen and Williams both shared an unstable history. They were less than perfect candidates for media scrutiny, but that shouldn’t matter because their lives still mattered. When it comes to Black women, we tend to be recognized in the form of the shared hashtag of #SayHerName. Except in a few cases, our lives and potential aren’t given the singular respect that the lives of Black men are, which allows the violence against Black female bodies to flourish largely unnoticed.
Standing Rock Isn’t the Only Site of Police Violence against Indigenous People
In any given year, the rate of murder by police in Black communities and Indigenous communities is high. Which is higher changes yearly, but it is always either Black or Indigenous. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this is. Both Black and Indigenous communities suffer from high rates of poverty, which in turn invite higher rates of police involvement due to the issues that poverty causes.
Jacqueline Salyers was killed by police in January. Ironically, like Williams, she was murdered inside of a stolen car that she lived out of. She was a member of the Puyallup tribe. Like Gaines, she was involved with a man who had warrants out for him. As a consequence of her involvement with him, she was shot and killed.
Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat, a homeless Yucatec Mayan man, was shot by police on April 7. His death exposes yet another gap between who gets noticed and who gets forgotten. It is no coincidence that the people we tend to hashtag are not the ones we find living on the streets.
These sorts of stories tend to be overlooked because the people involved in them are not attractive to the public eye. They are forgotten and overlooked in life, and it is the same for their deaths.
This is a gap in our empathy and how we conceptualize who is worthy of our attention. When a sober woman breaks her heel and tumbles down the stairs, it’s a tragedy, but when a drunk woman does it, it’s a comedy. The sober woman’s heel breaking isn’t her fault, but the drunk woman is responsible. Alcoholism is a multilayered issue, and if we took the time to hear that story, though it may not fit as neatly into our ideas about victimhood and responsibility, we would find that the drunk woman deserves sympathy as well because she was a person who had a life that mattered.
Similarly, these stories that ended so tragically should not be dismissed or ignored simply because they happened to people who lived in on the streets or who had rough lives that they hadn’t escaped.
Black People are Not Your Mule, but Your Lives Matter, Too
Black Lives Matter was started to talk about the issues of police violence in Black communities, but police violence is an issue in communities of color across the board. Although the numbers are not as high outside of Black and Indigenous communities, people of color are routinely shot by police, especially Latinx people.
In April, Clemente Najera was shot after being mistaken for another suspect. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Although he did react violently, it was only after he was pepper sprayed that he did so. He is one of many Latinx people who fell victim to police violence in the last year.
We hear even less about Asian people who are fatally harmed by police. Map Kong was killed by police in March for looking suspicious while sitting in his car outside of a McDonald’s. He was a Cambodian native who, by all accounts, had never harmed anyone.
This is all to say that police brutality isn’t just a Black problem.
Trans POC Get the Least Coverage but Are Likely Hit the Hardest
I don’t have names for trans people who were killed as a result of police violence. There are likely many of them, and most of them are probably Black women, but specific information on them is hard to find because, after their deaths, they are misgendered and dead-named, their trans identities erased.
What we do know is that trans people, primarily women of color, experience far higher rates of violence than any other group. We do know that these women are losing their lives at an astonishing rate, and we do know that they are often in the unstable situations that Williams and Salyers were in at the time of their deaths.
Out of the nearly 900 people who lost their lives to police violence, there were many Black men listed. There is no doubt in mind that at least some of them would have listed themselves differently if they had the chance.
They Were All Victims, and Perfection Doesn’t Exist
As I was working on this piece, I went through pages of articles reading about police violence, and the few I’ve covered here are just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally hundreds of people who died as a direct result of police violence whose names and stories were not covered beyond a blip on their local dispatch.
Every time we look for that perfect victim, we enforce the idea that the police were justified in killing those other people. We need to talk about the Black and trans women as individuals. We need to talk about the Indigenous people, the Latinx people, and the Asian people who are losing their lives. We need to talk about the homeless people and people who were not model citizens. We need to talk about them so that it is understood that these issues are systemic and multilayered.