Twenty minutes before a jury in Minneapolis convicted Officer Derek Chauvin of murder for killing George Floyd, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, named Nicholas Reardon killed Ma’Khia Bryant.
Ma’Khia was just a kid: 16 years old, with a whole life ahead of her. According to reports, a fight arose in the driveway of the foster home where she was staying, and she called the police for help. Within ten seconds of pulling up to the home, Reardon, the responding officer, shot Ma’Khia four times. She died a short while later.
In her death, some bad-faith actors have attempted to criminalize Ma’Khia, to shift blame from a cop to the kid he killed. It’s craven. It’s shameful. And, frankly, it’s bullshit.
If police officers can peacefully arrest mass murderers like Dylann Roof and Kyle Rittenhouse without a scratch, they could have deescalated this situation without shooting four bullets at a teenage girl. The fact that the responding officer couldn’t, or wouldn’t, is just the latest in a long list of reasons why we must defund the police.
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When Women’s March affirmed our commitment last summer to defunding the police, we faced pushback from observers and some of our members. Many thought we were opining on and inserting ourselves into an issue that wasn’t relevant to our organization, or to women. They wanted us to stay in our lane.
What I want to make clear—what Ma’Khia’s death should make clear—is that this is our lane.
Why? Because, in the United States and around the world, people so often use women as pawns in arguments for the police. They cite violent crime—including rape, murder, gender-based violence, and hate crimes against women and communities of color—to make the case for keeping our police forces as they are: undertrained and overarmed. Even after agreeing that the police sometimes go too far, so many people still believe them to be a force of net good for women that keeps us protected and safe.
The problem with these arguments is that they simply aren’t true. The truth is that police are too often either the perpetrators of violence against women or the ones who defend and excuse it once it happens. This is especially the case when the women in question aren’t white.
The killings of Ma’Khia, and of Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and so many others before them, are obvious examples. Women, and Black women specifically, are too often victims of a police officer’s unjustified use of force; worse, their deaths are seen as casualties in an otherwise caring system. But even when police aren’t killing women, they’re still too often perpetrating or at least perpetuating violence against us. An investigation from 2015 found that in the previous decade, a police officer in the country was caught committing sexual abuse or misconduct at least every five days. As the reporter noted, “Nearly all the victims were women, and a surprising number were adolescents.”
This isn’t a case of bad apples. The entire system is rotting and rotten. Even when it isn’t actively hurting women, it exacerbates their pain.
Just look at the tragic targeting of Asian women in Atlanta spas in March. In the aftermath of the killing spree, a captain in the Cherokee County sheriff’s office seemed to defend the actions of the white male shooter, saying, “He was pretty much fed up, and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” (As if the victims of this brutal hate crime against Asian women didn’t have a worse day.)
And like clockwork, it was revealed that this police officer held some of the same anti-Asian prejudices as the perpetrator of the crime—who, of course, the police managed to arrest peacefully.
These are just a few examples. But it’s becoming clear that they’re the rule, not the exception—that, for too many women, police are a source of fear, not a source of safety. Black and brown women have been trying to get the rest of the country to wake up to this reality for ages, because it’s always been their reality. Ma’Khia’s death is a terrible reminder that they’re right.
If we meant what we said about allyship and anti-racism last summer, we have to do more than talk. Because posting a black square on Instagram or writing “BLM” in your Twitter bio isn’t enough. As we mourn Ma’Khia, we must also fight for a future where deaths like hers no longer happen. And where, in the aftermath of such deaths, victims like her aren’t robbed of their dignity and humanity.
To get there, all of us—but especially those of us in the gender justice movement—need to follow the lead of Black women and fight to defund the police.
And we need to fight back against supposed allies who squirm around the word “defund,” who claim to agree with the goal but fear that the language used to advocate for it will make people feel uncomfortable. If it does, that’s OK. In fact, that’s the point. No one should feel comfortable in a world where 16-year-old girls get shot by the police.
None of us should feel comfortable until all of us are safe.