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The Frightening Story Of Black Women And Police Encounters

By Rhodesia Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Jun 1, 2016 - 9:03:04 AM

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There was once a time when the main fear Black women had if they were pulled over by police was being issued a traffic ticket or citation. But today countless Black women and teen girls like their male counterparts now hesitate and some fear for their lives when stopped by law enforcement.

“Prior to August 3, 2013, the day my shoulder was shattered by an off-duty cop, I was only familiar with Rodney King’s case of police brutality and Trayvon Martin,” said Antwynette Houston, executive producer of the documentary, “Why Do I have to Die to be Important?” which chronicles her accusations of being physically assaulted by an off-duty Louisville Metro Police Department officer and her ongoing battle for justice.  

“I had a good rapport with the police and highly respected them, until that night,” she said. Surveillance footage shows Ms. Houston driving her car into a parking lot of a local gas station and convenience store in Louisville, Ky.  Her son who was nine at the time, was also in the car. Officer Scott Sturgeon was off-duty, in his personal vehicle and wearing a “summer” uniform of a gray polo shirt and shorts not a recognizable formal uniform, explained Ms. Houston. But when he ordered Ms. Houston to move her car which was allegedly in a handicapped spot, she complied. However, when she moved her car to park in another spot, one of the tires was slightly over the line and that is when things escalated.

Ofc. Sturgeon demanded her driver’s license stating he suspected she was under the influence. Ms. Houston said she told the officer she did not drink alcohol and told him she was afraid of his actions. She called 911 and refused to give up her license until other officers arrived. She was suspicious when Ofc. Sturgeon refused to show her his badge or give her his name.

She said he reached into her car, opened the door, and forcefully dragged her out and across the parking lot, severely injuring her shoulder. Footage shows Ofc. Sturgeon pulling Ms. Houston from her car to his. When other officers arrived, Ms. Houston was issued a citation for parking in a handicapped parking space.

Ofc. Sturgeon was reprimanded for violating the standard procedure for courtesy but the police department cleared him of any charges for excessive force. A federal lawsuit filed by Ms. Houston is pending. Calls by The Final Call to the Louisville Metro Police Department were not returned.

Ms. Houston said she suffered multiple bruises, a dislocated shoulder which eventually required surgery and was unable to work for over a year. She still suffers physically and emotionally from that night.

A culture of fear, distrust and caution

According to the 2013 United States Census, the rate of racial disparities in police stops, frisks, and arrests are identical for Black men and Black women.  Women and girls are subject to police profiling, abuse, excessive force, and police killings just as much as men and boys. However, according to the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) report, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality against Black Women,” media, researchers, and advocates tend to exclude Black women and focus only on how profiling impacts Black men. 

Antwynette Houston of Louisville, Ky. Holds a sign demanding accountability from city and police officials for injuries she blames on an off-duty police officer.
Police matters involving Black women and girls receive less community support and corporate controlled media attention. For many, the cases of Sandra Bland, 28, and Rekia Boyd, 22, brought the plight of Black females and their frightening, sometimes deadly interactions with law enforcement, into the spotlight. Ms. Bland was pulled over by a Texas state trooper July 10, 2015 for a minor traffic offense, was arrested and ended up dead in a Waller County jail cell. Officials said she committed suicide. Ms. Boyd was shot in the head by an off-duty Chicago cop who fired indiscriminately into a crowd after allegedly mistaking a cell phone he saw someone holding for a gun.

And in May of this year, video footage was released from a 2014 incident from a mall parking lot in Tacoma, Washington, involving Monique Tillman, who was 15 at the time. She accuses Ofc.  Jared Williams who was working off-duty that day as a mall guard with pulling her off  of her bicycle, slamming her to the ground and using a Taser on her.

A real culture of fear, caution and distrust of law enforcement is brewing among some Black women as more of these cases are becoming public.

Earledreka White cried for two days while sitting in jail fearing that she could be the next Sandra Bland. Ms. White told The Final Call she had been pulled over for allegedly crossing the double lines on the road  earlier this year on March 31 in Houston.

She said Ofc. Gentian Luca of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County became angry when she called 911 for help.  She said he hurled her to the ground and threatened to taser her. 

“My mother is a corrections officer who taught me how to respond to authority when pulled over, but none of it seemed to keep Ofc. Luca from harassing me,” Ms. White said. She was arrested for resisting arrest. She said an 11-year-old boy who was nearby began recording the incident on his iPad and that police dash cam also recorded the incident. She said footage clearly shows she was not resisting arrest or struggling with Ofc. Luca.

Antynette Houston holds a sign documenting her allegations of being mishandled by a police officer and stages a protest in front of this year’s Kentucky Derby

When other officers arrived at the scene Ms. White said she tried to explain to them what happened. She said the officers discussed among themselves what to charge her with.  Ms. White was subsequently charged with resisting arrest and search, a misdemeanor. She filed a complaint with the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County but was told they could not give her any information on if they would discipline the officer for any wrongdoing. The Final Call reached out to MTA officials but received no response.

Dr.  Ava Muhammad, an attorney, student minister and national spokesperson for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, said on her radio show, Elevated Places that Black people felt Sandra Bland talked too much when confronted by police. 

“That type of commentary is common amongst our own in the wake of every police murder because the doctrine of White supremacy that the United States of America is built on requires the development of a mindset that allows Caucasian people to have complete freedom, justice, and equality, and that includes being able to express yourself as a human being.” she told The Final Call in a recent interview. 

“On the other end, as inherently inferior according to this country’s belief system, Black people do not enjoy the same freedom. From the institution of slavery, we’ve never been allowed to display dissatisfaction and in the case of Sandra Bland, since when is death the penalty for annoying a cop?” she added.

