Are black women being undervalued by Black Lives Matter?
That appears to be a growing concern within the activist movement, which came to prominence following several controversial deaths of unarmed black Americans across the country in the past few years.
Black Lives Matter’s three female founders have said their organizing is minimized as a result of their gender, and a writer for the liberal website Salon recently lamented that “the names of slain black men, though not spoken enough, are still more publicized than the names of slain black women.”
This trend of “erasure” is a big issue for Erika Totten, one of the Washington, D.C., area activists who disrupted District Mayor Muriel Bowser during a speech announcing new crime-fighting initiatives last month.
Totten — one of the founders of the official Black Lives Matter group for D.C., Maryland and Virginia — would like to see her movement focused more on black women, including those who are transgender and thus uniquely at risk for harassment and violence.
“When we say ‘black lives matter,’ we mean all black lives, not just straight black men and black boys,” the 32-year-old resident of Alexandria, Va., said in an interview.
She noted that the national press has given much more attention to black men who have died, including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, than to black women. Listing cases she believed warranted more attention, Totten mentioned two unarmed black women who were shot to death by police: seven-year-old Aiyana Jones, who was killed in a Detroit police raid, and Mya Hall, a 27-year-old transgender woman from Baltimore whose life ended when a security guard opened fire on her vehicle after she made a wrong turn.
Totten also pointed out that black women and girls grapple with unique racial challenges, referencing studies of school suspension as one example. (“The disparity in punishment between black girls and white girls is greater than the disparity between black and white boys,” according to research by Columbia University law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw.)
InsideSources asked Totten if she felt any discomfort protesting Bowser, one of the most powerful black women in the District, but she said the mayor’s calls for more police officers and tougher criminal penalties deserved condemnation.
“Her being a black woman is something that is hurtful,” Totten said. “However, it’s not something that’s surprising. A lot of our people have not woken up. … She’s upholding anti-black policies.”
Totten then said Bowser made avoidable mistakes in crafting an agenda to fight D.C.’s spiking violent crime:
If she had talked with organizers, we would have told her ‘Don’t lead with more police, don’t have a whole gang of police behind you as your backdrop, because that’s horrible optics.’ What would have been better would be to have a whole group of employers ready to hire.
Black Lives Matter has called for the mayor to focus on community outreach and services to troubled neighborhoods. Bowser’s plan does include these elements, but the bulk of what she’s proposing seems to focus on law enforcement. Her administration is set to submit specific plans in the form of legislation to the D.C. Council later this month.