A funeral service is held for 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant at the First Church of God on April 30, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. Bryant was shot and killed on April 20 by a Columbus police officer answering a domestic dispute call. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
The 16-year-old Black girl could never be the “perfect victim.”
After watching 15 seconds of police body camera footage last week, viewers of various races and political affiliations had made a decision: 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was “the aggressor” — the “fat,” “huge,” “knife-wielding attacker” and “maniac” who deserved to be fatally shot by the police on April 20 in Columbus, Ohio.
According to these viewers, Nicholas Reardon, the police officer who immediately shot and killed Bryant, who was holding a knife, was justified. That she was a teenager in the middle of an altercation, in which she was presumed to be defending herself, did not matter.
Reardon shot Bryant dead about 20 minutes before a judge announced that a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, a killing that catalyzed worldwide protests against police violence. For a moment, those seeking justice for Black life exhaled in relief, knowing that the officer who callously took Floyd’s life would be imprisoned.
But the cries for justice that applied to George Floyd did not ring out as loudly for Bryant. Even after it was discovered that Bryant was living in foster care, that she was in the middle of a fight with older women when police arrived, and that she was allegedly the one who summoned the police for help, people — some of the same people who called for justice in Floyd’s case — used police talking points to justify the four bullets that Reardon unloaded into Bryant’s chest. She was brandishing a knife, many pointed out, which meant the other Black women needed to be protected.
Crisis response experts noted, however, that deescalation tactics — like commanding Bryant to drop the weapon, physically getting between the women, or simply communicating with her — could have kept everyone alive. In many recorded encounters between the police and white people carrying weapons, for instance, officers didn’t shoot first or even reach for their guns — they successfully managed to peacefully apprehend the suspect.
Bryant’s death has become a debate that questions a child’s actions — and worthiness to live — instead of another example of the racism of policing and the institution’s failure to provide wholesome support, care, and safety for the communities it serves. The insistence that Reardon had no other option than to take Bryant’s life to save others — though he risked everyone’s life in the process — displays the lack of consideration and value that society places on the lives of Black girls and women.
Treva Lindsey, a professor of African American women’s history at Ohio State University, told Vox that there are those who won’t see Bryant as a victim but as someone who brought this on herself. And even for those who do see her as a victim, they’ll still victim-blame, erasing the systemic oppression — including that Black children are far more likely to be in foster care than their white counterparts, and kids in foster care are often exposed to high levels of violence — that brought her to being killed at the hands of the police.
“People will say ‘I’m really sad this whole scenario happened, but had she not had that knife …’ That becomes the ‘but,’ the qualifier, the caveat. And too often we have a caveat when it comes to defending, protecting, and caring for Black girls,” Lindsey said.
The debate over whether police should have shot a child
On the afternoon of April 20, Ma’Khia Bryant reportedly dialed 911. The call was dominated by screams, but the caller said that someone was “trying to stab us” and “put hands” on their grandmother. “We need a police officer here now,” the person said. Body camera footage shows that when officer Reardon exited his vehicle, there were seven people outside of the home.
There was yelling, and a girl could be seen falling to the ground after being attacked by Bryant and kicked by an unidentified man standing nearby. Bryant, holding a knife, then lunged toward a woman dressed in pink who was standing up against a vehicle. Just moments after asking “What’s going on?” Reardon pulled out his gun yelled, “Hey! Hey! Get down! Get down!” (prompting the woman in pink to run away) and fired four shots at Bryant. Bryant immediately slumped to the ground next to the vehicle.
Interim Columbus police chief Michael Woods called the shooting a terrible tragedy for all those involved but said department policy states that an officer can use deadly force against someone when they appear to be inflicting harm on another person. He explained that the officers did not use a taser because there was an immediate threat of death. In addition, the chief said that officers aren’t required to verbalize to bystanders that they are about to fire their weapon.
The Columbus Police Department has long disproportionately used excessive force against Black people, coming under fire in recent months for the police killings of Andre Hill, a Black man police shot in a garage, and Casey Goodson Jr., a Black man who was entering his home.
