by Kelly Hayes
Unable to stomach the lynching imagery of police body and dashcam videos, I often find myself weeping over summaries, rather than clicking links to videos of state violence. As a Brown woman who organizes alongside Black femmes and non-binary people to dismantle the trappings of a culture that exploits Black death, I tend to view my refusal to take in certain imagery as a refusal to participate in a state sponsored process of dehumanization. When it comes to my own people, I am rarely confronted with such moments of decision. The rampant police violence committed against us, as Indigenous people, is rarely put on public display, given that the system is less interested in exploiting and controlling us than it is in erasing us altogether. But in this last week, I have twice found myself watching videos that were made just before marginalized lives were taken by police, and my heart couldn’t be heavier.
Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Black woman, posted an Instagram video of herself talking to her five-year-old son, shortly before Baltimore police raided her home on Monday, killing Gaines and wounding her child. According to police, Gaines “was wanted on a ‘failure to appear’ bench warrant stemming from an array of traffic charges.” She is said to have been armed with a legally purchased firearm when she refused to exit her home, as ordered by law enforcement.
In another video, of events that occurred in March in Winslow, Arizona, Loreal Tsingine, a 28-year-old Native woman, can be seen, in recently released police body cam footage, being attacked by police in a confrontation that ended with Tsingine being shot five times. After being subjected to a sudden and violent attack by police, who were responding to a call about an alleged shoplifting incident, Tsingine was holding a pair of bent-tipped scissors when she moved toward Officer Austin Shipley— a police officer with a history of excessive force against young women. Shipley shot Tsingine five times, ending her life.
The Department of Justice has announced that it will investigate Tsingine’s shooting, but that will of course be little comfort to those who know how rarely DOJ investigations of police shootings lead to any subsequent legal action.
The videos that preceded the deaths of these young mothers have continued to replay themselves in my mind, and as they do, I feel compelled to say out loud what many will not want to hear: Korryn Gaines and Loreal Tsingine were both executed for refusing to lay their bodies at the feet of slave catchers and Indian Killers.
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That sentence may sound unthinkably extreme to some people, but such moments of decision are the personal, cultural and historical reality of Black and Native women in the United States. We live in a social, political and economic system propped up by anti-Blackness, colonialism and endless warfare. When exploitation, genocidal erasure and dehumanization for the sake of conquest are the norms of a society, there is no framework of safety for those left at a structural disadvantage. The violence of the state is all around us, and as Black and Native women, any cultural safety that does exist was not constructed for us.
But to proclaim we are ready to protect ourselves against racism, rape culture, and whatever ugliness might violate us, is seen as radical.
In truth, holding our own space and defending our own lives in the United States is viewed as a radical act, because Black women are treated as socially disposable, and Native women are treated as socially irrelevant (or even nonexistent).
Non compliance is not an unreasonable response to oppression. Murder is an unreasonable response to non compliance.
But any act taken in our own defense is seen as audacious, extreme and unnecessary. And God help you if that act is undertaken when the one threatening your life, your body and your liberty is an agent of the state.
We know that the first police were Indian Constables (for clarity, let’s just call them what they were and are—Indian Killers) and slave catchers. Today, police are statistically more likely to kill Natives than any other group, and work tirelessly to provide the Black bodies that keep modern day slavery afloat, via the prison industrial complex. We, as Indigenous people, are gunned down and erased while Black people are forced into cages, so that they might become some new source of revenue for white profiteers.
Despite what the storybooks in our schools might tell us, we are not living in the afterlife of slavery or genocide. We are living in a stage of reinvention, with both concepts stylized for contemporary consumption. Any assessment of our resistance that fails to reconcile itself with those realities holds no utility for me as a Native woman. And any description of our rebellions that does not reflect our posture of defense has no basis in reality.
There have always been women, both Black and Brown, who have declined to submit their bodies to whatever sexual or physical injury slave catchers or Indian Killers might inflict. White supremacy has photoshopped a shotgun out of Harriet Tubman’s hands in this country’s collective consciousness, but Black and Native women know that we’re living in a culture that’s prepared to violate and kill us. We all negotiate for our safety, dignity and survival as best we can, but doing so is neither easy nor simple for a great many of us.
While I consider myself a militant organizer, I do not own a firearm. And as someone who has trained to defend myself, I wouldn’t try to fight off a police officer, not because I would never feel justified in doing so, but because I have embraced a strategy of physical compliance when in their custody or control. This has not kept me safe from acts of abuse and degradation. But I am alive.
Forcing these decisions is, in of itself, an act of violence, as we choose whether to compromise or cooperate, and fairly wonder whether compliance will actually make us any safer in the moment. Because we never know if it will.
What we do know is that the police who killed Korryn Gaines and Loreal Tsingine will not be held accountable. And we know that white people will continue to make sport of justifying their deaths. But we also know that these young women had a natural right to live and breathe without having their bodies threatened, and without having to surrender themselves to slave catchers and Indian Killers.
Want more from Kelly? Read her work in BGD’s newest collection, The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail At Showing Up For Each Other In the Fight For Freedom.
Kelly Hayes is a queer Indigenous direct action trainer and a cofounder of the direct action collective Lifted Voices. She is community relations associate and a contributing writer at Truthout and her photography is featured in the “Freedom and Resistance” exhibit of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Kelly‘s analysis of state violence and movement work can also be found in the anthology, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? and the blog Transformative Spaces.