On Ray Rice, Domestic Violence, Police Brutality & The Choices Faced By Black Women

Late last week, the charges against football player Ray Rice were all dropped by a judge after the former Ravens running back completed the court ordered terms of his pretrial intervention: the completion of anger management counseling and the payment of fines totaling $125. Admission into this “pretrial intervention” program is usually uncommon for violent offenders, but the prosecutor, who dealt with the case, allowed it after reviewing the details of the case and speaking with Janay Palmer, Rice’s wife and the victim in the case.

I take particular interest in this story because the day before this information was released, my mother and I were walking in the park when we witnessed a domestic violence dispute. A young Black couple was walking together when, seemingly out of nowhere, an argument erupted. After yelling and screaming at the woman while walking beside her, the man shoved her to the ground IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. A another couple walked right by the incident and didn’t even look back or attempt to intervene on the woman’s behalf. My mother and I were frozen in disbelief. The young woman got up and started to walk away from the guy, but he chased after her, tackled her to the floor, then removed the brightly colored sneakers she was wearing from her feet.

At this point, I realized I couldn’t stand by idly and do nothing. I began to approach the man, to my mother’s horror.

“No, Theo,” she said, using her nickname for me. But I didn’t care, something had to be done and obviously no one else was around who cared to do anything.

“Call the cops!” my mother instructed.

The couple got up from the ground and then started walking in opposite directions: the girl towards a nearby parking lot while the guy headed toward the playground that was not too far away. Having called the police from my cell phone, I explained to the cops where I was and what I just witnessed, while my mother and I approached the young woman.

“Are you from around here?” my mother asked her. She was seated on some stairs, balling her eyes out.

“No,” she replied through her sobs. She was from a town more than an hour away.

Over near the playground, the first cop car rolled up and screeched to a halt and a middle-aged White guy jumped out and instructed the guy to put his hands in the air. The Black guy haphazardly raised his hands, the sneakers still clasped in his grip. As the officer began to pat him down to make sure he wasn’t armed, another car pulled up to provide backup. My heart sank a bit as I watched the interaction between the cops and the young man. A part of me feared for his life. The other part of me hated him for what he did to the young woman. And yet another part of me hated the fact that I was feeling guilty about my decision to call the police, because I understood that a Black man’s interaction with the police — whether innocent or guilty — can lead to death. While I acknowledge the fact that what the young man did was wrong, if that interaction ended in his death, I would’ve had a difficult time labeling my actions “just.”

This is the dilemma Black women face. In a society strife with sexism and racism, these two evils working in tandem place women of color in the most precarious, emotionally burdensome and crippling predicaments. We cannot depend on our partners to protect us: Black women are victimized at disproportionate rates compared to their White counterparts, making them nearly three times more likely to be murdered by men, at least half the result of domestic violence. Law enforcement — tasked with the job “to serve and protect” — murders Black people, both men and women, with no fear of retribution. The country’s institutions — it’s justice and education systems, the media — are all rife with a pervasive racism that labels us “thugs,” “welfare queens,” “lazy,” “angry,” unworthy or inhuman. No, the Black woman is not guaranteed protection by this society. We are always caught between difficult/life-threatening choices and other difficult/life-threatening choices.

For these reasons, I cannot judge Ray Rice’s wife, Janay Palmer, for not only remaining in a relationship with the father of her child  – a man who knocked her unconscious, dragged her out of an elevator and tossed her like a rag doll onto the floor of a hotel hallway – but also seeing to it that his punishment was less severe. In a society where Black men have a median weekly earning that surpasses that of their female counterparts and where a large portion of the wealth of the Black community rests in the hands of Black men, of course there is not only emotional but financial dependency. Of course, her well-being is dependent on his; his access to his career is her access to a lifestyle. A lifestyle which was threatened by the media storm surrounding the Ray Rice domestic abuse charges that painted the player’s actions as unique, barbaric Black man behavior. Though reprehensible, domestic abuse is not new to the NFL and most certainly something that well-to-do White men get away with while maintaining their dignity.

It is the position of “inferiority” and “dependency” that creates a class of people to be exploited, abused and mistreated. It is indisputable that Black men are largely dependent on White men for access to wealth and opportunity — and can also be denied equal treatment at a whim. After all, who pays Ray Rice? Black people have very little power in the larger society — even the manliest, richest and, thus by extension, the most powerful of us.

In this way, one can be both predator and prey. While Black men fall prey to a system of racism that renders them inferior and denies them access to equal treatment, they become predators within another system built to subjugate Black women. Where does the Black woman turn for help or support? For many, there is nowhere to turn. The decision must be made between one hard choice and another; but neither really ensures self-preservation. Neither offers protection or support.

Returning to that day in the park with the young Black couple, when the police arrived, the woman quickly wiped away her tears and raced to confront the officers. From a distance, I could see her pleading with them – perhaps a similar fear of police brutality surfaced for her, as it did for me. Or maybe she wanted to press charges.

For me, it remained uncertain who she, as a Black woman, should fear more: the Black man or the police.