Demands for Justice Are Failing Black Women and Girls

Marissa Alexander enters the courtroom for a hearing on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in Jacksonville, Fla.  Circuit Judge James Dan
Marissa Alexander enters the courtroom for a hearing on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in Jacksonville, Fla. Circuit Judge James Daniel set a hearing for August 1 on whether Alexander should be granted a second stand your ground self-defense hearing. Daniel also set a new tentative date of Dec. 1 for Alexander’s second trial on aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charges. Alexander, 33, was convicted in May 2012 of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 20 years in prison under the state’s minimum mandatory requirements. Alexander says she acted in self-defense after her estranged husband beat her. The warning shots were fired near her husband and his two children. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

When pundits and black leaders bemoaned the irony of a St. Louis County grand jury announcing its decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. on the same day that slain civil-rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, few noted another cruel irony.

Just as Wilson walked free of charges despite having shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Marissa Alexander, the battered black woman initially sentenced to 20 years in prison in Florida for firing an alleged warning shot into the ceiling of her home as her abusive ex-husband allegedly threatened her despite a restraining order against him, headed back to jail to serve an additional 65 days on top of the three years she has already served. Alexander accepted a plea deal in the face of new charges filed against her, charges that would have amounted to 60 years in prison had she been convicted.

Also absent from the pleas for justice are the names of too many other African Americans cut down like Brown, people such as Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Yvette Smith and, most recently, Tanisha Anderson.

A few weeks ago Anderson's family called 911 for an ambulance to obtain medical and mental-health assistance for the 37-year-old woman. Instead of help, Cleveland police officers arrived and put her in handcuffs, and her family says they ultimately slammed her on the pavement outside the home. She died shortly thereafter.

In October a mistrial was declared in the case against the Detroit police officer who fatally shot Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, during a botched police raid on her home in 2010. Wayne County jurors deadlocked over whether Joseph Weekley should be convicted on the charge of "careless discharge of a firearm causing death." Roland Lawrence, the chairman of the Justice for Aiyana Committee, pondered aloud, "Surely, the death of a baby by a well-trained police force must be deemed unacceptable in a civilized society." But black girls, even those asleep in their beds, do not have the luxury of childhood in America.

These are not the only oversights.

Many of the condemnations of police brutality have excluded the experiences of black women who have been brutalized in custody. The ongoing media blackout surrounding the case of 13 black women allegedly assaulted by a police officer in Oklahoma City may be the hardest evidence of the devaluation of African-American women's lives.

The women have testified that they were subjected to rape, forcible sodomy and sexual battery. These are among the 36 felony charges leveled against Daniel Holtzclaw. Part of the evidence against him includes DNA from the youngest alleged victim, a 17-year-old girl. It was found inside the officer's uniform trousers. Yet he remains out on bail, and the alleged victims remain forgotten in the black community's rage against racist policing and a broken justice system.

As the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown reignite the movement for real change in the U.S. criminal-justice system, black women's experience of state-sanctioned anti-black violence must be included. That means demanding that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the Oklahoma judge who granted and reduced bail in the Holtzclaw case, in addition to demanding that the DOJ bring charges against Darren Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department.

It also means rewriting the laws so that it isn't nearly impossible to indict police officers who kill unarmed civilians, and rewriting laws that allow battered women to serve decades in prison for attempting to defend themselves.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott should pardon Marissa Alexander, and she should be freed immediately.

More broadly, we need a complete overhaul of the justice system -- everything from the nationwide implementation of cop body cams to the implementation of equitable sentencing, beginning with how black and white suspects are investigated and charged.

We need better accountability and oversight of the ways that prosecutors adjudicate cases involving African Americans, who we know are disproportionately targeted by police as a group. One of the most egregious examples is that despite parity in black and white drug use, African Americans are arrested on drug charges at far higher rates. Here again, we cannot fail to stress that this has directly and disproportionately affected black women too.

This blossoming movement must also consider the relationship between police brutality and police abdication -- namely, failure by police to protect and value black lives. Doing so would have profound implications for black women because it would draw attention not only to police violence against black women but to the ways that the failure by police to protect black women has mortal consequences.

One wonders how differently things might have gone for Marissa Alexander if she had been able to rely on police when her abusive ex-husband came back around despite the restraining order against him. Given the fate of black folks like Tanisha Anderson and Eric Garner, it's painfully clear why she had to fire that warning shot instead.