Betty Shelby, the Tulsa police officer who was captured on video shooting and killing an unarmed Terence Crutcher, was charged with manslaughter last week. Almost immediately after those charges were announced, there were rumblings on Twitter asking whether the officer’s gender has anything to do with charges being brought—a rarity in police shootings of civilians.
“How surprising would it be if a woman, rather than all those male cops, is the first to go to jail for killing an unarmed black man?” tweeted Politico writer Julia Ioffe.
As a white woman who is a feminist, but tries to avoid the pitfalls of what’s known as “white feminism”—feminism that ignores the particular struggles of women of color—I feel obligated to point out the absurdity of making Shelby a martyred symbol of gender discrimination.
Police officers are rarely charged when they shoot and kill civilians. In fact, an exhaustive study conducted by the Washington Post and Bowling Green State University found that there are about 1,000 fatal shootings of civilians by police officers each year in the United States, yet only 54 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter since 2005. Instead, the legal system tends to operate in a familiar and discouraging pattern: a cop kills someone, that person’s name becomes a hashtag, and the cop goes on paid administrative leave until his own department clears him of any wrongdoing.
You would think anyone interested in justice and fairness would welcome Shelby’s indictment as a necessary break from that troubling pattern. That wasn’t the case, though. Instead, in pockets of the social media landscape, many white women took the opportunity to suggest that Shelby was only being charged because she is a woman, that she is somehow the victim of gender discrimination.
It is generally the privilege afforded to white men that has allowed so many of them in law enforcement to get away with killing unarmed people, but denying that sick privilege to a woman doing the same job is not the same as denying her a right. The failure of too many white feminists to grasp that simple concept is both embarrassing and frustrating. It also supports a claim against white feminists that women of color have been making for centuries: that a great deal of us who call ourselves feminists aren’t truly after an end to sexist oppression, but actually fighting for the full benefits of white supremacy.
Activist, scholar, and writer Audre Lorde put the dynamic succinctly in 1984’s I Am Your Sister. She wrote: “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.”
The disheartening scene Lorde described has played out countless times in recent years. In fact, an estimated 165 black men and boys have been killed by police so far in 2016. Every single one of them was born to a mother. Many had wives, sisters, and daughters. In addition, police have killed nine black women this year—Korryn Gaines, Jessica Nelson-Williams, Deresha Armstrong, Kisha Arrone, Laronda Sweatt, India Beaty, Kisha Michael, Salah Ridgeway, and Janet Wilson. These should be the people at the center of concern for feminists engaging in conversations about police brutality, not Shelby who took the life of an unarmed man and is herself shrouded in privilege as a white person and a police officer.
There was a similar defensiveness from some Asian Americans when Chinese-American NYPD officer Peter Liang was charged with criminally negligent homicide after killing killed Akai Gurley, another unarmed black man, in 2014. Liang was ultimately convicted of the crime, but didn’t serve a day in prison no jail time. However, before his sentence was handed down, tens of thousands of Asian Americans around the country rallied for Liang, claiming that he was a “scapegoat.” Then, like now, people who saw an aspect of themselves in the shooter missed the point.
Rather than focusing on what we may have in common with these shooters, we should be looking at the humanity we share with the people who have been shot and killed, and with the families who are left to grieve; almost always without justice. I understand the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to speak up when a woman gets a harsher punishment than all of the men who've gotten away with the same thing, but that's not what's important in this scenario. The focus on Shelby’s gender, or the use of this case as proof of gender discrimination in the police force, is social justice watchdogging gone wrong.
If your feminism compels you to focus on the women in this situation, focus on Crutcher’s heartbroken twin sister, his daughters, his wife, or his mother. Imagine fearing, as they must have, for his life whenever he left the house. Now imagine that awful fear becoming a reality and consider what it must feel like to have just the prospect of justice diminished by people supposedly operating under the banner of feminism, a movement that is supposed to include you.