Medina Perine still recalls her encounter with Chicago police, even though it happened in 2012.

“I was initially pulled over for having dark tint on my car windows, but I felt having dreadlocks was the reason they asked me to get out of my vehicle,” said Ms. Perine, who no longer resides in the city.  Officers told her they had cause to check her vehicle on “suspicion of marijuana possession.”

She went on to say that two officers made her stand in the rain while they searched her car and purse for drugs for no apparent reason.  “I asked a bystander to wait with me because I didn’t know their intentions.” She was let go with no ticket but felt profiled. 

Prior to that encounter, Ms. Perine, who is also the sister of this writer, said she had no fear of police, but now, she does not trust them. “Now I understand how Black men feel,” she said. 

In many of these cases of police encounters with Black women the stories are eerily similar, such as being pulled over for minor traffic violations.

Reverend Catherine Brown of Chicago found herself engaged in a violent confrontation with two Chicago police officers, Michelle Morsi and Jose Lopez, after they blocked her car from entering her own driveway May 13, 2013.  Her two small children watched as officers dragged her from the car. Police dash cam video shows officers pepper spraying her and her one-year-old child while another officer is seen laughing.  During a recent interview with a Chicago CBS affiliate after footage was released, Rev. Brown recalled, “They beat me down to my underwear, pulled my skirt off me, and beat me with sticks.  They treated me like an animal.”

She also called 911, hoping additional police would come to her aid.

“Four more cops came to the scene after I called 911 for assistance,” Ms. White said, “but not one cop came over to me when they arrived. “They went straight to the 10-year-old who had filmed the incident.”

Dr. Muhammad cautioned against calling 911 when pulled over by police, stating Black women and girls should be careful about informing other officers because they are a part of the same system. Dr. Muhammad, a former prosecutor, suggested that if a person is pulled over by police to first call someone they know and inform them of your location.   Next, she advises to place the phone down and leave the call open and do your best to comply with the officer’s instructions. 

Choose your battles wisely and live to fight another day, she explained. “Ask yourself what do you have to gain engaging in verbal sparring with the police? This is why establishing the 10,000 Fearless in our community is a necessity because it will give rise to our own security forces, so that we have someone we can call,” said Dr. Muhammad, referring to the call by Min. Farrakhan for Black people to take control of their communities and make them safe and decent places to live. 

Unjust treatment to justify unjust charges? 

Black women have expressed feeling safer when having their children in the car with them when the cops pull them over but the African American Policy Forum reports that the presence of children does not necessarily prompt the police to proceed with caution when Black women are involved. This lack of concern is consistent with a longstanding historic pattern of devaluing Black motherhood and the loving bonds that tie mothers and children together. Damaging stereotypes that cast Black women as criminal and unfit mothers share a common genealogy with practices that deprive Black women of protections typically associated with motherhood during police encounters, sometimes leading to the use of lethal force, notes the group’s report.

“My son was 9-years-old at the time I was pulled over,” said Ms. Houston.  “After the incident, my son began wetting the bed and his grades in school dropped.  He’s improving day by day, but he still has nightmares and he is now afraid of police.”

Some women spoke of becoming hysterical after being dragged out of their cars and manhandled.  “Who wouldn’t be distraught after being thrown to the ground and having handcuffs placed so tightly around my wrist? It left scars?” asked Ms. White.  “It’s like they use our natural responses to their unjust treatment to justify charging us with resisting arrest. So now you’re going to jail for something other than what you were pulled over for.”

And in most circumstances, law enforcement officials are rarely fired, arrested, prosecuted, convicted or sentenced to prison for their misdeeds.

The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project stated if police are charged, they’re very rarely convicted.  “I have medical bills that they have yet to help me with,” said Ms. Houston.  “I’m in the process of suing the city, the department and Ofc. Sturgeon.”  She said one of the supervisors on the scene acknowledged that Ofc. Sturgeon’s behavior was out of order, but there was no repercussions for his actions.

Rev. Brown was arrested for attempted murder for trying to back out of the alley to call for witnesses. One of the officers accused Rev. Brown of dragging her for half a block, but the charges were dropped after the video contradicted the police version of events. She is suing the police department.

“They tell us as citizens we have these rights when it comes to traffic stops, but when we try and exercise them, the cops get angry,” Ms. White expressed.  “I drove slowly with my hazards lights on until I arrived at a place that had visible surveillance cameras and witnesses,” she continued. “I dialed 911 just so they could hear the conversation, but this angered him.  If he wasn’t up to no good, then my actions should not have bothered him.”

Min. Farrakhan previously stated that the disrespect of women is the reason that the earth and the world is in the condition that it is in. There cannot be a new world except that there is a new and better understanding of the female, which will give us men a clearer understanding of self and above all a clearer understanding of Allah, the Muslim leader pointed out. 

“Since Sandra Bland’s death on July 13, 2015, there have been five more Black women who have died in police custody. Why are they now killing our women?  Because you produce this man—so they want to kill that that produces what they fear,” said the Minister to an audience of young people in the days leading up to Justice Or Else, the 20th anniversary gathering of the Million Man March held on 10.10.15 in Washington, D.C. Despite still suffering from the aftermath of her ordeal, Ms. Houston traveled to the Nation’s Capital that day to be part of that historic event, hoping for a chance to tell Min. Farrakhan about what happened to her.

She was unable to meet the 83-year-old freedom fighter but credits his message that day for her continued resolve in her fight for justice. Ms. Houston displayed photos of the injuries to her shattered shoulder and the police officer she blames for those injuries in front of the 2016 Kentucky Derby on May 6 and 7.  She held up signs that read, “They care about horses more than human life.”