Safe? at Home?


In the past few weeks, I have been writing about black death as spectacle focussing on the recent, very public, murders of black men by law enforcement that have been captured on cell phones. When contributors to the Feminist Review blog series on ‘Confronting the Household’  questioned how the ‘household has so quickly become normalised as part of the discourse about Covid-19’, I thought about how black households have been invaded with impunity by increasingly militarised police forces on both sides of the Atlantic, SWAT teams in the USA, SCO19 units in the UK. To me the blog page looked like a wall, a space on which I could post brief memorials to a few of the black women who have been killed by police officers out of sight in the space designated as home. These lives and deaths should matter and be acknowledged in the context of current protest.

Prologue to a Memorial

When we were children my mother told us that if we were ever lost, or in trouble, or felt unsafe we should find a police officer, a friendly British bobby, and ‘he’ would help us and bring us home. I learnt at a very young age that the police were antagonists, they did not make me feel safe then and they do not make me feel safe now. Riding my bike in my neighbourhood of Mitcham, looking out for my little brother riding alongside me on his tricycle, the police harassed us as niggers who should go home. By home they did not mean returning to the house where we lived but to the country we came from. We were both born in Britain, my brother was born a mile away in Streatham, I was born in Devon. We never could figure out what country they were telling us to go to. 

Our mother was white and had grown up believing that the police offered protection. Like Amy Cooper, she took for granted that the powers of law enforcement were at her beck and call. This was a belief it was very difficult to dislodge even though the police (and most of the population) dismissed her right to protection because she was a ‘nigger lover’. My mother crossed a line when she married a black man, she betrayed her ‘race’ and became an outcast. She discovered when she was pregnant that no one would rent rooms or a house to them, that racist common sense determined they should not make a ‘home’ together. When the house they eventually purchased was vandalised by racists who left faeces as calling cards on the beds and smeared on the walls, my mother called the police believing they would offer help and protection. But the police did not consider the bricks and mortar of the terraced building in which we lived a ‘home’, or inviolable: they literally did not give a shit about deposits of fascist shit. It was nothing less than she (we) deserved. But it was almost impossible to shift my mother’s dogmatic belief that the police should offer assistance if called upon.

As a high-school teacher in the London Borough of Newham in the seventies I also had to be an anti-racist organiser in and out of the classroom. The police were among the most forceful racists we faced and fought, they defended and protected the aggressive violence of the National Front. On the local council estate my black students and their families learnt that they should not feel ‘at home’ or safe in their flats through a variety of forms of intrusion. Missives of hatred were delivered in the form of bricks propelled through windows and faeces through letter boxes. What is it with racists and their faeces?

And then, on 17 January, 1981, there was the fire in a home in New Cross in which thirteen black teenagers died. On 2 March over 20,000 of us marched through London on the Black People’s Day of Action in protest against the indifference of the Metropolitan Police, the British press and politicians, against their disregard for black life and death. ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’.

In response, in April the police launched ‘Operation Swamp’, a ten-day invasion of Brixton which was a culmination of the stop and search operations and raids on black homes and meeting places that had intensified throughout the past decade. Brixton exploded in protest as St Paul’s in Bristol had a year earlier. 


Banner held up at a Black Lives Matter event in the UK. Image shared by the Racial Justice Network

An important part of the current protest movements is activating an awareness that ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the context of a history of injury and death at the hands of those sanctioned to discipline, control and incarcerate, to enforce laws that do not protect us, to regulate inequality, perpetuate injustice and maintain white supremacy. Long before ‘Operation Swamp’ British police invaded black ‘households’ without compunction and with little or no redress. If the inhabitants remain unscathed, and many do not, then they usually leave behind them broken pipes and other structural damage in an attempt to render the ‘home’ uninhabitable. In the USA SWAT teams invade homes on ‘no-knock’ warrants.            

If we take account of this history then being ‘at home’ and assuming that ‘home’ is a safe space, a sanctuary, is a privilege of those who do not live under threat, whose lives are not precarious or vulnerable to abuse by individuals or the state. Home for many is neither safe nor secure; here are a few of them.

28 September 1985, Brixton.

Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce. Image credit: Wasi Daniju under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dorothy (Cherry) Groce, 37, was shot in her chest while lying in bed by Metropolitan police in a raid at her home in the early hours. The bullet penetrated her lung and went through her spine. Metropolitan Police Inspector Douglas Lovelock stood trial in 1987 charged with inflicting unlawful and malicious grievous bodily harm. He was acquitted. Permanently paralysed, Groce spent two years in hospital and rehab and twenty-six years in a wheelchair. After her death in 2011 a postmortem found metal fragments from the bullet still lodged in the base of her spine.

5 October 1985, Broadwater Farm, Tottenham.

A week after the death of Dorothy Groce, Cynthia Jarret, 49, collapsed and died from a heart attack when four police officers raided her home looking for her son. During the coroner’s inquest into Mrs Jarret’s death, her daughter, Patricia stated that she saw one of the officers, D.C. Randle, push her mother which caused her to fall.

28 July 1993, Crouch End.

Joy Gardner. Image credit: 4WardEver UK under CC BY 2.0

Five police officers from Hornsey police station and an official from the UK Immigration Service raided Joy Gardner’s home with orders to ‘detain and remove’ her and her 5-year-old son for immediate deportation to Jamaica. The officers used a four-inch wide restraint belt with attached handcuffs and leather straps, to restrain and shackle her around her thighs and ankles. Gagged, with thirteen foot of adhesive tape wrapped around her head and face, she suffered respiratory failure and was transported to hospital. Official records state Joy Gardner died of cerebral hypoxia and cardiac arrest on 1 August 1993. Her family believe she was killed on 28 July at home and a postmortem carried out on their behalf concluded Joy Gardner was suffocated. Three police officers were charged with manslaughter and acquitted.

Home. Land. Security. USA

13 March, 2020 Louisville Kentucky.

An event marking Breonna Taylor’s birthday. Image credit: ken fager under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Breonna Shaquille Taylor, 26, was a licensed emergency medical technician (EMT) for the city. Narcotics detectives raided her house just after midnight on a no-knock warrant looking for a drug trafficker who lived miles away. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Warren were in bed but got up when they heard the sound of a battering ram breaking down their door and people entering their apartment. Taylor and Warren did not hear any announcement of their presence by the police. Warren thought they were intruders and fired what he called a low ