On March 21, 2012, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was fatally shot in the back of the head.
Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin had been off-duty when, around 1 a.m., he approached a group that included Boyd in his car. After one of the individuals present, 39-year-old Anthony Cross, walked toward Servin holding what the officer thought was a gun, Servin began firing and hit Boyd in the head. She died on March 22, and Servin was subsequently charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, reckless discharge of a weapon and reckless conduct.
The shooting deaths of unarmed black people by police or vigilantes in the U.S. have become startlingly cliché. The formula for disaster tends to involve a white police officer or person who, purportedly out of fear for his life, fatally shoots a black civilian. When the killer is acquitted in the courts, people rage and march. Such protests erupted across the country in response to the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. They were all unarmed black men, and most people are familiar with their names.
But most people don't know Boyd's name. They don't know names like Shantel Davis (killed at age 23), Aiyana Stanley-Jones (killed at age 7) and Kendra James (killed at 21), either. When black men are killed, slogans like "hands up, don't shoot" or "I can't breathe" echo across the country. When black girls and women like Boyd are killed, there is comparative silence.
"As a black woman, these moments remind me that I live in a society and work in a movement that insists on prioritizing the lives of black men over women," Nakisha Lewis, a strategist and organizer with Black Lives Matter NYC, told Mic. "There is a special gut-wrenching pain that is present when the victim is a black woman, because their deaths will go unnoticed by the general public. And there will be no protests nor national vigils in their honor."
According to the Huffington Post, "early data indicates black women account for nearly 20% of those unarmed blacks killed by officers in the past 15 years." And yet, we "don't act, and some of us don't even know who Rekia Boyd is, because the lives and deaths of black women and girls don't move us in the same way as those of black boys and men," said Aimee Meredith Cox, Fordham University professor and author of the forthcoming book Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.
One reason for this is because black boys and men are still seen as more endangered and at risk than black girls and women, despite the evidence against what scholar Paul D. Butler calls "black male exceptionalism." Butler defines this as the idea that "black men fare more poorly than any other group in the U.S.," including black women. While his research suggests racism affects genders in different ways — black men are more heavily incarcerated, for example, while black women and girls more deeply feel the effects of poverty — the fact remains that both are embattled by over-criminalization and deadly policing practices.
Nevertheless, racial justice has often been imagined as liberation specifically for black (heterosexual) men for years, permeating movements from civil rights in the '50s and '60s to Black Lives Matter today, despite the presence and leadership of many black women in both movements.
The internal divisions spurred by gender within the civil rights movement, for example, were arguably as pervasive as the external push against white racial supremacy. "In the '60s, white America — racist and liberal alike — was more than pleased to sit back as spectator while ... black women were told that our only useful position in the black power movement was prone," poet, essayist and activist Audre Lorde recalled in her essay "Lessons From the '60s."
"There is a special gut-wrenching pain that is present when the victim is a black woman, because their deaths will go unnoticed by the general public. And there will be no protests nor national vigils in their honor."
Whether it is under the guise of a White House racial justice initiative strategically named My Brother's Keeper or national protests organized predominantly in response to violence against black boys and men, the failure to move black women's issues from the periphery to the center of justice movements continues to be a problem.
"We'll extend the circle of our community to embrace black men who have been the victims of state violence — all in the name of racial solidarity — but we seem less likely to do so when it is black women who are victims, who are not our kin," Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University professor and author of New Black Man, told Mic. "If I'm being honest, it's only because I am the parent of two daughters that I began to have any real sense of the lived realities of black women in U.S. society."
How to fix this? First we must recognize that black women are not immune from violence, nor from pain. Thirty-six years ago, black feminist cultural critic Michelle Wallace addressed "the intricate web of mythology that surrounds the black woman" in her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, writing, "[A] fundamental image emerges. It is of a woman with inordinate strength ... This woman does not have the same fears, weaknesses and insecurities as other women ... In other words, she is a superwoman."
Boyd was no superwoman. She was a living, breathing black woman, a human being, shot dead for no other reason than supposedly appearing suspicious. Now Servin's actions have been justified by the court as an intentional act rather than a reckless one. Chicago has formally settled a wrongful-death lawsuit for $4.5 million with Boyd's estate, but money cannot recover the life of a dead loved one. Organizations like the Chicago-based Black Youth Project and A Long Walk Home have partnered with Boyd's family and other groups in protest of this killing and Servin's exoneration, but local action must be matched by a national outcry.
Rekia Boyd, like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, deserves our attention, because the value of black girls' and women's lives must not be up for debate. No longer can we allow black women to suffer multiple deaths — that result from the bullet of an officer's gun, and from the public forgetting their names. Invisibility is a form of violence. So when we march, we must lift up Rekia Boyd's name, and the names of all the black women who have been lost.