For Gynnya: When a Black Woman or Girl Dies in Police Custody, We Must #SayHerName

by Michelle Y. Talbert

Prom. High school graduation. College graduation. Motherhood. Adulthood. Yet another of our daughters will never experience any of these or the other milestones that make life so rich.

On January 11, 2016, 16-year-old Gynnya Hope McMillen died in police custody in a Kentucky youth detention facility. Early reports noted that “multiple staff members of the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center used a martial arts move to immobilize” Gynnya in order to search her body during her booking procedure. Facility staff then failed to perform required checks on her throughout the night and following morning, as she slept and ultimately died.

Although commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice has been fired, along with a juvenile detention center employee, in connection with the investigation into Gynnya’s death, many unanswered questions still remain.

Why was a martial arts move used on this 16-year-old girl, who was in custody for a “domestic” matter? Because she wouldn’t remove her hoodie and cooperate with a search.

More recently, Kentucky officials stated that Gynnya died from a "sudden cardiac arrhythmia" while sleeping in her room. Still, evidence (including 60 hours of video footage) will be presented to a grand jury due to a pattern of misconduct in the police department.

The use of force by police against our daughters is not an anomaly, as we look to just the past year there were numerous such incidents. Back in June 2015, many were appalled when video footage showed a 14-year-old girl, wearing only a bikini, being dragged to the ground and held down with the knee of a police officer during a pool party altercation in McKinney, Texas. Many of us remember when video circulated showing 16-year-old Spring Valley High School student, Shakara, being thrown from her desk by a school police officer after she refused to leave the classroom. Even the 14-year-old sister of Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland, Ohio police in 2014 while playing with a toy gun in a park, was ‘tackled’ by police officers and then put into the back of a patrol car because she attempted to run to her 12-year-old brother’s side as he lay dying after being shot by police.

And to preemptively reply to any comments along the lines of, “Well, if those girls would only obey the officers then force would not be used,” I direct attention to the handling of the drunken behavior of Kelsey Wood, a 25-year-old white woman motorist who not only gave chase in a stolen car, but proceeded to blast music, change her clothes, get out of the car, place her hands into the pockets of her shorts, and dance while taunting the police after the car’s tires were blown out… all while the authorities looked on before taking her into custody after she re-entered the vehicle.

Full details of why Gynnya was in custody have not yet been released. We know there was a “domestic dispute” with an adult in her home. Police were called and she was taken into custody, then transported to the juvenile detention center where she was pronounced dead less than 24 hours after her arrival.

As I looked into Gynnya’s eyes in the bathroom selfie that has accompanied reports of her death, I couldn’t help but see my own daughter, Jasmine, who is now a 25-year-old elementary school teacher. How easily could my Jasmine have been Gynnya during her teenage years? How many times did she act out and challenge me when I disciplined her? I cannot count how many times her bad behavior pushed me to the brink of frustration, anger and disappointment. She even had her own brush with law enforcement at one point while in high school. Anyone who has raised or worked with children knows that teen years can be challenging. Teenagers are in this weird space, both physiologically and emotionally, where they’re sort of adults. They may challenge authority and seek independence. But in actuality they’re still children and we’re still the adults in every interaction with them. Often the cooler heads that need to prevail rest upon our shoulders.

While many of us have not had to call the authorities to intervene with our teens, there those of us who have felt there was no other option at our disposal. Those times when we must call for official outside intervention and assistance with our children there’s no way we would ever think our child would not return to us alive. Nor should we have to think so.

While in college, I interned with the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission and was responsible for working with the youth in the local jail: meeting with them when they lodged human rights complaints against the officers and other jail personnel. Many of the kids who I counselled were there because they’d refused to comply with the orders of someone in authority.

Is it always acceptable for young people to be disobedient? Generally, it is not, but as the actual adults in these exchanges, it is crucial that officers recognize they are interacting with children. When our children are viewed as adults—or worse, as “monsters”—we’ve seen time and again that the outcome is catastrophic, with them being injured or dying. The officers are not only adults, but are supposed to be trained to de-escalate interactions. Yet, that’s not what occurs when the interactions occur with Black and brown people.

As President Obama noted when he became the first sitting President to visit a corrections facility last summer: “I’ve said this before. These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made… What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes.”

Forever Our Baby Girls

When Miriam Carey and Sandra Bland died in police custody, I cried over the loss of our sisters. I didn’t know them personally, but they were women with whom I connected and identified. As Luvvie Ajayi said in the aftermath of Sandra Bland’s death: “The thing about Sandra Bland's story is that she could be any of us.”

Gynnya McMillen was a baby. She was 16. She could’ve easily been my daughter, my baby girl. She could’ve been your daughter, your baby girl. No matter how old they are, they’re still our babies. It is completely out of the natural order for a parent to bury her child. But yet, mere weeks ago that is exactly what Gynnya’s mom and great-grandparents had to do. (Try to wrap your head around this child dying before her great grandparents. It’s impossible.)

With reports of each death many of us feel outrage, sorrow, and so many other emotions as we grieve the loss of yet another young life in our community. Traditionally, acceptance is deemed as the final stage of grief. However, we cannot and we must not accept the deaths of our sisters and daughters—and sons and brothers—at the hands of police and other state officials.

For the past five years I’ve been reading Danielle L. McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. It’s taking me this long, not because I’m a slow reader, but because it is an account of the horrific ways in which the bodies of Black women in the U.S. have been abused and mistreated throughout our history, especially leading up to the Civil Rights era.

