By now you’ve probably heard the tragic news coming out of Seattle about yet another case of state violence committed against black people. Added to the litany of names that have become symbolic of a painful & traumatic legacy that is centuries old, is one #CharleenaLyles.
It’s reported that Charleena Lyles, a 30 year old, pregnant mother of 2 called the police after an attempted break-in at her residence. The police showed up & found Charleena “brandishing” a knife. Though she was a very tiny woman in stature, this prompted the officers to shoot her several times, killing her in front of her children. Many have expressed anger that the situation was not de-escalated & that non-lethal force was not used. Adding injury to insult, video has emerged of the police standing outside her door promising “we will not shoot you. Just open the door.” It’s a shame that a call to police about a home burglary can result in your own death in this “land of the free & home of the brave.”
Zooming Out & Rewinding Back
In our fast-paced media driven world it is so hard to resist the temptation to get lost in the latest tragedy without zooming out & rewinding back to see the bigger picture & larger story. We generally look at incidents like these “in media res”; a cinematic term that means to begin a movie “in the middle of the plot.” This habit keeps us from seeing what spiritual, social, & structural forces might have been at work long before the fateful encounter of the slain.
Charleena Lyles inhabited the high-risk social status that I call “quadruple jeopardy.” This image-of-God bearing human lived at the dangerous intersection of 4 marginalized social identities. Even if we could go back in time & re-route her call away from 911 to some non-violent alternative she still had enormous structural odds stacked against her.
In no particular order, her likelihood of experiencing the conditions necessary for human flourishing were jeopardized because she was:
- 1) black (racism/white supremacy)
From our first steps on this continent to the current moment black folks have been at the bottom of the racialized social order. Subject to domination, exploitation, & dehumanization we have endured unspeakable horrors on the interpersonal, institutional, spiritual, & emotional realm.
- 2) woman (sexism/patriarchy)
In a patriarchal society women continue to face challenges that their male counterparts do not. Sexism, misogynoir, rape culture, domestic violence, wage inequality are just a short list of the obstacles women are forced to overcome.
- 3) poor (capitalism/classism)
It is reported that Lyles had battled homelessness in recent years & was struggling to get the economic footing needed to stay afloat in society.
- 4) mentally ill (ableism)
Lyles was mentally ill & officers were alerted of this before they arrived on the scene.
It was a collision at the intersection of these 4 social locations that helped create this tragedy. Therefore, it is unhelpful at best & intellectually dishonest at worst, to reduce her plight to a single issue. All of the above realities factored into her killing at the hands of the state yesterday. (Racism, classism, sexism, & ableism) Some will want to parse these factors out & zoom in on just one. They’d say, “it was just a matter of mental illness. If we solve this issue, we can prevent future deaths like this.” This tendency is rather unfortunate. We miss the opportunity to really probe into social ills when we “rest our hats” on the factor that fits our personal soapbox. Its like forecasting weather by only looking at the wind patterns & completely ignoring things like temperature & pressure. Others will push back on this idea of “quadruple jeopardy” as some hyper brand of “identity politics”. However, this post is not an attempt to “play” identity politics, it is a plea to people of goodwill generally, & to the church more specifically, to wake up to the overlapping political structures & cultural idols that violently impact and impede the flourishing of neighbors who live under the social weight of them. (Furthermore, most who decry “identity politics” have gross misunderstandings of its original meaning. )
This method of analysis has been called “intersectionality.” In its inception it was about keeping track with the larger SYSTEMS that play into the on-the-ground symptoms of inequality & injustice. However, in recent times its meaning has devolved as it’s become a buzz word employed by neoliberal elites & “pop activists”.
As it’s been used more & more in mainstream discourse, the deep structural analysis has often been erased. This has allowed politicians to gain “cookie points” for naming the intersectional nature of evils like sexism & racism while “veiling” their commitment to uphold the systems & apparatuses that generate these problems.
In short, we must make intersectional analysis “great again”. 😉 The police killing of a poor, black, mentally ill, woman who called 911 for help after an attempted burglary is the horrifically visible tip of an iceberg of spiritual wickedness in high places, unjust structures, economies, & cultures.
As we mourn her death & pray for her loved ones may God “bless us with discomfort at easy answers” & enough foolishness to believe that the structures of The U.S. can be rearranged & transformed in a way that fosters “justice for all” both at home & abroad.
Written by Terrance Hawkins