A Letter for Rekia Boyd

This post is part of our online forum in honor of Sandra Bland, coinciding with the third anniversary of her death. The forum includes historical and contemporary perspectives–and creative pieces–on Black women’s susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence. 

Protest against the police killing of Shereese Francis (Photo: Tina Leggio, Flickr).

Dear Rekia Boyd,

I’m sure you’re watching over your brother Martinez, so you see how he’s struggling with your death. I would like to believe that most thinking, feeling people would find it difficult to understand how a drunken man with no badge and no uniform could shoot a young woman down in the street and still be protected by his Chicago Police Department shield. But thanks to the efforts of your brother and activists like him, your death and the senseless deaths of so many of your peers are making a difference.

In the winter of 2014, Martinez went to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to tell the world about you. While there, he had conversations with a young man named Ethan Viets-Van Lear, who also lost someone special to him, his friend Dominique Franklin because of police violence. While at the UN, Ethan honored his friend’s legacy with a poem.

The poem “For Damo” evokes an image of Ethan’s friend as a young man “born to live free and wild,” a young man whose tasering at the hands of the police and subsequent death is emblematic of the dreadful state of Black life today. These are from the closing lines:

            The problem is not, and never will be Damo or young men like him.

            But his jailing, and eventual murder has always been America’s Final Solution

            To the conundrum of how to keep colored folk in line and obedient.

            His hospital deathbed seemed another stint at an institution.

The beeping and clicking was drowned out by the sound of Damo’s booming laugh

            Reverberating in my head.

            Reminding me of the glory that exists in this world.

            And how little we do to protect it.

For years I lived in North Lawndale, the West Side Chicago neighborhood you called home, and the place where you were gunned down. I know that just like Damo’s murder, yours was part of the “Final Solution,” as Ethan puts it, to the conundrum that is the race problem in America. But like Damo’s, your death has sparked action as well as grief. As a response to your death, scholars and activists are calling attention to violence against Black women as well as Black women’s invisibility in the United States.

Shortly after your murder, people began using the hashtag #SayHerName and demonstrating around the U.S. to highlight the recent deaths of Black women by police. These activists wanted to end the relative silence and lack of outrage with which the deaths of Black women have been received by thrusting the murder of Black women by cops into the national spotlight.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, UCLA professor and founder of the African American Policy Forum, has been a key architect of this movement.1 In a foundational article, she wrote the following:

The failure to highlight and demand accountability for the countless Black women killed by police over the past two decades…leaves Black women unnamed and thus underprotected in the face of their continued vulnerability to racialized police violence.”

You should know that because of this movement, your name is now said alongside that of Kathryn Johnston, 92, who was killed in Atlanta during a “no knock” drug raid that was based on false information. Officers broke down her gate and entered her home without warning. As the door opened, Johnston fired the pistol she kept for self-defense, hitting no one. But the officers fired back 39 times, killing the elderly woman.

Your name is said alongside that of Tarkia Wilson, 26, who was killed in Lima, Ohio, on January 4, 2008, when a SWAT team raided her home to arrest her boyfriend on drug charges. Wilson had her youngest son, Sincere, in her arms when she was shot by Sgt. Joseph Chavalia. Sincere, who was 14 months old, was shot in the shoulder and hand but survived.

Your name is said alongside that of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, seven, who was shot and killed on May 16, 2010 during a raid conducted by the Detroit Police. Joseph “Brain” Weekley, a rising star on the reality TV show, The First 48, killed her. Film crews were recording the scene when Weekley fired his gun through Aiyana’s open front door, striking her dead.

Your name is said alongside that of Malissa Williams, 30, who died on November 29, 2012, when a 25-minute car chase through Cleveland ended with 13 officers firing 137 rounds in the vehicle in which Williams was a passenger.

 Your name is said alongside that of Darnisha Harris, 16, who was killed on December 2, 2012, when Breaux Bridge, Louisiana Police Officer Travis Guillot responded to a reported disturbance by firing two shots into the car Harris was driving.

Your name is said alongside that of Miriam Carey, 34, who died on October 3, 2013 when U.S. Secret Service and Capitol Police officers shot her five times after she drove her car into a security checkpoint near the White House. Carey’s 1-year-old daughter was in the car at the time and survived.

Your name is said alongside that of Renisha McBride, 19, who died on November 2, 2013 when she crashed her car in Detroit. When McBride knocked on Theodore Wafer’s door to ask for help, a homeowner fired a bullet into McBride from a shotgun.

Your name is said alongside that of Yvette Smith, 47, who was fatally shot when Bastrop County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Willis responded to a 911 call about a fight between several men at a residence. Willis ordered Smith to come out of the house and then shot her twice when she stepped through the doorway.

Your name is said alongside that of Tanesha Anderson, 37, who died on November 13, 2014, when Cleveland police officers Scott Aldridge and Bryan Myer used a lethal takedown move to subdue this mentally ill woman, who battled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Your name is said alongside that of Sandra Bland, a native of suburban Chicago who died on July 13, 2015. Bland left her hometown to take a job at her alma mater in Prairie View, Texas. Shortly after moving to the South, Bland was pulled over by a state trooper for failing to signal a lane change. Before arresting her, state trooper Brian Encinia pulled her out of her car and slammed her on the ground. During the encounter Bland repeatedly complained that her head had been slammed into the ground. Days later Bland was found dead in her jail cell.

When I reflected on these stories in light of the research that feminist scholars have conducted, I can’t help but conclude that what happened to you is all too common of the ways Black women in the criminal justice system are physically battered, sexually assaulted, emotionally abusedand killed.2 And while I know it could never make up for the injustice you suffered when you were murdered by that Chicago Police Officer, Rekia, I hope you at least derive a small measure of consolation from the fact that as part of the #Sayhername movement, your name is now repeated to evoke the nameless and under-protected Black women we have ignored for far too long.

Just as Ethan honored his friend Damo’s death with a poem, so too has Nikki Skies memorialized you with these words:

            Say her name

            Because she’s pushed from the same mama

            It’s the same grip of hips

            It’s the same Sunday fish fry and collection bowl passed

            To collect for her services that served her life

            With tainted water and a rusted spoon

Somebody say her name…

            It’s the same scenario: It’s empty beds, abandoned hairbrushes, unused minutes, and it’s a forgotten body

Somebody please say her name

            The sound of her name that settles the thorn in her father’s shoes

            The sound of her name that scratches the itch in her mother’s womb

            That she can’t seem to reach anymore

Renisha McBride, Aiyana Jones—

            There is no fire next time

            You should be sitting here on fire, right now—

For Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd

 

Rest in peace, Rekia. Please rest, while we continue to never forget.

  1. See Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea J. Ritchie, Rachel Anspach, Rachel Gilmer, and Luke Harris. “Say Her name: Resisting Police Brutality against Black Women,” African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, Columbia Law School, 2015.
  2.  By referring to the literature on Black woman and the criminal justice system what I mean to point out is that, because of her vulnerability as a drug addict and a sex worker, Maria was subjected to a different, but no less horrific, form of torture than many of the men I had interviewed, whose gang affiliation put them at special risk to experience police torture. See, for example: Beth Richie, Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women (London: Routledge, 1996).
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Laurence A. Ralph

Laurence Ralph is a Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of 'Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago' (University of Chicago Press). His scholarly work explores how the historical circumstances of police abuse, mass incarceration, and the drug trade naturalize disease, disability, and premature death for urban residents, who are often seen as expendable. Follow him on Twitter @Laurence_Ralph.