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​Korryn Gaines' Death and the History of Police Violence Against Black Women

On Monday, Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old mother, was shot and killed by police. This tragedy is the latest in a long history of violence against black women perpetrated by law enforcement.

by Kimberly Lawson
Aug 4 2016, 7:18pm

Photo via Instagram

On Monday, 23-year-old Korryn Gaines became the ninth black woman to be shot and killed by police this year, according to data compiled by the Washington Post. Her 5-year-old son, whom she cradled in her lap during an hours-long standoff between her and law enforcement at her Maryland apartment, was also shot.

According to WBALTV, three officers came to serve separate warrants to Gaines and a man also residing in the home. When no one answered the door, police obtained a key from the landlord, kicked open the door and tried to enter the apartment, only to find the mother of two aiming a 12-gauge pistol grip shotgun in their direction.

Read more: Texas Cop Who Attacked Black Teen Girl at Pool Party Not Charged

A police spokesman told The Baltimore Sun that the entry was considered legal.

Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson told reporters at a news conference Monday night that police shot first. "Perceiving not only her actions, but the words she used, we discharged one round at her," he said. "In turn, she fired several rounds back at us."

Gaines was being served with a warrant for failing to appear in court after a traffic stop in March. According to a police report obtained by WBALTV, she was pulled over for having a piece of cardboard in place of a license plate, and the situation escalated when she refused to comply with the officer's request for her driver's license and registration.

Kareem Kiean Courtney, Gaines' boyfriend, fled the apartment with an infant. Police had come to arrest him for a June domestic abuse incident in which Gaines was named the victim.

A video posted on Gaines' Instagram offers a brief peek into the standoff between her and the police. The caption reads, "My son is not a hostage. He wants to be here in his home with his mother."

A little boy in his pajamas looks up at the person recording the video. "What's happening right now?" a woman can be heard asking. "Who's outside?"

"The police," he answers, his eyes shifting back and forth.

"What are they trying to do?" she asks.

"Trying to kill us?" he responds.

"Do you want to go out there?"

"No," the 5-year-old says quickly.

Other videos from the standoff were deleted from Gaines' social media accounts on Tuesday at the request of police, Johnson told reporters. The police chief also admitted authorities knew Gaines' son was moving around the apartment but weren't aware of his position prior to firing into the home. The child was taken to Johns Hopkins Children's Center with a gunshot wound to his arm.

Monday's incident is just the latest in a long history of violence against black women. Last year, the African American Policy Forum released a report titled "Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women," in an effort to draw more attention to the fact that black women and girls are also brutalized by law enforcement, though they may not receive the same media attention as their male counterparts.

According to the report, black women are disproportionally targeted by police. In 2013, of all the women stopped by police in New York, 53.4 percent of them were black. The authors also point out that even the presence of children does not prompt police, who often stereotype black women as "criminal and unfit mothers," to proceed with caution.

I wonder if [Gaines] marks this tipping point where people are just going to automatically assume that when police approach them, they're in a life-and-death situation.

Kali Gross, a Wesleyan University professor of African American studies, has spent a lot of time studying the history of black women's experiences in the US criminal justice system. She tells Broadly that, historically, the justice system has not been on the side of black women. Even after slavery was abolished, Gross says, "Women were not able to obtain justice because all of the judges were white or the juries were white men. So were most of the police. People did not take crimes like rape or brutality against them very seriously, particularly if the perpetrators were white."

At the same time, Gross explains, black women who got in trouble with law enforcement were subjected to the harshest punishment under the law. "That trend has really persisted," she says, pointing to the 2010 case of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who initially received a 20-year prison sentence for firing a weapon after her estranged husband threatened to kill her. Alternatively, George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, was acquitted under Florida's Stand Your Ground law.

But as for Gaines' case, Gross says she's still trying to make sense of it all. One of the things she's struggling with, she says, is the young mother's "defiant stance and serious critique of police brutality," especially as police seem to continue to not be held accountable for their actions against black people.

"The vast majority of people have been committed to nonviolent protest and have been trying to work within the system and obtain justice," Gross says. "I wonder if [Gaines] marks this tipping point where people are just going to automatically assume that when police approach them, they're in a life-and-death situation and just act accordingly."

Feminista Jones is a Philadelphia-based mental health social worker, an advocate for black feminist issues and active contributor to Black Twitter. She tells Broadly that from the video left on social media, it's obvious Gaines had "a clear distrust and fear of police."

One of her biggest concerns in situations like these, she says, is how police respond to people who may be having some kind of emotional or psychological distress. According to the Washington Post, Gaines displayed "signs of neurocognitive impairment" after allegedly suffering from lead poisoning as a child.

"You don't swoop in with SWAT," Jones says, pointing out the alarming fact that Gaines was killed right in front of her son. "I think we have to have a broader discussion about what it means to be a black person feeling like the state is targeting you in a rather terrorist way."

"This trauma of being a black mom traveling with your children or being confronted by police with your children," Jones continues, "that is a very real fear we all have."