It has been nearly a year since a hashtag that began over a black teen who was shot dead by a white police officer started an entire social movement. In that time, “Black Lives Matter” has flourished, exposing generations-old problems of violent policing tactics and cracks in the criminal justice system.
But Black Lives Matters as a slogan almost inherently refers to the black male lives that are disproportionately more likely to experience violent run-ins with police. The most prominent cases that launched the movement in its early stages were almost exclusively men or boys – Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice. And activists within the movement are often quick to point out that efforts to be more inclusive, to emphasize that all lives matter, simply miss the point.
The narrative took a major turn beyond activist circles and into the mainstream after a video went viral in the case of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old activist who was arrested after a routine traffic stop and found dead in her jail cell three days later.
Outrage over her arrest and the mystery surrounding her death appeared to be the last straw for advocates, coming just weeks after a video at a pool party gone awry in Texas captured a police officer brandishing his gun and pinning a teenage girl to the crowd as she’s clad only in a bikini and yelling out for help.
Calls are growing to elevate the profiles of the black women and girls who suffer violence at the hands of police. A campaign dubbed “Say Her Name” is organizing to make sure they are not left out of the movement, and that their names be remembered. It is almost inevitable that the movement would re-calibrate slightly to include public outrage over the way police treat women of color. After all, the Black Lives Matter movement itself was founded by three black women, and then launched to a national stage by the women who took the cause to the streets.
“We don’t talk enough about what is happening in terms of violence against African-American women,” former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner told Melissa Harris-Perry this week. “We march in the streets for our men, and my God we should, but it is time we should also rise up for the sisters, and that is what ‘Say Her Name’ is all about.”
When activists stormed the stage of the progressive confab Netroots Nation this year, embarrassing Democratic presidential candidates that were flat-footed in their response, demonstrators weren’t just chanting “Black Lives Matter.” More protests swept the floor of the crowds as demonstrators marched urging others to “say her name.” Female celebrities took to social media to spread the cause, calling for justice in Bland’s case and promoting the hashtag #sayhername.
Instances like Bland’s of tragic deaths in local jails are hardly isolated – at least five other women of color have died in police custody in the last month alone.
In South Dakota, 24-year-old Sarah Lee Circle Bear was found unresponsive in her holding cell after being arrested on a bond violation. In Alabama, 18-year-old Kindra Chapman was found hanging in her jail cell with a bedsheet wrapped around her neck after she was accused of stealing a cell phone. Joyce Curnell, 50, was arrested on a shoplifting charge in South Carolina, and days later she was found dead in her cell. Thirty-year-old Ralkina Jones was arrested following a heated altercation with her ex-husband and was taken to the hospital after appearing lethargic to jail staff. She died the next day. Raynette Turner, a 42-year-old mother of eight, was found dead in her holding cell after being arrested for shoplifting at a Restaurant Depot in Mount Vernon.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that the number of inmates that have died in state prisons and local jails has increased for three consecutive years. And though the number of people who died of natural causes in jails has actually gone down, those numbers have been offset by the increase in suicides, accidents, homicides and drug and alcohol intoxication.
While the vast majority of jail deaths (87%) are male inmates, and more than half of them are white, the heightened scrutiny over the deaths in local and state custody has led to calls for reform. The New York state attorney general’s office will handle Turner’s case after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order mandating for the state’s top lawyer to serve as a special prosecutor to all police-involved deaths. But the sheer exposure of the cases of women who died in jails across the country in July points to larger systemic issues into the medical care provided to inmates. Three of the women who died in police custody last month, Curnell, Jones and Turner, were taken to local hospitals and given medical care shortly before their deaths.
Jeffrey Schwartz, an expert in police, jail and prison reform, said that in many cases, policies are already in place to prevent deaths in custody, but often it’s a problem that they’re not being implemented.
“I’m skeptical whether the overlying broad issue of racism in the criminal justice system will be dealt with in a meaningful way that leads to reform,” Schwartz said.
The “Say Her Name” campaign is shining a light into the dark corners where the stories involving of those often left ignored – not just women, but members of the LGBT community. Sandra Bland became the latest face of the tragedies that can be triggered by the systemic racism embedded in the criminal justice system that impact men and women of color.
But hers is not the only name.