Almost 55 percent of the department’s use-of-force incidents targeted Black people who make up less than 30 percent of the population. Other reports show how racism is rampant within the department’s ranks. With renewed attention on the department, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is conducting a third-party investigation of Bryant’s shooting that will answer questions like what might have happened if Reardon did not shoot and what information he had upon approaching the scene.
Sill, many have already drawn their own conclusions. Bryant’s death sparked debate across media and social media about whether the officer should have shot the 16-year-old.
On Face the Nation, Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), a former Orlando police chief, vehemently defended the officers’ actions, saying that police are forced to make calls in the heat of the moment. “Everybody has the benefit of slowing the video down and seizing the perfect moment. The officer on the street does not have that ability. He or she has to make those split-second decisions, and they’re tough.”
On the popular radio show The Breakfast Club, host DJ Envy stated, “The whole situation is tragic and it’s sad because that system failed that young lady.” But he also added, “Every case is different, and in this case, if I pull up to a scene and see a girl chasing another girl about to stab a girl, my job as a police officer is to make sure that girl doesn’t get killed. And the law allows me to stop that killing or that stabbing by any means necessary.”
But as crisis interventionists pointed out, the police officer could have taken steps to deescalate the situation, savings all lives in the process. Psychologist Merushka Bisetty explained in an essay for Vox that children like Bryant may “present with aggression and an inability to self-regulate their emotions and, consequently, engage in behaviors that can seem aggressive or involve weapons,” but that doesn’t mean that these situations “require or should be met with violent force.” Instead, it’s the role of intervening professionals to stop an aggressive interaction from becoming fatal.
That the reaction to Bryant’s killing has turned into a debate about whether the use of force is justified is an attempt to “displace blame onto the victim and their family rather than on the systems that created situations that led to her death,” Bisetty, who has provided services in shelters, schools, and jails, wrote. “It is worth considering whether Bryant might have still been alive today if a mental health expert — or someone else trained in nonviolent deescalation — had responded to the call.”
It’s also worth considering whether the police officer would have fired shots if Bryant or the people involved in the altercation were white. There are countless examples of police peacefully apprehending white boys and men wielding weapons. Just last year police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, handed water bottles to and thanked 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a self-described militia member who carried an AR-15-style rifle during the unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse was allowed to leave the scene after fatally shooting two people and harming another, though the police had been informed that he was the shooter.
For anyone saying “but she had a knife” let me remind you. pic.twitter.com/L7isgyXsho
— Mic Feel (@micfeel__) April 21, 2021
In other cases, white men have verbally threatened police officers and pointed weapons at them. In those situations, the police did not reach for their guns at all or ever use them. In 2019, 19-year-old Matthew Bernard who killed two women and a child led Virginia authorities, who tried to stop him with mace and a stun gun, on a naked chase before they eventually took him into custody.
Didn’t reach for his gun once… pic.twitter.com/QtRNzG3v5n
— Arlong (@ramseyboltin) August 29, 2020
White women, too, often get a softer side of law enforcement handling. Several white women who were part of the Capitol insurrection on January 6 could be seen on video being peacefully escorted down the steps of the Capitol building amid the chaos. In a tense July 2020 Detroit-area encounter, a white woman in a minivan pointed a gun at a Black mother while the Black woman’s 15-year-old daughter watched and screamed nearby. When the police arrived after six 911 calls, they ordered the white woman out of the van, put her on the ground, handcuffed her, and took her gun, according to the police.
Black women aren’t treated with the same patriarchal protections, however problematic, that are afforded to white women, Lindsey points out. The idea that Black women should be handled with care because they are women just doesn’t exist.
“We see an incredibly disparate treatment gap between what white women experience with police and what Black women experience with police,” she said.
