In the first week of December, as the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of Chicago police continued to grab headlines, McDonald’s killer, Officer Jason Van Dyke, was released on bail. To Chicagoans like myself, who organize against police violence, the swift fundraising efforts of the Fraternal Order of Police came as no surprise. But however predictable, Van Dyke’s quick release was yet another in a long series of bitter reminders that this system freely indulges those who take Black lives, so long as those individuals wear a badge.
What troubled me most as these events unfolded was the contrast between the prompt restoration of Van Dyke’s freedom and the pretrial incarceration of those who have committed actual crimes of survival, many of whom receive little, if any, public support.
As I struggled with this contradiction, one name in particular continuously echoed in my mind: the name of an abuse survivor who freed herself from a cycle of domestic violence only to be plunged into the abuse of the carceral system – a Black woman, who had no reason to believe that Chicago’s corrupt, racist, violent police force would offer anything but an added threat to her well-being if summoned. She is a woman who society itself has failed, with its inability to provide safe harbor to so many survivors of abuse.
Her name is Naomi Freeman.
As heads roll, with the city’s chief of police, chief of detectives and others finding themselves out of a job, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel throwing every official within grabbing distance under the bus to save himself, Naomi Freeman sits in Cook County Jail for doing what the system would not. She saved herself from a man who consistently brutalized her, and who easily could have been the cause of her death had she not taken his life instead. While some will say that Naomi could have escaped her fate without committing an act of violence, those familiar with the realities of domestic violence know that a woman is never at greater risk of being killed by her abuser than when she attempts to leave. And with police all too often arresting victims, or even killing those whose safety they are called upon to ensure, Naomi had few choices, and no reason to believe that anyone would step forward to assist her, should she be able to escape for long enough to call 911. She was bruised and battered in a world that places little value on Black lives, and pays only scant attention to the brutalization of Black women.
Police do not protect marginalized people from violence. They are part and parcel of the violence that we fear.
While my city’s most sensationalized troubles are now being viewed on a national stage, with the US Department of Justice poised to pick through the details of police violence and corruption in Chicago, little attention has being paid to people like Naomi, who have not been killed, but who have nonetheless had their lives destroyed by a violent system. For years, Chicago officials have blamed Chicago’s most vulnerable communities for failing to cooperate with police in the wake of violence, and in recent months, have even blamed activists for watching the police too closely, and thus causing them to hesitate in their duties. But the truth that is now becoming clear to many for the first time has long been clear to those of us who live and work in the margins: Police do not protect marginalized people from violence. They are part and parcel of the violence that we fear.
Like many women who are penalized for acting in their own defense, Naomi had been brutalized for years by her partner. On the day that she took action to end the threat that he posed to her survival, and the well-being of her children, witnesses confirm that her boyfriend had grabbed Naomi’s hair and dragged her from her car, before beating her and punching her in the face no less than 20 times. She was pregnant at the time of the attack, and her health was compromised by lupus. The beating easily could have ended her life, and the life of her unborn child. Upon managing to free herself, Naomi allegedly struck her abuser with the car from which he had pulled her.
And now, six months later, as the country fixes its eyes on a white police officer who moves freely about our city after firing 16 shots into the body of a young Black man, Naomi sits in Cook County Jail with her bond unpaid, coping with chronic illness and hoping that she will be able to give birth to her child outside of a carceral facility. Van Dyke, with the support of a police force that is known for protecting its own, regardless of their crimes or the evidence against them, is awaiting trial in the comfort of his own home.
White police officers are rarely penalized for killing Black people – or anyone else for that matter – but Black women like Naomi are frequently punished for choosing to survive. Both Van Dyke and Naomi were charged with first-degree murder, despite the starkly different circumstances of their cases. As I’ve pondered these contradictions in recent days, my heart has been heavy. Van Dyke’s cohorts will defend him at all costs, and support him financially no matter what. But the same society that never had Naomi’s back continues to fail her now.
That has to change.
So as we take in the drama that is currently unfolding in Chicago, and rightly express our outrage and disgust over the murder of Laquan McDonald, and the citywide corruption that has long protected police like Officer Van Dyke, we must also extend our love, generosity and empathy to those whose lives are being crushed by this system of oppression in real time. No matter what happens to Van Dyke, there will never be true justice for Laquan McDonald because nothing can bring him back. His family will never again be able to throw their arms around him or enjoy a holiday with him by their side. He will never know the love and laughter that might have lay ahead of him, and we will never know who he might have become if his life had not been cut short by a policeman’s bullet.
But the legal lynching of Naomi Freeman has not run its course. Naomi could be home for the holidays. She could be reunited with her mother and children and give birth to her child in safety, with loved ones by her side. She could walk through the world unafraid that the man who tormented and abused her will return to end her life, and without the violence of incarceration compounding her suffering. And that process can begin now.
Lifted Voices, an organization that I helped cofound this year, is committed to the cultural, political and personal self-defense of women and non-binary people of color. We believe that Naomi’s case is especially important, at this heated moment in our city, because it provides us with an opportunity to live up to a banner that many of us have lifted up in the past year: one that declares that Black lives matter. It is not enough to insist upon such a principle after those lives have been extinguished. We must admit the complexities and contradictions that lead to so much Black death in our streets, and to so many Black bodies being thrust into cages. It is the system – not victims – that should be held accountable for offering marginalized women so little recourse. We must put our beliefs into action, whether the story at hand has made headlines or not, and reject notions of respectability when it comes to who we deem worthy of protection.
We must free Naomi Freeman.
Toward that end, Lifted Voices is partnering with Chicago’s Community Bond Fund, Project NIA and a number of other organizations to raise the money needed to bring Naomi home for the holidays. It’s a tall order. Given the severity of the charge against Naomi, $35,000 must be raised to accomplish this goal within the next two weeks. But it can be done.
Naomi will no doubt need continued support upon being released on bond, and the fight to free other women who’ve been similarly persecuted will no doubt be a long and difficult one. But in spite of how daunting or lengthy these battles may prove, we believe this work is essential to the kind of transformation our society desperately needs. Until we live in a world that does not require activists to dedicate themselves to the defense of women living in a culture of brutality and rape, we must marshal every resource and every ounce of strength to assert the value of Black and Brown lives.
We cannot pay our debt to those who have perished because of our societal failures without affirming the value of those who have survived. We cannot claim to value Black lives unless we acknowledge that Black women have a right to ensure their own survival. As Chicago organizer Mariame Kaba has repeatedly articulated, women of color in the United States have never been treated as though they have selves to defend. The dehumanization that has plagued Black and Brown women since this country’s beginnings must be fought, and we can fight it now, by bringing Naomi home.
We plan to succeed in this effort, and when Naomi walks out of Cook County Jail, into the arms of those who love her, I intend to be there, carrying the intentions of all those who are willing to rally in her name.
In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer updates on Naomi’s case, and the efforts that are underway to free and defend her. For now, I would like to leave you with a few of Naomi’s own words, written for the outside world to hear as she sits in Cook County Jail:
“Someday I will need to explain to my kids why they don’t have their father. I never meant to hurt him that day; I only acted in fear for my life. I have to forgive myself, but not for surviving, and I don’t think I should be punished for defending my life. I have to get home to my kids as soon as I can and be the best mother I can be. I need a second chance at life for them and for myself.”