The brutal death of a 23-year-old African-American woman named Korryn Gaines has sparked yet another much-needed conversation in the United States about the use of lethal force by police and its disproportionate impact on blacks.
Gaines was killed in her Maryland home by Baltimore County police, who had issued a warrant for her arrest over charges stemming from a traffic violation and her failure to appear in court. The young mother was armed with a shotgun that she apparently pointed at police, although they fired first. She responded with a round of shots and then police fired back, killing her and injuring her 5-year-old son.
Videos of Gaines that document her earlier traffic stop reveal a young woman who was angry as she told police, “You will have to murder me, so go ahead and do that.” What’s most important about this story is that, as a black woman, Gaines was expected to put up quietly with what had happened to her, and she likely had dealt with years of the kind of racism that most black people face from society and police. It was her very defiance, in all its belligerent glory, that she was punished for, paying with her life.
Despite the fact that she was armed, it is hard to understand why police had to kill Gaines. Police across the country have managed to disarm armed white Americans on many occasions, as this list shows.
In Gaines’ case, Baltimore County police were there by choice, serving a warrant, and had the freedom to come and go. They could have waited her out, rather than charging in and firing the first shot. If she was threatening them with her gun, all they had to do was move out of her field of view—after all, they had her surrounded. But they chose to fire first, setting off a grim series of events that ended in her death. Gaines’ son is lucky to be alive. He could have been killed alongside his mother.
It is not just the police who sought to silence Gaines’ defiant voice. One of the more sinister aspects of this story is the complicity of social media, Facebook in particular. When Philando Castile was shot by police in Falcon Heights, Minn., recently, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with him at the time, had the presence of mind to start a Facebook live stream, broadcasting instantly to the world what the police had done and effectively protecting herself from the web of fabrication that police have a reputation for weaving in order to justify fatal shootings. The live stream was a powerful protective tool for Reynolds.
In the case of Gaines, who was also very active on social media, Facebook disabled her account at the request of police as she tried to post videos of herself barricaded in her house with her son. It is remarkable that Facebook decided to comply with an institution that has a reputation for race-based violence, when its founder has declared that he thinks black lives matter.
Facebook has increasingly become a platform on which people are able to share and document their experiences, but when the company makes decisions that empower law enforcement, it clearly has sided with the police against people of color.
I spoke this week with a young black artist from Seattle who decided to take matters into her own hands and begin an online project titled “Reparations,” where people can request help with all sorts of goods and services and have those requests met by people privileged enough to do so. Natasha Marin explained to me in an interview that “the project is not about polarizing people; it’s about connecting people.” Interestingly, her project—intended to constructively address racial disparities on an entirely voluntary basis—has been met with vicious vitriol and hatred. As Gaines’ refusal to comply was met with police gunfire, Marin’s simple act of addressing racism has been met with threats to her life, racist epithets, people “telling me I’m a monkey, I need to go back to Africa, simply because I am doing what I can do to bring about healing in my community.”
It is the audacity of black women and their unwillingness to give in to the status quo that most irks powerful institutions and privileged individuals in American society.
Marin was traumatized by Gaines’ shooting and said she had spent the morning crying over the story. “It’s absolutely horrifying to be a black woman in a country and see that people are being hunted down and killed for little more than not having the correct tags on your car,” she told me.
Marin, who also uses Facebook to share information about her “Reparations” project, told me she too has been on the receiving end of Facebook’s seemingly racist policies.
“Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool” that “can be used to bring people together, and to protect people,” she said. But when Marin reached out to the company to address the threats she was receiving in response to her project, the website blocked her for 24 hours, even though she was the victim of the threats.
“How did the police [in Gaines’ case] get to contact [Facebook] directly? No one else can,” Marin said. Apparently, law enforcement has no problem contacting Facebook and getting it to comply with requests. According to The Baltimore Sun, “Data provided by Facebook about requests for information from law enforcement shows a steady increase in requests. From July to December 2015, the site received more than 19,200 requests for information from law enforcement, and provided some data in more than 80 percent of those cases.” That suggests that Facebook is spying on its users in the service of the police.