"You promised you wouldn't kill me. I didn't do anything." These were some of the last words spoken by Natasha McKenna before she died in custody after Fairfax County Jail officials tasered her four times with 50,000 volts. Despite the fact that video of McKenna's cold-blooded killing has been available to the public since September, journalists and activists have resoundingly failed to draw the outrage to her story that it merits.
February 8 marks the one-year anniversary of McKenna's death. Now is the time for journalists who were missing a year ago to shed light on the circumstances surrounding McKenna's death. This date is an opening for activists across the country to take to the streets and march for justice for Natasha McKenna just as they have for Black men.
Around this time last year, McKenna was taken into custody in Fairfax County Jail after police were called as first responders during a mental health crisis and discovered an outstanding warrant. McKenna had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child. Rather than providing the care she needed, jail officials tasered McKenna four times with 50,000 volts while attempting to "extract" her from her cell. McKenna died a week later in the hospital. Her cause of death was recorded as "excited delirium," a term not recognized by the American Medical Association, which is used almost exclusively in fatalities following police use of tasers.
On September 10, 2015, Fairfax County released footage of the encounter that led to McKenna's death in an effort to show the "professionalism" and "restraint" demonstrated by the officers involved. On September 9, they announced that those responsible for her death had been cleared of any professional wrongdoing.
The McKenna video was one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. Before watching the video, I had not known that she would be naked, later clothed in nothing but a hood over her head. I found it hard to understand why the officers deemed it necessary to remove McKenna from her cell at that exact moment. Why couldn't they have waited until she was calm and ready to be moved? When later asked why they didn't pull back (or God forbid, bring in a mental health professional to support her) an official told the Washington Post that they "typically do not withdraw from a cell extraction once it has begun." Rather than being treated as a woman in crisis who needed compassionate intervention, they treated McKenna as a threat to the social order whose life was of less value than department protocol.
Although by the end of the video McKenna was clearly near death, none of the officials showed significant concern or bothered to cover up her exposed body. While videos showing the deaths of Black men have rightly garnered widespread scrutiny (recently, for instance, Laquan McDonald), this video has been met with relative silence.
Matching the dearth of attention from mainstream media and anti-racist activists, McKenna's story has also failed to galvanize prominent feminist groups. This speaks to the continued intersectional erasure of Black women from our efforts for social justice. Had she looked like me, it's safe to say that the attention paid to McKenna's story would have been vastly different. But this may be a moot point -- as a white woman from a middle class background, what happened to McKenna would probably never happen to me.
Why have Black women's stories of police brutality failed to elicit levels of indignation anywhere close to those of Black men? What does this say about the status of anti-racist and feminist activism in the US today? What does the relative media whiteout say about how as a society we value the lives of Black women?
It's up to each of us to recognize that McKenna's position as a Black woman with schizophrenia cannot be separated from her treatment by the police. At a time when the social safety net is increasingly absent for those in poverty, police are often first responders to mental health crises. Approximately 15 percent of calls to the police now involve a mental health emergency. This places people of color who have historically been criminalized by the police in a dangerous -- and at times deadly -- position when they require mental health support. According to analysis by the Washington Post, a quarter of those killed by the police in 2015 were described by loved ones as "mentally ill."
At the core of activism against state violence lies the goal of fundamentally changing institutions that have oppressed individuals since our society's inception. Advancing a holistic analysis of systemic violence means foregrounding experiences of violence at multiple intersections, including race, gender, class, and ability status. It means dismantling police brutality that takes place in the hidden, private spaces of the home just as we combat that more visible violence which occurs in public spaces. It means placing Natasha McKenna's story at the center of our agitation and advocacy.
If we were to consider the institutional flaws that allowed McKenna's death to go unpunished, we could back concrete actions that can be taken now. Jail officials got away with using extreme force on McKenna in large part because there are no national guidelines on taser usage. The fact that police were first-responders to a mental health crisis is another pressing problem. If you are a hammer, everything can begin to look like a nail. But individuals in crisis should not be treated as criminals and met with physical force. Instead, we need to redirect resources from militarization of our police departments into mental health support for those who lack the resources for private care. McKenna's story also points to gender-specific reforms -- male law enforcement officials should not be man-handling a naked woman in distress.
The fact that what law enforcement officials did to McKenna can be considered "professionalism" should be a wake-up call to the American populace on what the profession of law enforcement means in this country. That no one was charged to stand trial in this case sends a disturbing message about the state of human rights in a country that presents itself as a beacon of democracy to the world. When our police system's function is to enforce the boundaries of class, race, and gender, this does not just impact marginalized individuals like Natasha McKenna -- it impacts us all.
We need to use the anniversary of McKenna's death to call for accountability for the officers who killed her and the negligent system that deemed her death to be within the purview of the law.