Black Women, Police Violence, and Mental Illness

Attendees listen during a march and rally in honor of Charleena Lyles. Photo: David Ryder / Getty Images.

When I heard about Charleena Lyles—I remembered Eleanor Bumpurs, Deborah Danner, and Sophia King. All four were black women with mental health problems who were killed by police. Charleena was a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four shot in Seattle on June 18th. Charleena’s family members who questioned the police’s use of deadly force described her as “tiny.” Deborah was 66 years old, living in the Bronx with schizophrenia when fatally confronted by police this past October. Eleanor, like Deborah, was also 66 years old, emotionally disturbed, living in the Bronx when shot by police in 1984.

Media reports highlighted both Deborah and Eleanor’s nudity and in particular Eleanor’s weight, calling her “obese.” Sophia, 23, was shot outside her home in Austin, Texas in 2002. She was un-medicated, seen as paranoid, possibly suicidal, and like the other three women, with a sharp object in hand. The police report referred to Sophia at 5’7″ as “big,” “large,” and “tall.” Her body lay on display for hours in the courtyard of the public housing complex where she resided–to the pain and outrage of black community members already struggling with police violence in the gentrifying city. All four cases drew media attention, including the current investigation into Charleena’s fatal shooting and the May 31st indictment of the officer in Deborah’s death.

However, whether police are found guilty or not, my intent in writing about these cases is to consider what often gets lost in these accounts—first, the imagined crazy connected to these deaths and second, these black women’s lives before their lethal encounters with the police. Many stereotypes circulate around black women but it is the idea of black women’s craziness that is most salient in these particular women’s shootings.

Familiar stereotypes of black women such as “the angry black woman” or “welfare queen” cast black women as possessing deviant values and dispositions. The stereotype of crazy compounds these by rendering black women vulnerable to labels of mental and emotional deviance or “craziness.” Magnified by black skin, their bodies and actions are suspect of irrational states of mind: their movements unpredictable and threatening, their laughter possibly a sign of madness, their dissent or anger, aggressive.

The idea of crazy reduces black women’s presence to perceptions of being socially destructive, and thus unworthy of protection or societal compassion.

The officers in all four cases claimed they felt threatened by these women. They were confronted with scissors, knives, and a bat. Their distress is understandable when not adequately trained and without the support of a comprehensive and well-rehearsed protocol for tending to emotionally disturbed persons.1 Yet, Eleanor Bumpurs’ body was a frequent theme in her case. The prosecuting attorney recalled in his memoir, “At first, all we knew was that a poor, old, overweight black woman had been shot dead in her apartment by a white cop called in to help evict her.” Sophia King became a “he” in the police report, perhaps an error of hasty writing. Yet this one missing letter parallels the perception of black women as physically deviant and evokes the gendered racialization of affect and behavior psychiatrist and cultural historian Jonathan Metzl calls “masculinized hostility.”

Eleanor Bumpurs was shot dead by police in October 1984. Photo: Hamburg, Harry.

The focus on these women’s bodies suggests that they were able to move in ways that defied normative ideas about women’s physicality. It implied that they were calculating and thus responsible for their own deaths. Their perceived overreactions—their illness—cost these women their lives.

This missing letter in King’s report invites a conversation about how the ideas of crazy thrive, in part, because we, as a society, know relatively little about the realities of those suffering from severe mental illness. In a 6-page testimonial Deborah Danner wrote in 2012 and posthumously published, she eloquently captures the torment of living with schizophrenia and situates her personal experience within a context of racial and gendered mental illness (that she statistically documents). Schizophrenia brought her desperation, extreme isolation, abuse, and the overarching emotional toll of not being able to trust her mind. She mentions Eleanor’s death and conveys her understanding of the consequences of policing practices and mental illness. Her essay fills in parts of the story that Lyles, King, and Bumpurs were unable to tell, including some of the trials of being black and a woman in the United States.

The stereotype of crazy also masks the fact that these women’s difficulties were not solely the result of mental health issues. These cases bear witness to how black women live without adequate resources and with various, urgent health problems—known, unknown, familiar, unfamiliar, addressed and mostly unaddressed.

It is critical to consider how black women struggle with slow forms of death or what health researcher Arline Geronimus calls “weathering.” Whether from disease, personal trauma or that inflicted by police, the deaths of Charleena, Deborah, Eleanor, and Sophia require us to ask more intimate questions about why black women’s lives, beyond police-related shootings, have yet to gain more compassionate visibility.

My aim is to raise questions about why black women’s lives remain illegible and why they are often seen as crazy. How can we discuss black women’s lives when the topic is police violence without more complete understandings about other forms of slow death, or black women’s efforts to survive? How might an analysis of the system of gendered social arrangements and power known as patriarchy2 enrich our conversations about anti-black racism, police violence, and mental illness and wellness? Danner’s written cautionary is a prophetic reminder to attend to the experiences of black women before they culminate in early death.

  1. This statement is most true for the Bumpurs and King cases, which spurred city reforms around attending to persons with mental illness.
  2.  For more contemporary theories of patriarchy see bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love; Allan Johnson’s The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy; Gwen Hunnicutt’s “Varieties of Patriarchy and Violence against Women: Resurrecting “Patriarchy” as a Theoretical Tool,” Violence Against Women 15 (5): 553–573.
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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Comments on “Black Women, Police Violence, and Mental Illness

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    This is brilliantly written and such a necessary conversation. The very invisibility and accountability for the death of black women and black trans women shows us the nature of violence and power we live in. Thank you for this most important article.

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