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Imperfect Martyrs: When Victims of State Violence Are Problematic

Stephon Clark’s execution at the hands of the Sacramento police on March 18th reignited an all too familiar routine in Black America. Police initiate an encounter with a black person. They assume a threat to their lives where there was none. They fire on harmless black person. Black person dies. The police tell the public that they were in fear for their lives.  Black people and allies everywhere are outraged and demand change.

Stephon Clark was the latest black man to be be martyred in this way. In the wake of his death, countless marches and demonstrations testified to his humanity, to his importance to his family and to his community. But something else also emerged in his death–his alleged hatred of and hostility towards black women. His social media pages purportedly attest to his (and his Asian baby mother’s) disdain for black women. I’m not reprinting the offensive comments about black women attributed to Stephon Clark’s Twitter account because I haven’t been able to verify that that was, in fact, his account.

If the misogynoir attributed to him is true, then Clark is not alone as a black victim of state violence who had very problematic views or behavior. The Black Lives Matter Movement, founded by black queer women, worked tirelessly on behalf of Sandra Bland, despite her social media posts that indicated that she may have been homophobic. Black Lives matter also fought for justice for Alton Sterling despite the fact that he was a convicted felon, who had victimized black women and girls. Sterling had been arrested for domestic violence and convicted for impregnating a minor. At the time of his death, he had failed to register with the state of Louisiana as a sex offender.

So what are black women, queer people, black queer women, or other marginalized black people to do when people who hold hostile attitudes to us find themselves victimized by state violence?

In some quarters, the instinct is to simply stay silent in the calls for justice when problematic people are slain in extrajudicial state killings. And to be perfectly honest, I understand the rationale behind withholding your emotional labor and financial contributions on behalf of folks who demonstrated an active contempt for you in life. Fighting for justice is hard enough as it is, without having to advocate for someone who despises you for who you are. Admittedly, I was repulsed at Stephon Clark’s alleged misogynoir, but I’m more disgusted that he’ll never have an opportuity to mature beyond such squalid opinions of black women.

Blackness, as we know, isn’t a monolith. It often intersects with various other marginalized identities–poor, female, HIV positive, disabled, elderly, incarcerated, and otherwise dispossessed. Therefore, when one of these other identities comes under attack by another black person, it can dishearten even the wokest among us. That is a real thing and it must be discussed and unpacked.

However, we cannot simply allow the police or other state actors to kill us with impunity–even if some of us will become imperfect martyrs It plays too closely into the “he’s no angel” trope that white racists use to justify the extrajudicial state killing of black people. This ideology renders the victim responsible for demonstrating they deserved to live rather than holding the state accountable for killing them in the first place.

Because we can never know which of us will have state violence visited upon us next, we must resist the urge to demand that its victims be perfect before we defend them. The police, after all, make no distinction between woke black folks and black folks who have some growing up to do before unloading their weapons into our bodies. Such a demand undermines the core message of Black Lives Matter, which is that ALL Black Lives Matter–even the ones who are imperfect in their martyrdom.

 

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Losing Kenneka: How the Death of Kenneka Jenkins Highlights that Black Girls and Women aren’t Valued

Kenneka Jenkins. Photo credit: tvone.tv

The death of Kenneka Jenkins, the Chicago-area teen whose body was found in a freezer earlier this week, hit me hard. Oh, no. Not another one, I thought. I scrolled through various news feeds, and each time was struck by the image of the precious young lady with the dimpled smile. She had an entire life ahead of her and was snatched away from the world in circumstances that are still unclear, but very suspicious.

What we do know is that Kenneka was last seen at the Crowne Plaza Chicago O’Hare Hotel and Conference Center last Saturday night. She had gone there with some friends for a party. We also know that she had gotten there in her mother Tereasa Martin’s vehicle.  According to Martin, Kenneka’s friends called Martin at 4 o’clock in the morning to advise her that they had lost track of Kenneka, but had her phone and were in Martin’s car. These details are enough to make any parent’s heart sink. Martin said that she headed over to the hotel, and after being given the runaround by both the hotel staff and the police, Kenneka’s body was found in the freezer nearly 24 hours after she had first disappeared.

What’s more is that there is a very disturbing Facebook Live video that seems to show Kenneka’s reflection in the sunglasses of the young lady filming the video. Some say that you can distinctly hear someone yelling “Help me!” before the music is abruptly turned up to drown out the sound. The most stomach-churning suspicion being bandied about is that Kenneka’s friends set her up to be sexually assaulted, and for a paltry sum of $200.

Martin says that in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of her daughter’s body, her friends kept changing their stories about the sequence of events that led to Kenneka’s disappearance. Martin further states that neither the hotel staff, nor the police initially took her concerns about her daughter’s safety seriously. Media coverage of Kenneka’s disappearance and subsequent death has been scant.

Unfortunately, this is a painfully familiar scenario when a black girl or woman disappears. The assumption often made is that she’s a criminal, a runaway, or a sex worker. Thousands of disgusting social media comments that lay the blame at the feet of Kenneka herself for her own disappearance and death have made the rounds. “She should have known better,” they say. “She should have picked better friends.”

Contrast that with what happens when young white girls and women disappear from anywhere. Their disappearances and murders become national headlines and we remember their names for years, even decades after they’ve disappeared or died. Natalee Holloway, Jon Benet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, etc.–the list goes on and on for white female victims of kidnapping, and murders, with only scant attention ever paid to a young black girl or woman who disappears. Based on the news coverage, you would think that white girls and women are the only ones targeted for kidnappings and murders. Think about it: how many names of black female murder/kidnapping victims can you name that have become national media stories? (I didn’t think so.) The reality is that there are more than 75000 missing black women and girls in the country, but you would never know it based on public perceptions about whose disappearances matter.

Could a more motivated hotel staff or police force have prevented what happened to Kenneka? I don’t know. But when casual observers, trained police agencies, and national media outlets seem resigned to the notion that the disappearances of black girls and women is “normal” and therefore not worthy of diligent followup or news coverage, it doesn’t bode well for women who look like me and my sisters. Kenneka deserved so much better than how her life ended. And in death she deserves even more still. For our own sakes, we all do.