For Activists, Kenneka Jenkins' Case Shows How Law Enforcement Fails Black Girls

“This story is one that we have heard too many times before. Black girls go missing all over this country, and even internationally, and action is not taken quickly enough."

by Kimberly Lawson
Sep 14 2017, 8:40pm

Photo of Kenneka Jenkins via her Facebook page. 

On Friday night, Kenneka Jenkins borrowed her mom's car to meet up with her friends. According to her family, the 19-year-old was going out to celebrate landing a new job at a nursing home.

Jenkins reportedly told her mom she was going bowling and ended up at a party on the ninth floor of Crowne Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, near Chicago. The last time her family spoke to her was about 1:30 AM on Saturday. Her body was discovered almost 24 hours later in a walk-in freezer at the hotel.

According to the Chicago Tribune, law enforcement officials are still investigating how Jenkins died. As of Wednesday evening, police said they'd interviewed 12 people, including four "who were involved in some way."

But Tereasa Martin, Jenkins' mother, told reporters earlier this week she didn't feel like the police or the hotel had been cooperative in her quest for answers. Martin said she learned of Jenkins' disappearance about 4:30 AM Saturday when her daughter's friends called her, and immediately went to the hotel to ask staff to check the surveillance footage. Instead, they referred her to police, and 911 dispatchers reportedly told her to wait a few hours before filing a missing person's report.

Read more: 'We Can't Do This on Our Own': How Mainstream Media Fails Missing Girls of Color

"We were begging for help, and no one was helping," Martin told WGN. Later Saturday morning, police and hotel workers began searching for Jenkins; they also surveyed some of the security footage to no avail. By 6 PM that evening, frustrated family members took to knocking on individual hotel rooms to see if anyone knew anything.

Martin told local media that the hotel called police to complain about the knocking, and one of the responding officers agreed to look at the security footage again. On this second viewing, which occurred at 10 PM Saturday, they eventually spotted Jenkins on video "staggering" drunk near the front desk; the timestamp was 3:20 AM from earlier in the day. Police ultimately discovered Jenkins' body shortly before 1 AM Sunday in a walk-in freezer in a construction zone where a new restaurant is being built.

Martin also said the police told her Jenkins entered the freezer on her own while drunk; however, she questioned how plausible this would be if her daughter was intoxicated. An autopsy was performed Sunday, but it wasn't immediately clear whether foul play was suspected, a spokesperson for the Cook County medical examiner's office told the Tribune.

During a small Justice for Kenneka rally earlier this week, Martin maintained that she believes there was foul play involved in her daughter's death. "If they had taken me seriously and checked right away," she told the Tribune, "they could have found my daughter much sooner and she might have been alive."

Natalie Wilson, a cofounder of Black and Missing Foundation, a nonprofit working to bring awareness to the cases of missing persons of color, echoed Martin's sentiments on the importance of authorities acting quickly. "In certain places, like DC and Illinois, there's no waiting period to file a missing person's report," she tells Broadly. "Her family definitely knew something was wrong, and they needed law enforcement to act on this case immediately."

In a video posted on Facebook yesterday, local activists questioned Deputy Public Safety Chief Kieran Mackey about Rosemont police's efforts to find answers for Jenkins' family. Mackey said that they're working to be as thorough as possible in their investigation. "I know it's uncomfortable not to have the answers fast, but you got to understand it would be negligent on my part to put stuff out there that i can't prove." He added later: "Speed is not a priority."

Last year, according to an analysis by local newspaper Chicago Reader, young black women and girls made up the largest demographic of missing persons in Chicago. "Advocates say that black people in general and young black women in particular are overrepresented in the Chicago data in part because law enforcement and the media are not paying sufficient attention to their cases," the newspaper reported. It's a point that reflects nationally: A 2009 study found that the cases of missing white women were covered far more in the media than the cases of missing black women. What's even more alarming is a recent finding from the CDC: Black women are killed at significantly higher rates than women of other races.

In addition to the interviews they've conducted, police also said they were reviewing videos posted on social media—including one some people believe shows Jenkins sitting on a bed in a hotel room. The clip has been viewed more than five million times and has since spurred several theories online about how Jenkins died. Social media users, particularly Black Twitter, have taken to investigating her mysterious death, including breaking down audio and video files, and also made the hashtag #KennekaJenkins trend on Twitter.

Yesterday, however, Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stevens suggested that these amateur sleuths were disrupting the police investigation. "It's unfortunate that some of that stuff's convoluting the investigation because all those leads have got to be followed up on," he told the Tribune. "As I'm sure you've seen, there's a lot of different, conflicting speculation out there, so (police) are doing their best to come to a quick resolution, obviously. I think everybody wants to know what happened."

During his conversation with activists yesterday, Mackey acknowledged the attention this case has gotten online: "There's a lot of people who have theories, and again, we can't deal with theories. We have to deal with facts. We have to deal with what we can prove."

Sevonna Brown is the the Gender Justice and Human Rights Project Manager at Black Women's Blueprint. She tells Broadly that Jenkins' story is all too familiar. "Like too many times before, the criminal justice system is failing black girls, not adequately seeking answers, and letting the case rest without any urgency," she says. Because of that, she says, the "community is coming together in a beautiful way on social media to piece together" what happened to this young woman.

Read more: 'Don't Underestimate Us': This BLM Teen Has Words for the Older Generation

"The story of our dear sister Kenneka Jenkins," Brown continues, "demonstrates the ways black women and girls are perpetually thrown away not only in their communities but also erased in the larger landscape of our society. This story is one that we have heard too many times before. Black girls go missing all over this country, and even internationally, and action is not taken quickly enough. This case proves once again that we are not a survivor-centered society yet, that our culture does not love, honor, and see black girls as their full human selves."

On September 30, Black Women's Blueprint will be marching for Jenkins and other black women and girls at the March for Black Women in Washington, DC. "We will be singing and rallying and shouting for her justice and the liberation of other Black women and girls," Brown says.