A History of the Erasure of Black Women and Girls from Police Brutality Narratives

On November 9, 2014, a Black person was shot and killed by the police within minutes of receiving a 911 call about a domestic violence disturbance. The victim was armed with a knife, apparently putting two trained police officers’ life in imminent danger, according to the local police department. On January 31, local prosecutor Brian Mackie determined that David Ried, the white police officer responsible, acted in “lawful self-defense” and that no charges would be pursued. The shooting occurred in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town home to the University of Michigan, a bastion of radical activism since the 1960s, and considered to be a progressive-minded city likened to Berkeley, California.

Given the circumstances, one would think that this killing would have galvanized activists, media, and the public across the country to reaffirm that #BlackLivesMatter and demand justice. Aura Rosser, 40, however, was a Black Woman who suffered from mental illness. Her death received no such attention and outcry.

Aura’s death, and the silence and inaction on the part of both the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office and the national public as a whole, demonstrates the extent to which Black women are silenced and denied a voice in speaking out against their multiple and layered oppressions.

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Furthermore, it shows that a movement to fight state violence against Black people, on the part of both its protagonists and allies, must center the experiences and demands for justice of Black women, girls, and trans folk if it is really to be uprooted, for they are the people who the white supremacist, capitalist hetero-patriarchal system we live in suffocates and kills the most.

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Bené Viera is one of many writers and activists that have worked hard to raise the voices of Black women and girls and decry the lack of attention paid to their struggles.

She criticizes the notion that being targeted and killed by the police is exclusively or primarily a concern of Black men: “This pervasive attitude is why we can rattle off a list of unarmed Black boys and men killed by cops or vigilantes while barely knowing any of the women’s names. The erasure of Black women and girls from the police brutality narrative must stop.”2 She writes about Aiyana Jones, Kathryn Johnston, Yvette Smith, Tanisha Anderson, Eleanor Bumpers, Michelle Cusseaux, and, yes, Aura Rosser, and how their stories must be remembered. But more than that, Viera argues not only that Black women’s voices should be heard and remembered, but that their work should be acknowledged as an essential and foundational part of the pro-Black struggle.

She points out that three Black women created the #BlackLivesMatter movement.She writes about how Black women were heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement and in the Black Panther Party, yet their contributions are rarely acknowledged, let alone celebrated. Surely, if Black women victims of police violence are not being remembered and demands for justice are not being made on their behalf, it is not because they are at the margins of the problem, but rather that, just like the problem of Black people being explicitly targeted and killed by the state, the silencing and erasure of Black women specifically is a systemic issue that must be tackled as such.

Aura Rosser’s tragic death shows several painful ways in which Black women are ignored, thrown under the bus, and blamed for their own suffering and death. On the night she died, Rosser had entered into a dispute with her boyfriend, Victor Stephens, in their Ann Arbor home. All we know from news reports and media sources is that Stephens called the cops to “come and get her,” and that Rosser was wielding a knife. These facts alone, that her boyfriend called the cops and that she had a knife, to most of the general public (including many white liberals who would say she should not have had lethal force used against her) constitutes reasonable justification for the cops entering her home to resolve the dispute.

Though the fact that the police used lethal force against a Black woman with mental illness when it was not necessary is a violence loaded with racism that needs to be combated, much of the problem starts way before this point, at the point in which we make racist and sexist assumptions about Rosser’s position. As I have mentioned, all the sources I have found say nothing of the situation before the cops arrived. Because of the fact that Rosser had a knife and her boyfriend felt threatened enough to call the cops, as well as the way our patriarchal society is organized in which a man is the head of the household, should exert control over a female partner, and whose voice should be recognized, she gets no say in the story.

No one bothered to look into Rosser’s condition of mental illness, and the state surely didn’t do anything to help her get to a better place. No one bothered to look into her relationship with Stephens to see if there was any precedent to the dispute on November 9. No one bothered to look into whether or not Rosser was having trouble at work, was being harassed, or anything else. Shouldn’t the person Aura Rosser was, the way Mike Brown was ready to enter college, the way Trayvon Martin was a straight As student, the way all of the white mass shooting perpetrators were “good kids,” be looked into? People do not take up knives for no reason, yet no one bothered to look into this aspect of the story.

Audre Lorde helps us visualize the violently unique and layered oppression that Black women face, and why it is so important to center their experiences when discussing issues of race and gender instead of sweeping their perspectives under the rug, like any trace of Aura Rosser’s life was. “But Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living”5 Aura Rosser battled racism and sexism in her life on a daily basis, on an hourly basis.

Her lived experience, as someone who was ultimately killed by institutions of racism and sexism, was the grueling reality of the harshest consequences of racism and sexism in our society and should be the forefront of what we fight against. But beyond that, her knowledge – and the knowledge of all Black women and girls who have to understand the world and innovate and create in order to survive in it – is something that should be valued, something that should be centered in these discussions, it is a voice that should be heard. And it rarely is. Back to Rosser and the knife at the time of the police’s arrival.

We don’t know whether or not Stephens had a history of abuse toward Rosser (my raising the question is not accusing him of this, but rather raising a question regarding an issue that many women face). We don’t know if Rosser wasn’t on her medications because she couldn’t afford them. But something caused Aura Rosser to believe she had to take up a knife in order to protect herself. And for a Black woman who had to go out and face a racist and sexist world every day, Audre Lorde’s words resonate: “I’m saying if my blood is being shed, at some point I’m gonna have a legitimate reason to take up a knife and cut your damn head off, and I’m not trying to do it.”6 And as we ultimately see in this case and many others, the state is far more willing to shoot a Black woman in distress than to provide her with institutions and services that would seek to provide her medical, domestic, and mental safety and health.

Aura Rosser’s voice was not heard, and no one cared to look for it in the aftermath of her death. Rather, we are supposed to accept the subtle assumption that she was a crazy, angry, and dangerous black woman with a knife, and not question the police’s presence on the scene. From that point, we can critique the institutions of state violence (Ann Arbor Police Department) that killed her, and white liberals can debate whether or not lethal force was warranted in the particular situation. Aura Rosser was angry. And that anger was something our society should find a response to, one that does not involve extermination. “Anger is loaded with information and energy,” writes Lorde, “To turn aside from the anger of Black women with excuses or the pretext of intimidation is to award no one power – it is merely another way of preserving racial blindness, the power of unaddressed privilege, unbreached, intact. story, and even fewer will remember her a few years from now. But her story shows perhaps as well as any other the extent to which our society silences Black Women and then kills them. The only way Black women and girls will receive justice is if voices like Aura Rosser’s are heard and centered before they are killed. Only in this way will they be remembered and fought for after the fact.

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A History of the Erasure of Black Women and Girls from Police Brutality Narratives. (2022, Oct 28). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/a-history-of-the-erasure-of-black-women-and-girls-from-police-brutality-narratives-essay

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