On Fay Wells & The Impact Of #SayHerName On The Media
Last week, Fay Wells, a Black female vice president of a California-based company, was accosted and handcuffed in her own home by 19 police officers who were dispatched after a (white) neighbor reported a burglary. This is not the first time police have mistreated a Black person in their own home, especially in a White neighborhood, nor will it be the last. But while I loathe the circumstances, I am excited that Wells’s story is even making news.
Examples of the mistreatment of Black people in their own communities and homes abound. In 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home after police responded to a call that someone was breaking and entering. Last year, 18-year-old DeShawn Currie was assaulted and pepper sprayed by police after being “mistaken” for a burglar. And of course, everyone should remember the tragic story of Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by wannabe cop George Zimmerman on his way home from a convenience store.
Only a year ago, I wrote a piece to counter the pervasive notion that Black women are more privileged than Black men, and somehow immune to police brutality or racism. Since then, campaigns like #SayHerName, that brought to light the deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman (and many more), and the prevalence of Black women demanding more visibility has made that notion practically null and void. Finally, the struggles women of color face, including police brutality and racism, are being given the media attention they deserve, and Wells herself was given a platform to tell her story.
In an essay for The Washington Post, Wells detailed her harrowing encounter with the 19 police officers who showed up to her apartment in Santa Monica after neighbors placed a call to law enforcement reporting a Hispanic woman was trying to burglarize the home. (In reality, Wells had gotten locked out of the home she had lived in for seven months and had called a locksmith.) It should come as no surprise that this apartment was situated in “an almost entirely white apartment complex in a mostly white city.” Wells went on:
I left my apartment in my socks, shorts and a light jacket, my hands in the air. “What’s going on?” I asked again. Two police officers had guns trained on me. They shouted: “Who’s in there with you? How many of you are there?”
I said it was only me and, hands still raised, slowly descended the stairs, focused on one officer’s eyes and on his pistol. I had never looked down the barrel of a gun or at the face of a man with a loaded weapon pointed at me. In his eyes, I saw fear and anger. I had no idea what was happening, but I saw how it would end: I would be dead in the stairwell outside my apartment, because something about me — a 5-foot-7, 125-pound black woman — frightened this man with a gun. I sat down, trying to look even less threatening, trying to de-escalate. I again asked what was going on. I confirmed there were no pets or people inside.
The officers then proceeded to barge into the apartment and forced Wells onto the street with her hands behind her back, while her neighbors watched. To the white neighbor who called the police and the officers themselves, it was obvious that Wells dark skin implied she was a threat. So much so, that the police arrived with guns drawn, Wells’ life suddenly at risk simply for existing, and just as so many men of color have reported in their accounts with police, one misstep would have meant death. There was no one there to protect her life, even though she did absolutely nothing wrong.
There is no gender immunity to police violence, brutality or racism. There also is no class immunity – no degree or position of power will spare Black people of these hardships. Black women have largely been left to deal with this reality alone, without the support of mainstream feminism or Black men, as our struggles have constantly been made secondary in part because our stories were not being shared or told.
So while I’m disgusted by what Wells went through, I am excited to see her story making news and getting the media’s attention. Black women, as a demographic, refuse to be oppressed and silenced and that refusal is giving us the space to be heard, enumerate our struggles and demand justice. This makes me proud.
Black women will #SayHerName until we see an end to the police brutality and racism that has stolen Black women’s comfort in their own communities and homes. The question that still remains, however, is will the broader populous continue to listen and share our stories?
[Photo: The Washington Post]