By Michelle Polek
Charleena Lyles called the police to ask for help. That’s one of the supposedly basic concepts that many of us instill in our children: when you are in danger, call the police. Memorize 911. If you are lost, find a police officer. They will help you. In most horror movies, the arrival of police sirens and lights signify that safety has come at last. Here at SafeChoice, I am currently charging several of our donated phones that we always have on hand to give to survivors. These phones don’t have a messaging plan – their sole purpose to have a way to call 911. Calling the police is an important part of many domestic violence survivors’ safety plans. But calling the police is not a safe option for everyone.
Charleena Lyles called the police because she was in fear that a robbery had taken place. She was a survivor of domestic violence. She had been released from jail a few days prior, having been arrested in early June. She was armed during that previous arrest, too – she was holding a pair of scissors to protect herself from her boyfriend (information which the officers were alerted to upon their arrival at her residence). Her family noted that she had been experiencing mental health issues for the past year. “Worrying about losing her kids and dealing with the craziness of the baby's daddy caused her to have a mental breakdown,” her older sister stated. Charleena was holding a knife when the police came to respond to her call. She was shot by two male police officers after they stated that she brandished the knife at them.
I can’t speak for Charleena, and Charleena is no longer here to speak for herself. Yet her story still resonates with grief, with the fear that communities of color have of basic interactions with law enforcement, with the trauma that permeates our society when it comes to the intersections of domestic violence and racism and disability. We don’t yet have a full picture of Charleena’s experiences, but we do know from our work with domestic violence survivors that a significant amount of survivors end up incarcerated for crimes related to their abuse. We also know that survivors’ interactions are often shaped by trauma, impairing abilities such as reading social cues and emotional regulation We know that Charleena, in addition to navigating difficulties with her own mental health issues, was caring for four children, including one with special needs.
And we know that Charleena was living in Seattle, a city whose police department was called out five years ago by the US Department of Justice for excessive use of force – including the fact that half of incidents of excessive force were perpetuated against minorities. This document also reports that 43% of Seattle residents overall and 56% of Black residents believe that racial profiling by the police is an issue within their city. Charleena’s story fits within the narrative that we see on the news and in our communities, again and again: the story of disproportionate police violence against Black citizens. Charleena’s family has repeated that she was not a threat to the two police officers who responded to her, that she was small in stature and weight. As with other Black victims of police brutality, we very well may see that the media will scrutinize the minutiae of Charleena’s life: the threat her body assumed to present, her education, her choices in clothing. If/when this happens, I want us to remember the many dangerous white perpetrators of violence (such as Dylan Roof, the man who killed nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina in a mass shooting) who have been successfully taken into custody – alive. I need us to think deeper about who we consciously and unconsciously consider to be violent or threatening. Justice cannot exist when we consider some lives to be more valuable than others.
Charleena’s life and death matter to her family and community. And the lives of her children matter, too. As someone who does violence prevention work with children, I was particularly struck by a statement by the Seattle Police Department: “There were several children inside the apartment at the time of the shooting, but they were not injured.” The SPD, of course, meant that the children hadn’t suffered physical injuries. However, before the police entered their home, these children were already being injured by the fact that their mother couldn’t access the supports that she needed. They were additionally injured by (directly or indirectly) witnessing their mother’s death. “They shot my mom,” said one of the 10-year old children. I wonder how likely it is that any of Charleena’s children will call the police if they are in danger.
Charleena’s death comes at a time when Seattle has seemingly made progress in its use of excessive force, yet her story seems to contradict the narrative that progress is inevitable. It isn’t. Seattle isn’t the only place where disproportionate force is used against people of color. It isn’t even the only place where survivors of color experience the violence of incarceration rather than support and hope. We must believe survivors when they honor us with their stories – or when, unable to speak, their communities advocate on their behalf and refuse to let our nation forget that these women exist.
We #SayHerName along with other Black women and girls who have been victimized not only by domestic violence but also by the legal system: Charleena Lyles. Marissa Alexander. Bresha Meadows. We cannot let their stories fade. Because their lives matter.