The Long BrutalityRoundup
tags: Jim Crow, African American history, Police, Fannie Lou Hamer, black womens history
Keisha N. Blain is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society. Her latest books are Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 and Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.
WHEN POLICE OFFICERS KNOCKED on Eleanor Bumpurs’s door on October 29, 1984, they must have startled her. But they knocked and knocked again, determined to get an answer from the resident inside the Bronx apartment. An elderly and disabled Black woman, Bumpurs was $400 behind on rent. The officers who arrived that morning were administering an eviction notice. The sixty-six-year-old grandmother refused to open her door and so they drilled out the lock and four officers entered her home to find her wielding a kitchen knife. They tried to arrest her; she resisted. Stephen Sullivan, a New York City police officer, fired two shots at Bumpurs, hitting her in the hand and in the chest. She died shortly after in a nearby hospital emergency room.
Three-and-a-half decades later, the group of officers in plain clothes who arrived at Breonna Taylor’s apartment also knocked. The door did not immediately open, and they did not hesitate to barge in. It was past midnight on March 13, 2020 when the officers forcibly entered Taylor’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, as part of a drug investigation. The suspect they were seeking didn’t live there, nor were drugs ever found. But Taylor’s boyfriend, startled by the presence of intruders, fired his weapon. In a matter of minutes, Taylor lay dead in her apartment—shot six times by police officers.
Different times, the same result. The eerie similarity of the two cases reveals how little has changed when it comes to state-sanctioned violence in the United States. No doubt the police shootings of Bumpurs and Taylor underscore the general pervasiveness of police violence in non-white communities. But these two killings illuminate something more: the targeting of Black women—a fact that many Americans still struggle to fully comprehend.
Although the political campaign #SayHerName is playing a crucial role in changing the narrative, many Americans continue to view state-sanctioned violence primarily through the lens and experiences of Black men. There is no denying that the majority of Black people killed by police in the United States are young men. It is a sobering fact. Yet the Bumpurs and Taylor cases placed a national spotlight on the how the systemic problem of police violence also places Black women’s lives at great risk. The Washington Post has counted 247 women fatally shot by police since 2015; forty-eight of those women were Black. “Black women, who are 13 percent of the female population, account for 20 percent of the women shot and killed and 28 percent of the unarmed deaths,” the Post reported.
The sheer senselessness of the Bumpurs and Taylor deaths lit sparks that initiated local, national, and even global anti-racist movements that changed the American political landscape. And in both cases, Black women emerged as key political actors, working to obtain justice for their loved ones and also attempting to change the nature of policing in this country.
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