Today, July 13, 2016, commemorates the one-year anniversary of another tragic loss of Black life at the hands of law enforcement custody. People nationwide are honoring the life and memory of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who was found dead in a Waller County, TX, jail cell after being pulled over and arrested for her failure to use a turn signal. While her death was ruled a suicide, it became the first nationally discussed death of a Black woman in police custody in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin and the growing power of the movement for Black lives, and sparked a question that has reverberated throughout the nation yet remains to be answered: #WhatHappenedToSandraBland?
To date, no one has been charged in Sandra Bland’s death. In the collective mourning of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the media narrative of police violence against civilians makes it easy to see Black men as the only victims of police brutality. This is profoundly untrue. #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women and Girls is a critical reminder that issues of racial injustice violently and disproportionately impact the lives and life-expectancy of black women. Intersectionality, a term coined by the African American Policy Forum’s Kimberle Crenshaw, requires that we look at the unique and myriad ways that identities intersect to exacerbate vulnerabilities – or conversely, power – based on those intersections.
Planned Parenthood is a reproductive health and rights organization that is committed to supporting and aligning ourselves with the work of reproductive justice groups. To us, Sandra Bland’s death is more than a tragedy – it illuminates the deep and perverse ways that racism and sexism intersect to make Black women vulnerable to hyper-policing and state violence. Our cultural inability to see Black women targets in America’s broken systems erases their experiences and renders them invisible.
This is not only limited to Black women killed by police and in police custody; they also face sexual assault, the second-highest reported type of police misconduct after excessive force.
In the same year Bland died, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of sexually assaulting 13 Black women, including a 17-year-old Black girl. Additionally, Black girls like Dajerria Becton, 15, and Shakara, 17, have been physically assaulted by officers for the infractions of being at a pool party and using their cell phones in class.
This isn’t to say that all law enforcement is problematic or that there are a few bad officers, it’s to say that when you have a system that doesn’t condemn the frequent, unjust deaths and violence at the hands of law enforcement, we must examine the conditions that make that possible.
Racial discrimination and bias has been demonstrated in policing, arrests, and sentencing and many lawmakers on both sides of aisle have called for criminal justice reform. The NAACP says that although five times as many white people are using drugs as Black people, Black people are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people. This is just one example of the discrimination that exists.
Law enforcement violence isn’t just a racial problem, it’s an intersectional one.
Violence against Black people is disgraceful and does not represent the ideals of freedom, justice and dignity of our country.
Planned Parenthood believes that achieving racial justice is integral to achieving reproductive freedom. We live in a system that consistently devalues the lives and autonomy – reproductive or otherwise – of Black people. A reproductive freedom agenda that fails to see, acknowledge and mobilize around Black women and girls who experience state-sanctioned violence is not a reproductive freedom agenda, at all. That’s why we stand with partners and activists who are calling for reform and laws to protect Black lives, and are committed to supporting those who are fighting to enforce this change.
As Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s President Cecile Richards has said, “Black men and women should not live in fear of being persecuted.”
We must stand together against the divisive rhetoric that seeks to divide this nation. This does not mean ignoring the very real and entrenched systems of injustice but fighting to ensure that they are uncovered and uprooted.
Resources for Further Reading
The Murder of Michael Brown is a Reproductive Justice Issue by Dani McClain
The Price of Our Blood: Why Ferguson is a Reproductive Justice Issue by Katherine Cross
#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women by the African American Policy Forum