On the Public's Response to the Death of Korryn Gaines
Yesterday I found out about the death of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Baltimorean women who was shot and killed in front of her 5-year-old son in Baltimore Maryland. Korryn was an activist in her own right, speaking out on social media against racism and systemic failures of the justice system. Her stance on the nature of militarized police is communicated in her poem, "The Vampire Theory," below.
"They hunt the kings and queens with crime. Used to hang us up with strings to trees and other things, now they tote guns with beams and wrist rings, same old ankle chains, still beating us the same, ain't nothin' changed."
Korryn's social media activism and "mysterious death" reminds me so much of Sandra Bland. In the video below, Sandra tells us, "Social media is powerful. We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can truly make it happen."
There are many details that have yet to be confirmed about the circumstances surrounding Korryn Gaine's death, and even if they to be were confirmed, I can't say that I trust news media to tell the truth, especially when it comes to the death of black people at the hands of police.
What I do know to be true is that Korryn posted video on her social media accounts (Instagram and Facebook) of her and her son on the floor of the living room, with an armed officer from a SWAT team standing at her front door with a gun aimed at her.
The Baltimore County Police Department admits reaching out to Facebook and asking them to them deactivate Korryn’s account during these “negotiations,” but a one-minute video of the incident remains on her Instagram. The caption reads, “My son is not a hostage. He wants to be here in his home with his mother.”
It’s said that police were at her house to serve an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court for a traffic violation. It’s said that an officer showed up to her house first to serve the arrest warrant, and --after Korryn didn’t open the door-- they went to the rental office to get a key. It’s said that they opened the door with said key, but a chain-lock prevented them from entering the house. It’s said that they saw her sitting on the floor with a gun, and they kicked the door down. It’s said she had a gun aimed at them during a several-hour stand-off, and they shot her after she threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave. Like always, there's too much speculation and not enough evidence.
Korryn has a history of recording her encounters with the police. She recorded this video below after she was pulled over by Baltimore County Police for failing to have proper tags on her car, which she explains were stolen by the government.
As I read more and more of Korryn's posts, my mind was swimming. She was so unashamed and outspoken; she refused to comply with having her rights violated by police, she told them "I don't participate in that."
She was doing and saying what so many of us claim we should do: Speak up! Fight back! And still, Korryn's death hasn't been met with the same public outrage as the other tragic deaths at the hands of police Why? Is it because she had a gun?
Artist/Activist Sonya Renee Taylor spoke out about the incident last night on a Facebook live video, responding to the nature of the conversations being had about whether or not Korryn contributed to her own death. She said that these conversations are misdirected, and that we're questioning the wrong things.
That statement put the incident into further perspective for me, as I, too, had found myself questioning Korryn. “Why did she have her son in the room with her? Why did she threaten to kill the police? Why didn’t she just answer the door when they knocked? Why didn’t she tell her son to record the video? Why didn’t she put the gun - if she even had one- down, and walk away with her hands up?
Sonya’s statement checked me, and reminded me to question not the actions of the person who is dead, but the policies and actions of the people that were complicit in her death.
Why aren’t the police trained to de-escalate hostile situations? Why are officers granted permission by law to forcibly enter a citizen’s home without their consent? Why didn’t they walk away? Why didn’t recognize the situation as dangerous, and do everything in their power to ensure that no one was hurt or killed?
Instead of questioning Korryn and her actions, I am reminded to question systems in place that make the death of a black woman at the hands of police possible. I am reminded to question: What is the role of police?
Baltimore County Police Department’s states that their mission is “enforcement of the laws and ordinances of Maryland and Baltimore County; the protection of life and property; the prevention and detection of crime; preservation of the peace; and protection of the rights of all citizens.”
If the mission of police is to protect life, prevent crime, preserve peace, and protect the rights of its citizens, then I can think of at least ten other ways they could have engaged with Korryn on that day to uphold that mission.
If the police aren’t serving their mission, What are they doing?
I understand the human impulse to make sense of these ongoing murders; a lot of people have questions about the incident; are trying to understand who to hold accountable for this untimely death. A lot of people are saying that Korryn was complicit. That she should have backed down. A lot of people are saying things like, She had children! Why not just comply? Why succumb to pride and prove a point? Her kids and her survival should have come first. She should have surrendered. That she shouldn’t have put herself on the front line. Her feelings on police injustice could have been better directed. She put herself in a dangerous situation. She wanted to die.
I refuse to engage in conversations about how a woman who was shot by the police caused her own death. Korryn didn’t cause her own death. She was shot by an armed officer with military equipment. Her death was caused by thefailure of the government and the police to protect citizens of color. The ACLUexplains, “If police forces across America continue to militarize and treat communities of color as the enemy, they will increasingly be seen as an occupying army.”
Instead of talking about what Korryn could have done not to get shot, we should be talking about what police can do to not shoot people. Instead of asking people of color who are consistently brutalized, terrorized, and murdered by police to take accountability, we need to be thinking critically about why Korryn Gaines felt that she had to have a gun in her house to protect herself from the police.
If I have yet to observe the police serving their mission to protect my life, How and why should I be expected to trust that they will? How and why should I be expected to engage with them as if they are?