For Kimberlé Crenshaw, founder of the “Say Her Name” campaign, this felt like a breakthrough.
On July 25, New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon and Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart opened the 2020 WNBA season with a speech about the league’s season-long commitment to social justice. Besides dedicating the season to Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old emergency technician who was fatally shot in her home on March 13 by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers, the WNBA would be partnering with the “Say Her Name” campaign, an initiative Crenshaw founded in 2014 that is “committed to saying the names and fighting for justice for Black women.”
Hearing her campaign’s name spoken by some of the WNBA’s social justice leaders and seeing “Say Her Name” displayed on the backs of every player that day was a profound moment for Crenshaw.
For years, the campaign has pushed for advocacy and awareness around a simple and painful fact: Black women are killed by police violence, too.
“This is a time, this is a moment, this is a possibility that Black women can be at the center of the discourse rather than being erased from it,” said Crenshaw, the executive director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), on a Zoom call on July 30.
As the WNBA season continues, players intend to uphold that commitment, highlighting Black women whose stories never received national headlines or spurred nationwide marches, but whose fates did not differ from those who did.
“We will be the voice for the voiceless,” Clarendon emphasized in her opening speech.
Each week through the end of the regular season, players will spotlight a different Black woman who was a victim of police violence, while continuing to tell the story of Taylor. This effort was coordinated through the league and the new social justice council.
“The WNBA’s footprint is a game-changer,” Crenshaw said. “We’re no longer just talking about tweets. We’re no longer talking about when anniversaries come up, a handful of people actually recognizing these anniversaries. We’re talking about the awareness of a problem that always has to come before a successful intervention to the problem.”
To illustrate the disparity in the attention between men’s and women’s stories, Crenshaw points to the shooting of Michelle Cusseaux, who was killed by Phoenix police responding to a mental health call. This happened five days after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, commanded national headlines.
“It’s not just George Floyd, it’s Breonna Taylor. It’s not just Michael Brown, it’s Michelle Cusseaux,” Crenshaw said.
Mothers of victims have advocated alongside Crenshaw to ensure that the names of Black women, including India Kager, are not forgotten.
Kager was killed by Virginia police in 2015 while in a car with a person of interest in a homicide, Angelo Perry. A SWAT team opened fire on the car, killing both Kager and Perry. Their 4-month-old son, who was in the car at the time of the shooting, survived.
“Say Her Name is more than just a hashtag,” said Kager’s mother, Gina Best. “We’re ignored in the community. We’re ignored in society. We’re on a lower strata. It’s intentional because of the constant fight of misogyny, the constant fight of patriarchy, the constant fight even just to be acknowledged where we have a right to live.”
Both Kager and Crenshaw hope the campaign’s adoption by the WNBA can move their hard-fought message forward. Bethany Donaphin, the WNBA’s head of league operations, hopes so too, adding that the partnership with the campaign also serves as a measure of the league’s commitment, from both a player and league standpoint, in its advocacy for social justice.
“I think that the ability to have this open dialogue and this connection and this partnership with the ‘Say Her Name’ campaign … it’s showing that this is something that we’re not afraid to talk about anymore,” Donaphin said during the July 30 Zoom call. “We’re not afraid to reinforce the messaging around education and elevation of these women’s stories.”
Since the WNBA season began on July 25 and players debuted jerseys with Taylor’s name on their backs, there have been no further developments in Taylor’s case. One of the three Louisville officers has been fired and none of the officers involved have been charged. The Louisville police department and FBI are conducting their own independent investigations.
The lack of progress became a talking point for players as they weighed the option of continuing to focus on justice for Taylor or expand their advocacy to include other victims. They opted for the latter.
“We ultimately felt that while Breonna [Taylor] will still be on our [jerseys], we’re trying to still keep her centered, there’s just too many other people and too many other stories to not take the time in trying to highlight,” Clarendon said.
“We wanted to make sure we highlighted the names of other women whose stories we don’t know. Breonna Taylor has become the most well-known, a catalyst, the equivalent to George Floyd right now, but there’s Michelle Cusseaux, Rekia Boyd. There’s so many other names that we will use — Atatiana Jefferson — who got attention for a week or two and then her name disappeared.”
Clarendon, who is a member of the social justice council, added that she expects and hopes those efforts will continue through the WNBA Finals. She emphasized that the approval from families before publicly honoring their relatives was imperative for the social justice council.
The AAPF has helped to educate and provide the WNBA with trusted resources on the stories of victims the league wishes to highlight. The organization has also helped connect players with family members of victims.
After using the opening week of the season to attract awareness to Taylor, this week the league began honoring Sandra Bland, who committed suicide in a Texas jail days after being violently arrested for a minor traffic stop in 2015. She was 28 years old.
— Nick Angstadt (@NickVanExit) August 2, 2020
On Monday in the WNBA bubble, players watched the HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which was followed by what Clarendon described as an “amazing and candid” conversation with Bland’s sister Sharon Cooper via Zoom. Players asked about policies Cooper and her family are fighting, and how they could best honor Bland’s story and life.
The players union has also distributed shirts from the AAPF, which lists the names of dozens of Black female victims of police violence. Clarendon said the WNBA is trying to plan for a single day when the entire league would wear the shirt. Some teams have already done so individually.
Clarendon said many players have also been vocal about making sure the league honors Black transgender women who have either been killed by police or are victims of violence. In her opening statement on July 25, Clarendon referred to Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black transgender woman from Philadelphia who was found dead in a city river in June.
“I just want to make sure we educate people. It’s a very specific group being murdered at high rates. It’s a really vulnerable population,” Clarendon said. “It needs to be really intentional because there’s a lot of miseducation.”
The efforts of the league’s players, meanwhile, are being supported by teams. One team, the Atlanta Dream, has chosen its own lane to help amplify the campaign.
During each timeout this season, every score update tweeted by the Dream will include the name of a Black woman killed by police violence. The first score update of each game will be dedicated to Taylor.
“The direction of the campaign is to make it a conversation and to keep these women’s names alive and make sure they’re on the tip of our tongues all the time,” said Atlanta Dream public relations manager Kelsey Bibik, who came up with the idea. “This felt like a good way to do it.”
Bibik plans on continuing the timeout posts for the duration of the season.
Timeout: ATL 9, PHO 7#SayHerName: Breonna Taylor, an EMT and aspiring nurse, was shot and killed when plainclothes police broke into her apartment, unannounced, and shot her eight times in a botched drug-warrant execution. Taylor received no medical attention.
— Atlanta Dream (@AtlantaDream) August 4, 2020
As the league continues to honor victims throughout the season, Clarendon is fully aware of the unfortunate reality that to adequately honor each name would take years — and that the list of victims will continue to grow.
“There were just two trans women murdered last week,” Clarendon said. “That dedication for us is a no-brainer. We just have to keep saying her name, all of their names, all of her name.”