5 Black Women Share Their Experiences With the Police
A 28-year-old black woman named Sandra Bland was found hanged in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell three days after she was stopped for a traffic violation and arrested for "assault on a public servant." Bland's death, initially declared a suicide, is now being investigated as a homicide, and her family has vocally disputed Waller County officials' account.
Questions regarding Bland's death remain, but a horrifying dashcam video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday shows officer Brian Encinia behaving violently during the stop. After Bland refuses Encinia's request to put out her cigarette, Encinia tells her to get out of her car. When she does not, the officer threatens to use his Taser to "light [Bland] up."
Viewers can also hear Bland shouting, "You're a real man now, you just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground, I got epilepsy, you motherfucker." Texas state legislators and the Department of Public Safety have publicly criticized Encinia's actions.
Bland's case highlights that black women are not exempt from life-altering, or ending, police abuse. Bland is not an outlier. Physical abuse and sexual assault of black women by law enforcement agents is common, and the video of Bland's encounter echoes what many have experienced. But too often their stories, along with the names of those who are no longer alive to share their testimonies, are forgotten. The task left to the nation is to ensure that violence, death and invisibility will not be the reasons we will have to say another black woman's name.
Mic talked with five women whose experiences with law enforcement highlight how common racist and misogynistic violence can be in the lives of black women. These are their stories.
1. Tarana Burke, Alabama: Black male police officers can hurt black women, too.
"I was once pulled over by a cop and my insurance was expired. The black cop who pulled me over with my then 5- or 6-year-old daughter in the car made me get out when he saw my [insurance] card," Burke told Mic via email. "I asked why he opened my door, and he positioned his body so that his genitals were in my face. I asked if he wanted me to get out or not, and he said yes, but didn't move. When I said, 'You're playing games,' he got pissed. He stepped back and yelled for me to get out of the car, and it scared my baby."
Burke recalled the way the officer then made her turn her body away from him on U.S. Highway 80, which links Selma and Montgomery, so that her "ass was facing him," as her daughter watched. The officer didn't say anything, nor did he handcuff her. Instead, Burke wrote, "He stood like five feet away from me, silently. And it was the creepiest and nastiest feeling ever. I turned to him and he just gestured for me to turn around. It was hot. I had on cut-off jean shorts and a tank top."
Despite being enraged, Burke remained silent. She answered his questions — even unnecessary and unwelcome ones, like the whereabouts of her daughter's father. After the officer eventually let Burke go, she pulled over at a gas station and wept.
"As a sexual assault survivor, it set something off in me that I couldn't control. And as a mother, it made me feel helpless. For years after that incident my baby girl would duck down in her seat in the back or yell, 'Mommy, the police,' when a cop car passed on on the highway."
Unfortunately, many may have had experiences similar to Burke's: According to the Cato Institute's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, sexual misconduct follows excessive force as the most frequent form of police misconduct.
2. Sharon Jones, New Jersey: Black women are not unbreakable.
Though black women are often culturally misrepresented as embodiments of physical and emotional strength, they are not "magical negroes." As Josie Pickens recently wrote at Mic in response to Bland's case, black women "are flesh and bone, and we have hopes and feelings. We are both easily and not so easily broken."
Sharon Jones*, a writer who lives in New Jersey, was brutally assaulted by an officer after her ex-boyfriend's lawyer complained she had yelled a profanity at him during a custody hearing in 2011. "The lawyer was extremely rude and refused to look at or acknowledge me or my request to discuss the [court] order. I told him he was an asshole and turned away to sit down and wait," Jones told Mic in an email.
The lawyer summoned an officer into the hearing, Jones told Mic, at which point "the officer [grabbed] me by the arm, twisting it behind me and then shoved my face into the wall as he began to arrest me. ... He then dragged me down the hall by my arm, pulled behind me as my ex laughed, and slammed my body against the wall near a stairwell. Once we were out of sight from everyone, he told me he would treat me like an animal since I wanted to act like one."
