UPDATE, January 11, 7:24 p.m.: Rodneka’s court date on January 12 has been postponed.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on Medium.
Imagine you’re driving home from work. Expecting an uneventful ride, you’re surprised to see the blinding glare of police lights in front of you. As your eyes adjust to the scene, other things start coming into view.
A woman who is holding a baby. A police officer who is holding the woman holding the baby in some sort of chokehold. A crowd slowly swelling around them.
You stop your car in the middle of the street and run over to them, thoughts racing of their potential fate. You get ahold of the child and hand them off to a bystander, and hear yourself repeatedly calling to the officer—“Be human!”—only to be met with a blank stare as he maintains his hold on the woman.
Imagine the woman in the officer’s hold exclaims that she doesn’t know why this is happening to her, only for the officer to body slam her onto the ground. The crowd yells at her to “stop resisting” and you, having watched the entire episode, beg the crowd to see her humanity, her natural reaction to being unable to breathe freely while holding a child.
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The woman is now facedown on the ground, the officer on her back, with his arm around her neck. “You choking her!” you scream, only to be met with an amused look from the officer who shouts back, “Look, I’m not choking her.” Never mind the small amount of what appears to be foam coming out from her mouth.
Before you notice, other officers who arrived on the scene “bumrush” you “right off your feet.” Within seconds, you no longer have to theoretically relate to the woman.
You are arrested. You spend the next two nights in jail, unable to access your medical routine. Over the next few months, you are faced with a series of financially and emotionally stressful court dates on top of the stress and trauma caused by the initial incident.
This is what New Orleanian Rodneka S. says she experienced in April 2017.
The Movement for Black Lives (known colloquially and incorrectly as the #BlackLivesMatter movement) began when Trayvon Martin was killed. It has since been reduced by mainstream media to center the lethal police violence mostly faced by young Black men. However, the Movement for Black Lives has a much more expansive definition of state violence that includes cases like Rodneka’s.
In order for #BlackLivesMatter to actually be realized, our lives have to matter while we’re still alive. #BlackLivesMatter is not just a call to mourn our deaths when we’ve been unjustly and often brutally killed—it is a demand for our right to live full lives without fear of violence by individuals or the state from the moment we are born. It is akin to the baseline of the reproductive justice framework, which demands our human dignity be honored from the conditions surrounding our births; to the environments we live, parent and eventually die in.
And that’s why we at Women With A Vision Inc (WWAV), a community-based nonprofit founded in response to HIV and AIDS in their communities, are organizing on Rodneka’s behalf. We operate from a reproductive justice framework that demands people not only have the right to choose whether they want to parent or not, but that they have the right to parent in safe and healthy environments without fear from individuals or the government.
Rodneka’s experience highlights multiple ongoing injustices in the United States against Black women’s bodies and truths. Her case further emphasizes the continued mistreatment and abuse of Black people by law enforcement agents and the ways the system continues to punish and criminalize them after they’ve had their rights and bodies violated by agents of the state.
In the United States, when it is the word of a police officer against that of a civilian, the officer’s account is usually taken as truth. But it’s important to note that research has shown that there are “significant racial disparities in policing.” According to data collected and analyzed by the Stanford Open Policing Project, police “officers ticket, search, and arrest black and Hispanic drivers more often than whites.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the research found that police often hold Black and brown folks to a “double standard” to justify searching them “on the basis of far less evidence.” (Emphasis mine.)
Trust in police over civilians, especially Black ones, continues to happen despite this data. For example, a WNYC investigation into the New York Police Department’s 35,000 officers, spanning “more than a thousand criminal and civil court cases, and interviews with dozens of attorneys,” found “more than 120 officers with at least one documented credibility issue over the past 10 years.” The WNYC report pointed out that the majority “of these officers stayed on the force. Records show at least 54 went on to make more than 2,700 arrests after the date their word was challenged.”
Jonathan Abel, a former Stanford Constitutional Law Center fellow who has studied access to police disciplinary records, emphasized the grave consequences that can come from defaulting to officer narratives as truth. “There’s just such high stakes that come with an officer’s testimony and people really have been sent to prison and to their death based on the assumption that officers are telling the truth,” he said.
Take, for instance, the case of Daniel Holtzclaw. In 2015, Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City Police Department police officer, was convicted of multiple counts of rape, sexual battery, and other charges.
Holtzclaw had systematically and strategically targeted and violated 13 Black women, many of whom were low income, while on duty. Through a gross misuse of power and an even grosser demonstration of society’s inability to #TrustBlackWomen, Officer Holtzclaw was able to sexually abuse these women without fear of consequence. As the prosecutor on the case, Lori McConnell, stated: “He didn’t choose CEOs or soccer moms; he chose women he could count on not telling what he was doing.”
“He counted on the fact no one would believe them and no one would care,” she said.
These same intersections of race, gender, and believability in the United States collide in an exhaustingly familiar way in Rodneka’s case, where she is charged with battery of a police officer and resisting arrest.
Rodneka joins the list of Black people charged with resisting arrest when making calls for their basic humanity to be considered during arrest. According to her story, Rodneka was close to the officer, but did not initiate contact. Yet, when other officers arrived on the scene, she says that she was immediately tackled and arrested.
Her call for officers to recognize the basic humanity of herself and the woman she encountered being arrested was twisted into an alleged assault, which is too often the case when people who are intimidated by the police assert their rights. Take, for example, the case of Earledreka White, a Black woman pulled over for a traffic stop then forcefully arrested for resisting arrest.
Unfortunately, officer believability over civilians, especially Black civilians, continues despite the times we’ve seen officers find cover behind the “blue wall of silence,” also known as the “blue code.” This unofficial practice, which involves officers not reporting on one another’s misconduct, apparently allows law enforcement officials to manipulate the system to criminalize others in order to avoid accountability for their crimes without fear of retribution from other officers and, subsequently, courts of law.
On January 12, Rodneka faces her next court date. Rodneka’s ask is simple: Treat her with the human dignity the police officers didn’t accord her. Believe her story. Share her story. And, if you live in New Orleans, show up and let her know she doesn’t have to be the sole author in this story of struggle.
Standing up for or against injustice is often difficult, thankless work. Despite this, Rodneka did her part, alone, last April. She had this to say to me about her experiences since that night:
This whole situation has impacted my life greatly in every aspect. The greatest is psychologically as it has shattered my pseudo reality that I am free in 2017 … Sometimes I wish I’d never had to witness what I saw but there’s no fixing a problem that is not acknowledged … The problem now is what happened to me has happened to others and can happen to you.
As a community, let’s make sure she doesn’t have to face her next steps alone. The call to #TrustBlackWomen cannot just be made when we celebrate how Black women show up to save all of our skins, as was the case when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in the race for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. The call to #TrustBlackWomen is a challenge to the mistrustful portrait of Black womanhood that the United States has long decorated the halls of its history with. It demands we trust Black women at their words and experiences when they need us to show up for them, even and especially when we get nothing in return.
Join me as I stand with and demand #JusticeForRodneka on January 12 at her next court date, and in the days leading up to it by believing and sharing her story.