Just minutes after releasing nearly a year of fearful energy, I cheered at my television set when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges for the murder of George Floyd on Tuesday. It was the shortest exhale I have ever taken because as I took to Facebook to share my reflections, I happened upon a status update from a friend in Columbus, Ohio, who had simply posted, “Columbus police shot and killed someone about 30 minutes before the verdict. I was emotionally conflicted, but not anymore.”
Not long after that post, we learned that this fresh new hashtag’s name is Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old girl in the foster care system who had called the police to report a fight in which she was actively involved. When officers arrived, Ma’Khia was defending herself with a knife. Seconds later, she was dead.
To really understand the purity it takes for someone to think that a phone call to police equals protection, I invite you into a tiny piece of my life. A piece I keep buried in the hollowed parts of my lost innocence -- one that was never allowed to believe that an officer would save me.
I spent the spring of my 13th year living alone in a one-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood for which I was not a native. My mother was incarcerated, and as a former child of the state, she hid the fact that I was alone so I wouldn’t go into the system. I earned three scars that spring -- one on my ankle when a boy threw his bicycle at me; one in between my knuckles when I missed a girl’s jaw and hit a brick wall instead; and one on my inner child who can’t unlive these experiences.
But I survived it.
Ma'Khia's story immediately became so personal for me.
There are so many connections to my life -- her killing shook my inner child; the once teenaged me who had been in very similar situations. And perhaps the only reason I never called the police was that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be home alone. I was more afraid of ending up in foster care than I was thinking an officer would kill me to “protect” me.
At the time, I was a very small girl who got into a lot of fights. That year, my mother had uprooted me from the only home I had ever known because her then-live-in boyfriend was interested in living elsewhere. Thirteen is such a pivotal year for girls, so next to my own internal teenage issues, I was also the new girl who had to be tested to be respected in my new hood. But before I was challenged to any fights, almost jumped, or anything of the like, my mom and her boyfriend were arrested and sentenced to short stints in the county jail for fighting each other. This not only left me alone but vulnerable with my defenses heightened.
On one occasion, I had been playing in the front of my apartment building when I got into an argument with a few boys. As we were trading teenaged insults, one of the boys proudly professed that he was not against hitting a girl. And with those words, he lifted up his bicycle and threw it at me. The crankset cut my ankle so deep that the white meat was showing. I ran into my apartment and quickly bandaged myself with a sanitary napkin and medical tape. I surveyed the house for whatever I could use to attack him back. I settled on an empty 40 bottle which I cracked on the lopsided sidewalk before running towards the boy, who immediately retreated. And that was only one instance of how I chose to protect myself in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, there were many more such instances.
Had an officer ever rolled up on one of the fights for which I was involved, they might have found me with a brick, knife, crowbar, anything that I could have used to fight someone off. Because of this memory, I am even more shaken that a group of teenagers fighting resulted in the death of the girl who thought police would protect her. As I sat in these stirred emotions, once again taking to Facebook to share reflections, I came across a few posts that suggested Ma’Khia “got what she deserved,” and even a post that read, “This had better not be the next #…”
I wish I didn’t feel the need to tell you that Black men, whom I've since unfriended, had written these posts. The burden of defending Black life falls on the living. But, the burden of defending Black women and girls is almost inherently a project for Black women and girls who can tap into the scared little girl she once was and say her life mattered.
I’m riding for Ma’Khia because no one had to die that day. I can see the scared girl she was, being tested. She was a girl who thought her neighborhood officers would help her, a girl getting ready to be released from the system, a girl who likely had dreams of how much better womanhood would treat her someday. A girl whose life was taken in an erratic shooting, trigger pulled by someone who refused to understand the humanity Black girls possess.
I'm so sorry she will never grow up, but I'm even more sorry with how effortlessly some people have been with allowing a little girl's spirit to die along with her earthly being. A few years ago, Georgetown Law produced a study affirming that adults view Black girls as less innocent than their white peers. But do you understand the level of innocence it takes to be a Black girl in America who literally believed that police officers would save her from harm?
And if you’re of the impression that the officer who killed Ma’Khia was looking to protect the others involved in the fight, then I have to ask you to justify how an officer firing shots into a group of people feels like valuation of any of their lives. This was an obvious disregard for life. Every time you blame Ma'Khia for her death you are further perpetuating the gross adultification of our girls, and that includes your daughters, too.
It's so crazy to think that after another year in which we've been adamantly driving home the message that our lives matter, anyone would think they're exempt from police violence. Nonetheless, here some of you go not protecting Black girls again.