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The New Menace To Society?
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson


Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Many area residents affectionately called her "mom" and described her as sweet and harmless. She was a homeless, middle-aged, African American woman who had become a familiar figure on the streets of mid-city Los Angeles. These same residents shook their heads this past week in puzzlement and outrage when "mom" was gunned down by Los Angeles Police officers. Police claim they stopped to question her about a stolen shopping cart and they shot her when she threatened them with a screw driver.

Their story was hotly disputed by witnesses who say that the officers shot "mom" as she walked away. But even if she did what police say, how much of a threat was a middle-aged, diminutive woman? Couldn't the officers have fired a warning shot, radioed for help, or used non-lethal force such as a stun gun, tasers, rubber bullets, tear gas pellets, pepper spray, or bean bags to subdue her?

Since they didn't do any of these things the question is was the slaying of "mom" an aberration or is it just deadly business as usual for the LAPD? This is the police department that in the wake of the Rodney King beating became the national poster agency for police abuse. An answer comes from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In a recent report it concluded that the problems of abuse still plague the LAPD and L.A. County Sheriffs Department and recommended the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate police abuse in Los Angeles.

But the slaying of "mom" raises a bigger question and worry. Her killing comes several months after the slaying of Tyisha Miller, another African-American woman, by Riverside police officers. This brought to five the deadly total of African American women shot under questionable circumstances by police officers in Los Angeles and Riverside in the past three years.

This unprecedented pattern in police killings of African American women is a harsh reminder that for many in law enforcement black women, like black men, are increasingly regarded as menaces to society. While much of the media instilled the stereotypes and fear of black men as lazy, violent, crime-prone, and sexual predators, into the public, black women were typed much the same way.

The Miller case in Riverside was a classic example of this.
The city's major daily newspaper the Riverside Press Enterprise in a feature story branded her "aggressive" "assaultive" "a possible gang member" and "mistaken for a man." This heavy dose of racial and gender stereotypes about black women rest solidly on these deeply engrained myths and have had these deadly consequences: Image Assault: The image of the sexually immoral and physically aggressive black woman puts black women at risk in law and public policy. In many cases police, prosecutors and the courts ignore or lightly punish rape, sexual abuse and assaults against black women.

Devalued lives: Black women are far more likely to be raped, assaulted, and murdered than non-black women. They are far less likely to have the media treat crimes against them as seriously as crimes against white women. The rape and murder of 7 year-old Sherrice Iverson, an African American girl, at a Nevada casino in 1997 was another classic example. The numerous features and cover stories in the major press on her white teen killer humanized and evoked sympathy for him. Yet no press features were done on Iverson to personalize her story.

Prison: For the first time in American history black women in some states are being imprisoned at nearly the same rate as white men. They are seven times likelier to be jailed than white women.

Homelessness: The killing of "mom" spotlighted not only the issue of police abuse, but also the crisis problem of homelessness among black women. African-Americans make up more than half of the homeless in America, and African American women make up a significant number of that total. While the homeless receive much individual sympathy that sympathy has not resulted in an increase in drug, alcohol, education and job training programs to help women such as "mom" get off the streets.

No matter what conclusion police and investigators ultimately come to regarding the slaying of "mom" as long as she and other black women are typed as deviant, violent, and crime-prone they will continue to be seen and treated by many in law enforcement as the new menace to society.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:
Earl Hutchinson

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