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We Are Fighting for a World Where Ma’Khia Bryant Would Have Lived

Policing is never about care, and that is why so many are demanding that we rethink the meaning of public safety.

Ohio State University students stage a sit-in demonstration on April 21, 2021, in reaction to the police-perpetrated shooting and killing of 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant the day before.

Sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant’s TikTok is going viral. In one particular video, her eyes sparkle. For a cheeky moment, her smile is wide. As she listens to Bryson Tiller, she is styling her hair and reveling in her Black girl adolescence. Devastatingly, now, millions of people are mourning the loss and remembering the life of this Black teenage girl killed in Columbus, Ohio.

Nicholas Reardon of the Columbus Division of Police shot her four times on Tuesday. As many were celebrating the Minneapolis jury’s decision to convict Derek Chauvin for his murder of George Floyd while others insisted that a conviction would not build a more just world, Ma’Khia died in a local hospital. Her killing is a reminder of the urgency of the ongoing struggles against a murderous system that disproportionately kills Black people and for a world where Ma’Khia would still be with us today.

Protests started almost immediately at the foster home where Ma’Khia was shot. They have continued since — at the police headquarters and the Ohio State House.

On Wednesday, students at Ohio State University occupied the student union and held 16 minutes of silence in her memory before they marched downtown. They are renewing their demands from last summer’s student government petition — which garnered over 17,000 signatures — calling on Ohio State University to cut its contracts with the police department, to divest from military gear and to invest in student life. The campaign to remove police from Columbus city schools also released a statement condemning the local police and honoring Ma’Khia.

We still don’t know much about Ma’Khia, or even who called 911 from a neighborhood in southeast Columbus. In fact, most early reports about Ma’Khia misspelled her name. The only major things we know about this specific police-perpetrated murder are that someone called the police to report being attacked, Ma’Khia had a knife in her hand when police arrived and Reardon shot Ma’Khia multiple times within seconds of arriving.

Given these scant details coupled with the police body camera footage that shows Reardon shooting at close range into a crowd of Black people, many people have already concluded that the police acted rightly. A growing number of people are arguing that the killing of this 16-year-old girl is justifiable, even though the body camera footage includes no indication that the police ever asked her to put the knife down. The footage includes no indication that the police attempted to break up or deescalate a fight between children.

Proclaiming the killing of Ma’Khia as justifiable requires erasing the long and inglorious history of police violence against Black people. It normalizes police violence against and criminalization of Black children. More specifically, we must understand her death in the context of the recent history of the Columbus Division of Police’s interactions with Black communities.

Just last week on Monday, April 12, Columbus police killed 27-year-old Miles Jackson as he lay in a hospital bed in the emergency room of a local hospital. On December 20, 2020, officer Adam Coy of the Columbus Division of Police killed Andre Hill as Andre left a friend’s house. Two weeks before Hill’s killing, Columbus police killed 23-year-old Casey Goodson, Jr. as he returned home from running family errands.

In December 2018, a Columbus police officer killed 16-year-old Julius Tate Jr., allegedly for attempting to sell a stolen item — and then prosecutors charged his 16-year-old girlfriend Masonique Saunders for Julius’s murder. Masonique was not even present when police killed Julius. But the police alleged that Masonique was Julius’s accomplice, and prosecutors relied on that allegation to charge Masonique through the “felony-murder rule.” Masonique pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and serving a three-year sentence in juvenile detention for a murder she did not commit.

These are just some of the names of Black people recently killed and criminalized by police in Ohio’s capital city. It’s important to understand what policing of Black communities looks like in Columbus to begin to grasp why so many Ohioans are protesting and chanting in solidarity with Ma’Khia, calling for everything from police reform to police abolition.

The everyday violence of policing warrants our attention and frankly, our rage. And yet, it often feels like a steep uphill battle to discuss how police criminalize, target, harm, and kill Black girls and women all over the U.S. The hesitancy some folks have around mobilizing around Ma’Khia because she had a knife and was engaged in a fight is at least partially rooted in our collective inability to see Black girls as vulnerable and in need of protection.

This invisibility prompted the release of the #SayHerName report by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea Ritchie and the African American Policy Forum. It’s not hard to imagine a police officer responding to a violent situation involving white teenage girls in a less lethal way. We’ve seen video after video of police de-escalating scenarios with armed white people who are acting violently, even threatening the lives of police officers. But that’s not what policing offers Black girls like Ma’Khia.

Yet Ma’Khia deserved more than somewhat less-violent policing. She warranted care and investment. She deserved a full life.

Policing is never about care. And that is why so many are demanding that we rethink the meaning of public safety. Police do not make us safer. Police do not make Black children safer. Not at school. Not on university campuses. Not at home. As the body camera footage shows, police escalate. The killing of Ma’Khia is yet another painful reminder of why a growing number of people are focusing their energies on building alternatives to policing and demanding that we defund the police. It’s a reminder why so many people are agitating to remove the police from our homes, communities, and schools — and eventually abolish policing altogether.

Ma’Khia Bryant isn’t a mythical, perfect victim, nor does she need to be for us to unequivocally affirm that her death was unnecessary. She’s someone who forces us to contend with our values and challenge our continued investment in a system of policing that sees killing a Black girl with a knife as the only reasonable and effective response. The question we need to ask is not whether Reardon had the legal right to kill her, but rather: Didn’t Ma’Khia and the other people involved in the altercation deserve to live? Someone in that altercation called for help. We believe in a world where everyone involved lives to share their stories and their needs. We are fighting to build a world where Ma’Khia’s needs, and the needs of the girls around her, are met. We are fighting for a world in which Ma’Khia could still be making TikTok videos and showing off her hair-styling techniques. She should be here to see her video go viral.

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