Why Carlesha Freeland-Gaither's Safe and Speedy Rescue Matters

by Brittany Dawson

Almost one week ago, 22 year old Carlesha Freeland-Gaither went missing. Little to no evidence was left behind other than a cell phone and glasses belonging to Freeland-Gaither, found on an empty Philadelphia street. The cell phone was a small, yet hopeful lead that helped to quickly identify the victim. When news spread of Carlesha’s disappearance, a grainy black and white surveillance video was released, detailing the abduction in full. The suspect, Delvin Barnes, is shown pulling a vehicle near a curb and approaching Carlesha, and hurriedly carrying her to the car as she struggled against him. The surveillance video exposed hundreds of social media users to the abduction; and with the help of the dropped cell phone and Barnes’ use of her ATM card, authorities were able to locate them nearly 120 miles away from the abduction site in Jessup, Maryland. Carlesha Freeland-Gaither is alive and safe, a cause for celebration!

Like many, I was surprised by the swift responsiveness of authorities, law enforcement, and mainstream media. I thought, “Wow, mainstream media cares about the safety of a Black woman? Absolutely incredible.” These actions temporarily suspended images of police brutality, accentuating a visible shift from devaluing Black bodies to valuing Black (missing) persons. I was reminded of the highly problematic “missing white woman syndrome,” and how society retreats to silence when acknowledging Black missing person victims.

In 2010, Black Americans represented 40% of all missing persons cases despite making up 13% of the U.S. population. Truth be told, a pervasive culture of fear too limits call to action. Stories of missing persons of colors are all but completely ignored in comparison to other high-profile (white) cases. From Natalee Holloway’s carefully covered 2005 disappearance to the recent case of a missing UVA student, the overall discourse suggests that White missing people’s cases deserve more coverage because Whiteness holds a greater value in America.

Am I suggesting media coverage for White missing persons should stop? Absolutely not. No missing person should go unnoticed, and each case requires careful consideration and a right to visibility. However, I am suggesting we cultivate an inclusive language similar to that used with Carlesha and other missing persons campaigns. It is not a cure-all fix, but it does lend room for hope.

Consider the all-empowering #BringBackOurGirls campaign. First Lady Michelle Obama and other highly esteemed leaders bolstered efforts to return “our girls” (meaning 200+ schoolgirls from Nigeria) via social media activism. Of course, it takes more than a few tweets to spark lasting change, but the attention paid to the missing Nigerian schoolgirls was a start. The use of inclusive language (ex: the “our” in #BringBackOurGirls) indicated that our society does value missing persons of color. This was shown again last week with Carlesha’s rescue.

The use of words like “our” and “we” highlight that perhaps society does see people of color as equal, whether they are missing or not. All of which point to the biggest take-away on why we should care about Carlesha’s miraculous case: the acknowledgement that Black lives matter to more than just Black people. When we treat Black missing persons with urgency instead of as “someone else’s problem”, we eradicate the practice of divorcing Black bodies from their rightful place within mainstream American culture. Moreover, I congratulate America’s ability to restructure conversations on missing persons and paint Carlesha as everyone’s daughter, everyone’s friend, and most importantly, equally deserving of national attention.

Photo Credit: 6ABC

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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