By Jennifer Farmer
Ashaunti Butler and Laniya Miller, both 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, died on Thursday, March 31 when the car they were in dove into a retention pond near a cemetery in Pinellas County, Fla. News reports allege the girls stole the car and were fleeing police shortly before their death. While they may have made a mistake, they should not be criminalized.
In a world filled with racism, classism and privilege, it can be hard for some to see the girls’ vulnerability. Shortly after mentioning their deaths, many news stories mention the girls’ prior stumbles, including run-ins with law enforcement. All kids make mistakes. It’s part of growing up. For children of color however, the media sometimes attempts to make mistakes signs of deeper, pathological issues rather than a cry for help, or a rite of passage into adulthood.
In news reports about the girls, there appears no hint of the role of redemption and second chances. These girls were human beings and they should be mourned as such. In trying to make sense of the tragedy, we should look at broader forces at play.
By all accounts, Pinellas County appears to be rife with discrimination, especially for Black school-age children. In December 2015, the Tampa Bay Times found that due to school closures and policy changes in predominantly African-American and poor neighborhoods, Black children in Pinellas County were often locked out of educational opportunities. More recently, in April of this year, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights opened a civil rights investigation into the Pinellas County School District over whether the district systematically discriminates against Black children. Of course this speaks to possibly only one aspect of the girls’ lives. We have no window into other areas of their existence.
Yet, I mourn for them because they lost their lives at such young ages. They didn’t have a chance to explain their decisions. I cry for them because the media may never see young Black girls as victims deserving of mercy, but rather as spectacles deserving of scrutiny. I cry for them because their parents will never know what it’s like to watch them graduate, watch them turn the corner from teens to young women or witness them exchange sacred marriage vows.
I cry for them because some will never know, never care to know, their story. You and I have a choice. I hope we choose to #saytheirnames.