Black Woman Shot Dead by Police: Where Is the National Outcry?
Terrell Jermaine Starr
The day before Aura Rosser was shot and killed by Officer David Ried of the Ann Arbor Police Department in November, she was on the phone making plans for the holidays with her sister, Shae Ward. They were considering cruise destinations far from the frigid Michigan weather that was bound to arrive in December: Florida Keys, the Bahamas, anywhere south. They communicated throughout the day on social media, but that phone call was the last time Ward heard Rosser’s voice.
The next day, Officer Ried and his partner, Mark Raab, responded to a domestic disturbance call around 11:45 p.m. at the home of Aura Rosser, 40, and her boyfriend, Victor Stephens, 54, in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan and a liberal bastion about an hour from Detroit.
What happened after the officers arrived is unclear. Stephens has said he and Rosser were in a heated argument when he made the call, according to local reports. He says he called the cops to escort Rosser out of his home. When officers arrived, they claim Rosser “confronted” them with a knife. Officer Ried shot Rosser, killing her. Michigan State Police say Rosser was shot once but declined to say where. Stephens said she was shot twice; once in the head and once in the chest. “Why would you kill her?” Stephens said to local news outlet MLive a day after the shooting. “It was a woman with a knife. It doesn’t make any sense.”
It was the first police shooting in Ann Arbor since the ’80s, police officials say. But amidst national outcry about the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it barely registered a blip. Ann Arbor police have gone on record to defend the officers’ actions, but many residents are suspicious of the cops’ version of events. On December 14, more than 200 protesters marched down Fifth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor to protest the slow pace of the investigation into the shooting. Many were holding signs reading, “Black Lives Matter” and “White silence = white consent.”
The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on leave pending the investigation, which is slated to release its findings this week. Aura Rosser has been dead two months and apart from a few Huffington Post pieces, no national outlets have covered her shooting.
There are no reliable numbers of how many black women and girls are killed by police, but none of their deaths have sparked collective national outcry. It is not that people don’t care about them. Local activists took to the streets of Chicago to protest the killing of unarmed Rekia Boyd. Detroiters demanded justice for 7-year-old Aiyana Jones after she died from a gunshot fired during a botched Special Response team operation at the home she was sleeping in at the time. But not a single national protest followed.
Shirley Beckley, who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, helped to organize the December march and is working with other activists in the city to raise money for Rosser’s three children. “I think it’s important that [Rosser’s story] go national because all of these killings of these men,” Beckley told AlterNet, “and now we have had a killing of this black woman.“
Where’s the outrage? It is almost as if the collective consciousness figured that their lives weren’t important enough to cover.
Kirsten West Savali explains in Dame Magazine that, too often, black people become black men by default. She quoted Treva B. Lindsey, an assistant professor of women’s studies at Ohio State University, who said that such a gender-exclusive narrative tends to dominate conversations of violence against black people.
“Both historically and contemporarily, when many people working towards racial justice around the issue of racial violence, the presumptive victim is a black male,” Lindsey told Dame. “From lynching to police brutality, the presumed victim is a black male. Therefore, black women and girls are viewed as exceptional victims as opposed to perpetual victims of anti-black racial violence. Our narratives around racial violence, unfortunately, have yet to evolve into ones that are gender inclusive. Black victim = black male.”
There seems to be a protective guard over the dignity of black men that is never afforded to black women like Rosser. The New York Times wrote a feature highlighting #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. The viral hashtag was a response to media outlets using photos of Michael Brown posing in positions that suggest he was a criminal. Those same outlets ended up switching the photos in response. While the hashtag was an important act of social media activism, black women killed by cops rarely, if ever, receive the same treatment.
There was no reaction hashtag for Rosser when a local report detailed her drug history and petty criminal record. An MLive report states that cops were called to the home several times for “domestic disturbances” involving Rosser and Stephens. The article cited reports that “indicate crack cocaine was being smoked in the house.” Notably, five other people were said to be in the house when Rosser was shot, and none has spoken publicly. After making initial statements to the press, boyfriend Stephens has reportedly retained a lawyer and stopped talking to the press.
But Shae Ward, the sister who was planning a vacation with Rosser the night before she was killed, wants to talk about Rosser, in part to counter the impression left by articles Ward feels dragged her sister’s name through the mud. She admits her sister had issues with drug abuse, but fears publishing those details will strip Rosser of her humanity and suggest her death was justified.
“I didn’t think her past mistakes should have been relevant,” she said. “What’s relevant is why this officer used this kind of force and what happened. I want to know more about the actual facts.”
There are many unanswered questions about those facts. How close was Rosser to the officers when she supposedly confronted them with a knife? How quickly did they resort to shooting her? Ward also questions the story of Rosser wielding a knife in the face of armed police officers. Rosser was not a violent person, Ward says, and if she had a knife in her hands, Ward thought it likely she might have been cooking, something she did in times of stress. “I would love to hear that officer say what he was smelling in the kitchen,” she said.
Ward and Rosser are not blood relatives. According to Ward, they met in foster care at St. Vincent Catholic Charities Home during the late 1980s. Ward was born and raised in Flint, Mich., and Rosser was the big city girl from Detroit. They considered themselves sisters ever since their days at St. Vincent.
There was a funeral for Rosser on November 24 at Greater Grace Temple City of David, in Detroit, which was organized by her blood relatives. Rosser’s friends held a separate memorial on November 29 at Palmer Park.
“She loved that park in the ’90s,” Ward said. “She loved the connection to the earth, the aura around that area and the energy of the people who were there.”
When Rosser wasn’t in the park, she was in the kitchen. Ward remembers one of Rosser’s best dishes was pot roast.
“She didn’t like plantation food,” Ward said, laughing about Rosser’s lectures on unhealthy African-American dishes with roots connected to slavery. “Don’t have that stuff in her kitchen: Chitterlings, neckbones, ham hocks, pig’s feet. She’d say, ‘We have been freed from that, so we didn’t have to go back to eating that and we should have never been eating it in the first place.”
That brief burst of laughter was one of the few times Ward broke her mournful tone during our interview. “I have to get through the day with just my set of eyes and not hers,” she said. “That’s been my challenge since her murder. The fact that I am alone and I’ve always had her. That is what I would like Officer Ried to understand. She was my community. She was my world.”
Three weeks before Rosser’s death, activist Shirley Beckley said she attended a meeting called Lessons From Ferguson at the Church of the Good Shepherd, United Church of Christ where she said police officials, including the police chief, vowed not to behave in the same manner as law enforcement in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson.
“What they were saying is that we would handle things differently here in Ann Arbor if we had a Ferguson here,” Beckley says. “But they didn’t.”
Ann Arbor police declined to speak about the case when AlterNet asked about the shooting, citing the ongoing investigation by Michigan State Police. AlterNet left a message with the Michigan State Police but they have yet to respond.