The book is an important compilation of the ills of the past, but as the deaths of Gynnya, Sandra, Miriam, and so many other girls and women illustrate: We have much work to do in the present to spotlight and then stop these killings. Unlike any prior point in history, we have the broad power to invoke change… That power is our use of social media.

Media Matters

Civil rights pioneer Diane Nash once said, “Freedom is people realizing they are their own leader.”

We have the power. You have the power. If you’re thinking that you, as an individual, can’t make a difference you are sorely mistaken. You do have the power, to join forces with others and to lead the charge for change. This also happens to be a presidential election year, and we can make our voices and choices heard at the voting booth. While there is no one route to overcoming the injustices that we suffer at the hands of the police, there are some specific actions that have proven successful in the past to drive the kind of change we want to see in how our communities are policed.

Social media is a powerful tool to connect people and share messages and information quickly. While standing on a New York City subway platform I read a tweet about an impromptu protest against the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case that was happening at Times Square and Rockefeller Center. In real time, I was able to go upstairs to the street and participate.

“When we recognize how influential we are as Blacks, especially on networks like Twitter and Instagram, I hope that we take the time to stop focusing on celebrities and focus on current events that will truly shape our community and those generations to come after us… Start tweeting your news anchor, representative, or Congressperson,” said S. Lynn Cooper, an award-winning digital strategist and founder of Socially Ahead.

In February, there were two important occurrences in media-traditional and social. Mark Zuckerberg penned a letter to his entire staff--98% of which he noted are white--admonishing them from crossing out ‘Black Lives Matter’ and replacing with ‘All Lives Matter’ on the infamous signature walls of Facebook offices. Then, on ABC's Black-ish, starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, took the topics of hope, police brutality and justice head on. If you’ve not seen this episode, it is a must see, as the cast of all ages, from young children to grandparents, tapped right into the heart and depth of the issues we are facing in this country surrounding the killing of our community by police officers, with no (or few) repercussions.

As we look to a Republican presidential candidate who is rising in popularity within his party, by spewing vitriol and racism, timing and strategic actions are crucial to making the changes we so desperately need through the social media at our disposal and our vote at the polls. Marc W. Polite, author and editor-in-chief of Polite On Society says: “How social media reacted after the Trayvon Martin verdict was constructive. A few may recall that one of the jurors attempted to get a book deal based off of the trial. Social media, namely Black Twitter, helped shut that down.”
Social media is not enough, though. There are specific steps that any of us can take to get media attention and make change. Dr. Artika Tyner, who is a civil rights attorney professor on public policy and leader, and the founder of Planting People, Growing Justice Leadership Institute, says that having a clear message, a theme for the action and a clear call to action are crucial to a focused and successful movement. Phillip Agnew executive director and co-founder of Dream Defenders--a community activist group of minority youth who are being recognized as the next generation of civil rights leaders--says, that social media has provided a tool but movements happen around the dinner table, on the corner, face to face.

Further to how multi-layered the issues are to address the injustices we suffer from outside of our community, within our community we have to engage in the uncomfortable conversations around the actions of the victims. We can’t “cherry pick” and advocate on behalf of the matters and victims that are attractive to our cause. We can’t allow arguments like, “she wasn’t obeying orders,” or, “she had mental health issues,” cloud the fact that every victim of an extrajudicial killing deserves a thorough investigation.

Valarie Carey, sister of the late Miriam Carey who was shot and killed by Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., grapples with the use of social and traditional media to seek justice in the killing of her sister, stating:
Social media has allowed me to reach people that I ordinarily may have not been able to share Miriam's story with. But for the most part social media has not impacted her case in a manner where as the masses are aware of her case.

This is partly due to thought leaders and those who have emerged as "civil rights activists" whom have been very vocal on other cases surrounding police involved deaths, yet have been very mute on my sister's case. They remain silent, despite the fact that my sister was killed prior to some of the more trending cases and despite the fact that my sister was unarmed and the officers involved have violated their department's use of force policies. Those officers should have never chased my sister let alone kill her. The vast majority of people are not aware of this because the mainstream media has actively participated in the coverup of this egregious crime against my sister. In addition the social media influencers have left Miriam's name out of particularly, The Black Lives Matter conversation.

Miriam was a law abiding citizen with no criminal record, who was unarmed and shot multiple times to her back while driving with her 13-month-old baby in the car. Where's the outcry in that? I encourage people to read more about the facts of the case on our attorney's website What we are doing is fighting the federal government for justice in a case where they are directly involved. And because of that, the legal process is being drawn out and is becoming costly which is why I set up a GoFundMe account specifically for legal fees.

Stolen moments

When my daughter was about 20 years old and in college, one day, out of the blue, she looked at me and said, “I’m so sorry for all that I put you through when I was a teenager, Mommy. I don’t know how you put up with me. Thank you for not giving up on me.”

That moment still makes me misty-eyed with a lump in my throat. Jasmine’s apology and acknowledgment of her bad behavior and my determination to love her through it, made the struggles we experienced worth it. In that moment we became even closer. In that moment, my baby girl became a responsible woman. (Although, she’s still and will always be my baby girl).

That’s a moment that neither Gynnya nor her mother will experience. It was stolen from them by the infliction of a martial arts maneuver and subsequent negligence by the grown-ups who were supposed to protect and serve Gynnya and her family.

Rest with the angels, Gynnya. We adults have work to do on your behalf, dear daughter.

For more information about Gynnya McMillen’s death and the subsequent investigation, visit the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s website.

Photo: Instagram

Michelle Y. Talbert is a regular contributor to For Harriet. She is a recovering attorney, author and host of the Her Power Hustle Podcast. But most importantly she’s a mom. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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