The officer eventually directed Jones down the stairwell to another floor. She asked the officer the reason for her arrest, but he would not give her an answer. "The more I cursed, the more he hurt me. I should have been quiet at that point, but I was angry. In the elevator in front of prisoners being transported to their hearings, he grabbed my hair and neck to keep me restrained. I was in handcuffs so there was no reason for that. Even the prisoners looked horrified by how I was being treated."
Jones was moved to a holding cell inside the court building and was told she would be charged with assaulting an officer. After speaking with a supervisor, she was eventually released. Her charges were reduced to misdemeanor and disorderly conduct charges. She had a friend photograph her bruises and days later filed a complaint. She was afraid after doing so, however.
"I often blamed myself for that incident and felt that I should have just followed the officer's orders," Jones told Mic. "I also felt if I was white that it would have never happened. I was dressed professionally. No one spoke up for me or said anything as the officer assaulted me in front of everyone. I will never forget being called an animal by that officer who was black."
3. Joelle Schofield, Pennsylvania: Fear of retribution can keep black women from reporting police abuse.
In May 2015, 26-year-old Joelle Schofield, an organizer with #BlackLivesMatters in Philadelphia and the Philly Coalition For Real Justice, joined a small group of activists in an emergency rally to bring public awareness to the death of Rekia Boyd, the 22-year-old unarmed black woman who was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer in 2012.
As the group blocked traffic during evening rush hour, "a white sergeant rushed me," Schofield told Mic in an email. "He started grabbing me close to his body attempting to pull me away from my comrades. The sergeant then pushed me and grabbed me tightly around my wrists. He then moved his hands from my wrists to my underarms as he pushed me across the street. He was touching my bare skin and the sides of my beasts."
Schofield knew she was being sexually assaulted, and witnesses did as well. "People were shouting at him asking, 'Why are you touching her sexually? Why is she being arrested?'" she said.
After Schofield was out of the officer's grip, he caressed her shoulder before eventually backing off, Schofield recalled. "People were telling me to report that he harassed me. I didn't want to come forward because I was afraid of further harassment and police intimidation. That was my first time being targeted by police."
4. Megan Malachi, Pennsylvania: Some black women feel unprotected — even in the presence of law enforcement.
Megan Malachi, a 34-year-old history teacher from Philadelphia and a member of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice and Action Against Black Genocide, shared a similar account of excessive force. During her arrest at a protest in March, she told Mic, she "was pushed, knocked down and threatened with violence by police." Later in jail, a correctional officer threatened to push her down a flight of stairs. "He also called me a bitch. None of the 'real' [Philadelphia Police Department] police or other correctional officials objected to this abuse. Several of them laughed," she said.
5. Iyatunde Oshunade, California: Sandra Bland's death hits close to home for some black women.
In 2001, Iyatunde Oshunade Folayan, a Long Beach, California-based activist, stopped at the beach on her way home and decided to sit on a chair at the lifeguard station to relax. "I saw a white pickup truck approach me," she told Mic in an email. "It stopped in front of the lifeguard stand. A blinding spotlight was cast in my direction. I could only see two shadows get out of their vehicles. 'Do you know its against the law to sit on a lifeguard stand?' the officer said. And I told him I didn't. I also said I didn't see any signs posted. And I came down from the stand and began to walk away."
Folayan was told she would be searched. "I told the two male cops that I did not consent to a search and was patted down anyway. I was there on the beach alone at night being touched by cops 'for my own safety.' Humiliated, I asked for badge numbers, had a verbal back-and-forth with them and was issued a citation."
Like many of the women interviewed for this story, Folayan noted how much of herself she could see in Bland. "I was Sandra Bland," she said. "Like her, I questioned and affirmed my rights in the presence of police. I was a lone black woman against the state. Though they weren't as brutal as they were with Bland, and of course I am alive, I carry the emotional scars of losing something I can never regain except through the telling, testimony and witnessing, organizing."
*Name has been changed to allow individuals to speak openly on private matters.