In police encounters, racism and sexism work against Black girls and women
The level of dismissal and scrutiny that Black female victims face when they die at the hands of the police is unmatched. Bryant’s name is no longer trending, and even though her funeral was Friday, headlines about the fatal incident have dwindled. What narrative there is surrounding fatal police violence and police brutality often centers Black cisgender men and boys, leaving out Black women, girls, and trans people.
The focus on Black men and boys is warranted since they face the highest risk of being killed by the police: About 1 in 1,000 Black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a 2019 study, a risk that is 2.5 times higher than for white men.
Likewise, the same study found that out of all women, Black women face the highest risk of being killed by the police. Black women make up 20 percent (48 total) of the 247 women fatally shot by the police and 28 percent of unarmed killings since 2015, according to a 2020 Washington Post analysis. All of this research does not include violent encounters between Black women and the police that do not result in death — such as cases of sexual harassment and assault.
But the realities of these statistics often don’t make the front page, or any pages at all. The invisibility of Black girls and women persists, many scholars note, because they stand at the complex intersection of their gender and Black racial identity. When it comes to their blackness, they’re not recognized as a group that needs protection. And this coupled with their status as women means that they cannot be trusted or believed.
“We still read blackness through the lens of masculinity,” Lindsey told Vox. “The strange fruit hanging from the tree is still Black men.” As a result, when Black women end up in encounters with police, society always asks, “Well, what did she do wrong?”
Lindsey said that we’re entrenched in a narrative that the police violence against Black women “is more of a blip and not a pattern for an investment,” though police violence always had a penchant for Black life across all genders.
These ideas go back to slave patrols, progenitors of policing in the United States. It was Black women who were on “wanted” posters for escaping, Lindsey explained — like, for example, Harriet Tubman, who would have been killed by patrols for defying the state. And as Michelle F. Jacobs wrote in “The Violent State: Black Women’s Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence,” both Black men and women were killed, maimed and mutilated at the will of slave holders, but Black women were violently raped and sexually abused by both the slave holder and his employees as an economic necessity.
Jacobs points out that by the time the country gets to the Jim Crow era, stereotypes about Black women (they’re governed by libido and loose morals, are liars, and are aggressive) are solidified and become cemented in state policy. “Public benefits law, educational law, delinquency and neglect policy, and all aspects of criminal law have embedded the stereotypes as the normative foundation for how government evaluates, judges, and punishes Black women,” she wrote.
While state violence against Black bodies is often seen through the narratives of Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Mike Brown, and George Floyd, “What about Carol, Denise, Addy, and Cynthia — the four little girls bombed in Alabama?” Lindsey said.
Black women’s experience with the police — and the police’s desire to avoid accountability for killing — even gave birth to the intentionally passive term “officer-involved shooting.” In 1979, Los Angeles police officers shot Eula Love eight times in her front yard. The two officers were escorting a gas company employee to cut off her service.
According to the police, Love had a $22.09 money order for the gas company in her purse and a kitchen knife in her hand. One of the officers described Love as a “raging, frothing at the mouth, knife-wielding woman” and newspapers described her as “unemployed and overweight.” Love’s killing was one of the earliest instances in which police used the phrase “officer-involved shooting” to blur the truth, as opposed to the more direct language that the police shot and killed Love that is being advocated for today.
This decentering of the Black women’s experiences when it comes to state violence detracts from the bigger trends, forcing Breonna Taylor, whose name and face turned into a meme and unit of commodification, to become an exceptional case and not an example of a larger issue, Lindsey said.
Taylor’s death, in fact, only rose to prominence after video of Floyd’s death went viral. She was also perhaps the closest example we have of “perfect” Black woman victimhood since she was asleep in her bed when the encounter began. And yet people still found ways to blame her, claiming that she should not have engaged with a drug dealer who led police officers to her door that night.
Sandra Bland, another one of the more well-known recent cases of police violence against a Black woman, was blamed for being “combative” with the police when she was pulled over on a Texas road in 2015 for failing to signal a lane change. Police took Bland into custody at a local jail where she was pronounced dead, her death ruled a suicide. Right-wing commentators, white liberals, and people within the Black community itself said that Bland should have followed the police’s directions and not been confrontational in order to save her life.
