R.I.P. Sandra, Jillian, and Mayci

Another week, another shooting, and another incident of a hate-filled man walking into a public place with a gun to enact his revenge … on women. Except this last part of the story seems to be missing from much of the reporting on the most recent shooting in a Lafayette movie theater.

Last Thursday, police say that John Russel Houser opened fire, killing two women and injuring nine other people. Most news reports agree that Houser had a history of mental illness, domestic abuse, and violent behavior and that he had staked out potential movie theaters to target, obtained disguises, and made getaway plans (in other words, his actions were highly calculated). The New York Times mentioned Houser’s well known misogynistic views, noting he “had a particular anger for women, liberals, the government and a changing world. … Mr. Houser believed that women should not work outside their homes, and ‘had a lot of hostility toward abortion clinics.'” [New York Times, 7-25-15] The Washington Post quoted the host of a radio program on which Houser had frequently appeared, saying, “He was anti-abortion. … [and] had an issue with feminine rights. He was opposed to women having a say in anything.” [Washington Post, 7-24-15]

Houser did not seem to have any connection to his victims, Jillian Johnson and Mayci Breaux. But given his careful planning and ideology, isn’t his choice of two women as victims highly relevant? He did wound at least one man, Mayci’s boyfriend, as well as several other women (the complete list has not been made public). Will we see misogyny become a more central part of the narrative about what motivated this horrific event? Right now most major media outlets are focused on mental illness and access to guns – both important topics – but when is it also about gender?

This question has barely been raised in relationship to another horrifying case that has haunted many of us these past two weeks: the death of Sandra Bland. She was found dead in a Texas jail cell three days after being arrested following a traffic stop. The widely shared dashboard video from that incident showed Bland’s frustration at being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, and then police officer’s swift escalation to physical confrontation and violence. He commands that she put out a cigarette and then threatens her with a Taser, saying “I will light you up!” Bland’s family and many activists have questioned the official report listing suicide as the cause of death.

Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

With the loss of yet another African-American life at the hands of police or while in police custody, the Sandra Bland case has rightfully been situated by most commenters within the context of U.S. race relations. Indeed, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement frames the current conversation, we must remember the enduring legacy of systems of oppression (from slavery and Jim Crow, to housing, education, and capitalism). But I haven’t seen anyone talking about gender as one of these interlocking systems of oppression at play here. I wonder to what extent Bland’s arresting officer reacted so angrily to her because she was a black woman? He ratcheted up the tension and made their exchange about power, immediately sensing her comments as a challenge to his authority. We know that gendered expectations of behavior deeply impact all kinds of interactions, and I long to see a more intersectional analysis of police training, policies, and practices.

Of course the tragic deaths of Sandra Bland, Jillian Johnson, and Mayci Breaux are not just about gender, or gender roles, or even misogyny. That’s the whole point of intersectionality. We can’t separate systems of discrimination. They operate together. It’s just that too often gender is an invisible part of these power relationships, so naturalized that it goes unnoticed.

Our job is to notice. And to act. Rest in peace Sandra, Jillian, and Mayci. You will not be forgotten.

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