I woke up on Thanksgiving morning angry—very, very angry.
Thanksgiving day is supposed to be a time to gather with family members, hug our children and laugh with our siblings. It is supposed to be a time to give thanks for all our blessings.
But like so many other Black mothers, my Thanksgiving day was marred by the shadow of grief and outrage over the failure of a grand jury to indict a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri after he callously gunned down a young, unarmed Black teenager. My sisters and I hugged our children even tighter knowing that Lesley McSpadden could no longer hug her son Michael.
But my feelings Thursday morning was more than just the personal grief as a parent, it was also my outrage as a reproductive justice activist.
Reproductive justice (RJ) means the human right to control our sexuality, our gender, our work, and our reproduction. That right can only be achieved when all women and girls have the complete economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, our families, and our communities in all areas of our lives.
At the core of reproductive justice is the belief that all women have the right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to nurture the children we have in a safe and healthy environment. Because of constant attacks by anti- abortion and anti-contraception legislators, much of the policy focus of reproductive justice activists and groups has centered more on the first two prongs of RJ. But more and more as we join forces with other justice movements, our work concentrates on this third component – – one that envisions the day-to-day lives of Black families.
Speaking as a mother, I believe Lesley McSpadden hoped to watch her son Michael become a man, marry and raise his own sons and daughters. And like other mothers, she probably wanted to see how he would grow up and find himself. But on a hot afternoon in August, police officer Darren Wilson took that right away from her, not because he was afraid for his life, but because Michael Brown had failed to heed his orders. Brown didn’t do what Wilson told him to do; he didn’t get out of the street.
That perceived disrespect was what marked Brown as a dead man in Wilson’s eyes.
Wilson fired shot after shot at Brown because the officer had the kind of attitude that one 17-year veteran police officer callously wrote about in a Washington Post op-ed, in which he said, “If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.”
This fear of state-sponsored violence against our children lives with every Black mother in America. And they are not irrational fears.
According to a recent report from ProPublica, police officers are 21 times more likely to kill young Black men between the age of 15 and 19 than young white men in the same age group. The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that Black teens were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.
These figures, based on FBI data from “self-reported” information from hundreds of police departments, confirm what the Black community has always known: that, in fact, police departments target Black communities with a higher level of deadly force than other communities. The report authors also indicated that the reported numbers are probably lower than the actual figures, because no federal entity pro-actively tracks and analyzes police shooting data.
In our society, where police routinely stop Black men for “driving while Black,” “walking while Black,” or even “sitting while Black,” as in the case of 28-year old Chris Lollie, who police tased for sitting in a skyway in St. Paul, Minnesota, simply leaving your home can be a dangerous venture. The fact is even a Black man at the top of his profession must still worry about how police officials perceive him during every interaction. And the fears regarding police confrontation that every Black mothers has for their children cuts across economic and educational barriers.
As we wait for the results of an investigation into possible police civil rights violations by the U.S. Department of Justice, we must continue to raise our voices about these injustices, allow ourselves the righteous anger that these circumstances warrant and join the public protest to demonstrate that we’re fed up with the status quo. The rolling demonstrations not only in Ferguson, but also in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, the District of Columbia and many, many other cities clearly show that people across the country want change.
And as reproductive justice activists and organizations, we must continue to work for a future where “the right to nurture our children in safe and healthy environments” isn’t just a wish, but a reality.