For Black girls, criminalization and adultification start early. According to the 2017 Georgetown Law study “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” Black girls face “adultification bias” from as young as 5, which means adults perceive them to be less innocent and thus less worthy of nurturing, protection, and comfort. This too stems back to slavery, the report noted, since Black children were put to work as young as two and three years old and were punished for showing child-like behavior.
This can be seen in other instances of police violence against Black girls caught on camera. In a 2015 case of police brutality that went viral, an officer tackled, dragged, and pinned 15-year-old Dajerria Becton to the ground at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, after officers were called to the home over alleged trespassing. In February, police in Rochester, New York, pepper sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl after they responded to a report about “family trouble.” Video footage shows that the girl repeatedly screamed for her father as police handcuffed her. When she refused to get into the police vehicle, police pepper sprayed her. “Don’t do this do to me” she exclaimed, and officers responded “You did it to yourself.”
It is also how people have referred to Bryant. When Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther shared the news of Bryant’s killing on Twitter, he wrote of the 16-year-old, “a young woman tragically lost her life.” People immediately reminded him that she was “just a girl.”
As scholar and activist Brittany Cooper noted, it was a Black girl that helped the world see what happened to Floyd. Darnella Frazier was 17 when she recorded Floyd’s death and accompanied by her 8-year-old cousin who also witnessed the murder so that the world could eventually see it. Without these Black girls, the small dose of justice that brought many people relief last week would have likely never happened.
Justice begins with visibility and accountability
A reason why there is debate over Bryant’s death is that it is difficult to educate the public if stories like hers rarely make the news — so when they do, there are preconceived notions that preclude nuanced views about policing and the sanctity of Black girlhood.
“There’s definitely an internalization of misogynoir inside and outside of our communities,” Lindsey said, referring to the term coined by Moya Bailey to explain how anti-Blackness and misogyny manifest in Black women’s lives. “So even beyond the sheer hatred of Black women, people really don’t understand these stories. [Black women and girls] are not legible. So even when we gain visibility, like in the Ma’Khia Bryant case, her story will remain illegible to folks.” People will continue to see a knife-wielding suspect as opposed to a traumatized 16-year-old girl.
To address this problem, Black legal scholars and feminist activists, primarily Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie, launched the #SayHerName campaign in 2014 and released a corresponding report, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” to bring awareness to the forgotten victims of police brutality.
The report pointed out that Black girls as young as 7 (Aiyana Stanley-Jones) and women as old as 93 (Pearlie Golden) have been killed by the police, with officers escaping prosecution or conviction. “Say Her Name sheds light on Black women’s experiences of police violence in an effort to support a gender-inclusive approach to racial justice that centers all Black lives equally,” Crenshaw and Ritchie wrote.
But in the years since the campaign launched, people have muddled the meaning behind #SayHerName, even if inadvertently. The phrase has morphed into #SayHisName whenever a Black boy or man is killed by the police, and the collective #SayTheirNames became widespread in 2020 in the months following Floyd’s death to further elevate the movement for Black lives. But the crowding out of #SayHerName in favor of these other versions, takes away from the campaign’s original purpose and furthers the erasure of Black girls and women.
According to Lindsey, protests since Bryant’s death led by Black women, Black queer folks, and Black gender non-binary folks, have been ongoing. “There’s a good amount of non-Black allies and accomplices who have been present in this, but it still looks nothing like what we tend to see when Black men or boys are killed by police, in terms of sheer number,” she said.
Each time a Black girl, woman, trans, or gender nonbinary person is killed, it’s an uphill battle to bring awareness to their story. For Lindsey, the goal should never be to debate whether Black people are human or matter.
“It’s important for us to continuing highlighting and vocalizing how the inhumanity of white supremacy shows up in the lives of Black women and girls,” Lindsey said. “When we’re equipped with the full truth of how it operates, we have a better chance at rooting out the operating system of white supremacy and anti-Blackness.”