Gender and the Politics of Anti-Black State Violence

Protest of events in Ferguson in Washington, DC. (Photo: ep_jhu, Flickr).

In the early hours of November 10, 2014, fifty-four-year-old Victor Stephens called the Ann Arbor Police Department to report a domestic incident between himself and forty-year-old Aura Rosser. According to officers Mark Raab and David Ried, Rosser approached them with a knife upon entry. Within five to ten seconds of entering the house, Raab discharged his taser while Ried fired his handgun. The bullet struck Rosser in the chest, knocking her down in the kitchen and killing her. After the Michigan State Police conducted its investigation of Rosser’s death, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie publicly announced on January 30, 2015, that the killing was justified, like many of the other police killings of African Americans.

The murder of Aura Rosser by Ann Arbor police raised questions about the officers’ approach to the November 2014 incident. It also produced protest. Many of us joined together to form Ann Arbor to Ferguson (later Ann Arbor for Black Lives) in the wake of the St. Louis County Prosecutor Office’s decision not to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. Ann Arbor activists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) posed the same question about the officers’ tactics: Why did the officers use lethal and non-lethal force simultaneously?

Rosser’s death also raised questions around the politics of anti-Black state violence, especially as it related to gender and age. As journalist Terrell Jermaine Starr, and many of us who worked to achieve justice for Rosser and her family, asked: Why was Rosser’s death not a national story like Eric Garner and Michael Brown? Was Rosser’s invisibility due to her death transpiring in the midst of other cases of Black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner dying at the hands of law enforcement? Was it because Rosser was not seen as respectable? Was it because she was killed in Ann Arbor, a small city that did not appear to have a history of police abuse on its surface? Was it because there was no video evidence like in the deaths of Garner, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland? Black women such as activist-intellectuals Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea Ritchie, and the African American Policy Forum coined the #SayHerName hashtag, finally launching Sandra Bland into public discourse in July 2015, eight months after Rosser died.

We had to contend with some of these questions as we organized for justice after Rosser’s murder. And, as I argued in response to Mackie’s decision not to indict Ried and Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor’s Facebook statement, Rosser’s murder highlighted the tension between the invisibility that Black and women of color suffer as related to national discourses around state violence and hypervisibility as related to racist policing and the official state narratives that arise to explain such “tragedies.”

As organizers in Ann Arbor, we confronted three powerful discursive and media narratives that were intertwined. The first was the liberal belief that local law enforcement possessed a relatively good record despite its flaws. This interpretation of policing in Ann Arbor suggests that blatant instances of racist policing such as the mass profiling of Black men in response to a serial rapist in the early 1990s were abnormalities, not products of structural racism. This interpretation rests upon the self-ascribed identity of the city as progressive. In reality, such a myth rests upon a comparative analysis between Ann Arbor and surrounding conservative towns and, in the case of the police department, in relation to blatantly corrupt police departments like in Ferguson.

When it came to the handling of the Rosser case, the city of Ferguson outperformed Ann Arbor in one crucial area. The Ferguson police department let Darren Wilson go while Ried was allowed to keep his job. It took organizing from local groups like Transforming Justice Washtenaw and significant citizen pressure to push the city to abandon a consulting firm’s proposal for a form of “co-produced policing.” This form of policing represented more of a neoliberal form of police oversight that would, as one of the officials of the consulting firm suggested at a meeting, include not just citizens and law enforcement officials, but also business leaders. Yet, after all of the reform and resistance, Ann Arbor never fired Ried nor officially apologized to Rosser’s family.

The police shooting as “tragedy” represented the second discursive frame. The mayor used this language in an attempt to appear compassionate without attributing any responsibility to Rosser’s killer and the police force. However, such rhetoric obscured the structural nature of state violence. Even if there had only been one other police shooting, it was not a coincidence that Rosser would be the victim considering the amount of contact between not just police and Black folks generally, but also Ann Arbor police with Rosser and Stephens in particular. The police had visited Stephens’s residence multiple times to address domestic incidents. The more police contact, the more likely the targeted individual from an over-policed group will suffer “tragic” consequences.

Ultimately, we confronted the tension between the invisibility of state violence against Black women and the gender racism that underscores racist and sexist interpretations of that very state violence Black women suffer. As activist-scholar Kyera Singleton told the Huffington Post in December 2014, “It’s really important that we break the silence about who’s a victim of police violence…We can’t be silent when it happens to a woman and then go out and march when it happens to a man.” Activists and leaders like longtime activist Shirley Beckley, as well as activist-scholars Mayram Aziz and Rebecca Anuru spoke her name and advanced deep analyses of gender racism in Rosser’s case and in Ann Arbor, generally. An anonymous group of activists produced a twenty-page pamphlet entitled, The People’s Retort to the Prosecutor’s Report, challenging the prosecution’s facts of the case. We distributed this pamphlet and all of our writings to as many citizens as possible in person and via social media.

Lastly, we challenged the gender racism undergirding the state’s narrative of the murder and of Rosser’s life. While the County Prosecutor’s report stated that both officers used varying levels of force simultaneously, they also emphasized Rosser’s criminal history, drug use, and mental illness. The report stated, “The toxicology report does show high levels of cocaine, cocaine metabolites and alcohol…Witness statements and evidence found in the home made it clear that Ms. Rosser had smoked crack cocaine.” Consequently, journalists from the local news media framed their stories around the state’s narrative. This process of building the case for justifiable homicide, which included the prosecutor’s office dumping all of the evidence publicly after their announcement, had racist and sexist implications, even if unintentional. As I wrote after the county prosecutor’s announcement:

The shooting of Aura Rosser confirms how Ann Arbor looks like the rest of America. […] The crucial difference is that Rosser is Black and female. Being Black and female in America today means that Black women not only die at the hands of the state like [Black] men, their suffering is obscured while making their physicality and psychological state hyper-visible. Black women’s suffering is unseen by the authorities, but the state tries to highlight how they are “aggressive” and “hysterical.”

The evasion of responsibility for racist state violence and the demonization of Black women victims fit a larger pattern and the process that produced a familiar outcome—a proclamation of the state’s innocence and the condemnation of a Black life. Ann Arbor was, and still is, part of a nation with a specific racist past and present.

Black women activists such as Andrea Ritchie, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrice Cullors, and Mariame Kaba have theorized how the invisibility of Black women in public discourses around police killings and the hypervisibility of “bad behaviors” make them more vulnerable to various forms of state violence. As a cis-gender Black man, I would not have to worry about the prospect of fighting for recognition by my peers should I fall victim to state violence. However, Black women are forced to witness state actors inflict deadly violence on their peers and then watch the state exonerate itself from the margins. I learned the point of “saying her name.” Anyone striving to secure justice for any Black or person of color who is not a cis-gender and straight man has to constantly remind law enforcement, elected officials, and journalists of the presence and humanity of Black women, genderqueer, and trans folks. Recognition in itself is not total justice, but it is a step towards crafting holistic measures that can keep every single Black and person of color safe from state violence.

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Austin McCoy

Austin McCoy is an assistant professor of history at West Virginia University. His research interests focus on African American history, the U.S. left, labor and political economy, and social movements and activism. His current manuscript project is tentatively titled, The Quest for Democracy: Black Power, New Left, and Progressive Politics in the Post-Industrial Midwest.' Follow him on Twitter @AustinMcCoy3.