I’ve been pulled over for traffic violations just a few times in my life. Only once was I taken into a station.
It was a Sunday morning in Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago. Instead of sleeping in or nursing a hangover, I was on my way to church so I could do research for my Durkheim paper on collective effervescence. I went to pick up a friend and pulled up to his house by making a U-turn in a four-way intersection. There was no one around but a cop car that I didn’t notice.
On inspecting my documents, the cop discovered that my license had expired. He seemed embarrassed. Now he actually had to report me instead of giving me a ticket. He didn’t make me get into his car to go to the station. Instead, my friend was asked to drive me there, following behind him. In the station, he asked me questions and filled in a form. We sat in a room lined with benches. Handcuff rings stuck out of the walls just above the benches. I was dressed in a navy blue suit, for church. Out of the corner of my eyes, I watched a slow Sunday-morning parade of African Americans being brought in, in handcuffs. “Is that how you’re getting your dates these days?” shouted one cop to another, who was bringing in a couple of streetwalkers.
On that occasion, and most others, I was treated with politeness and respect. Usually, when I’m pulled over, the police officer almost acts as if he’s made a mistake. I usually get a warning, not even a ticket. There are some parts of the United States where it’s easy enough to pay no heed to one’s own white privilege, but the south side of Chicago is not one of them.
A few violations
The University of Chicago, where I attended college and graduate school, is bordered by predominantly African American neighborhoods on three sides, and the lake, on the fourth. In college, I never paid my parking tickets. Driving late to campus, I’d park in front of fire hydrants, down alleyways, too close to corners, and in loading zones. The floor of my car was papered with tickets. I evaded the famous “Denver boot,” but if one had been placed on my car, my father would have bailed me out with a bit of grumbling.
I routinely drove 15 to 20 miles above the speed limit on south Lake Shore Drive. The shoulder of the road was dotted with cars pulled over by police. All had black drivers. Whenever I was pulled over in Hyde Park, except for that one occasion, the cops acted as though they’d made a mistake and sent me on my way. I knew perfectly well that I was a beneficiary of white privilege, and all my white friends did as well.
Over this past summer, with the death of Sandra Bland, and the video that was released of her arrest for a minor traffic violation, news of other mysterious deaths, possible suicides, began to roll in. Four, five, then six African American women were found dead in their jail cells. Most had committed only minor infractions: moving violations, shoplifting, altercations. The kinds of things white women are less likely to get arrested for or, if they are arrested, are unlikely to end up in jail cells for. People of low income are often forced to post bonds that are impossible to pay. Tickets go unpaid because they’re unaffordable; warrants are issued, more fines are levied, and pretty soon you end up in jail, unable to leave unless you pay outsized fines.
This is the egregious pattern detailed in the US Department of Justice’s report on the city of Ferguson, MO, and that pattern is not unique; it’s duplicated again and again, throughout the country. The poor and the disenfranchised are used as municipal piggy banks through aggressive policing of minor crimes.
I was haunted by what little I knew about these women dying in their cells. I decided to find photos of them – not their mugshots but photos that showed them the way they wished to be seen. I started on a journey of collecting images. I found there were very few. My paintings are based on blurry selfies taken by women who lived precarious lives.
For their families, the stigma of suicide paired with the stigma of incarceration may have played a role in muting the instinct to memorialise their dead. There are newspaper reports of each death, but they’re perfunctory – maybe a brief quote from a bereaved spouse or parent. I’m reminded of the very different reporting on white victims of crime and on celebrity suicides. Elegies are dedicated to the special qualities that make up a person’s life: their hobbies, their personalities, the people who will grieve them, who loved them.
There are no publicly posted elegies for these women that I could find. All that remains are the photos littered about Google image search, and for these I am grateful. One woman, Alexis McGovern, 28, who died in police custody in St. Louis, MO, very close to Ferguson, leaves no photographic trace at all.
As I researched, I found more and more names, more deaths. In some cases, the details were not quite the same. One woman was Native American. One woman died in prison, not jail. Each day I go to find information about one woman, I accidentally come upon another case that resembles it. I came to realize the project would have to be open-ended and ongoing.
For the moment, I’m posting ten portraits I painted. I intend to make more. As I painted, I felt an urge to memorialise. I welcome more information about any of these women or others. My hope in the future would be to show them all together and auction them as a benefit for their families, many of whom have difficult legal battles ahead, as they try to learn what happened to make their daughters or their mothers or their sisters take their own lives in police custody or die suddenly when no medical attention was proffered.
This article first appeared on the Othering and Belonging website.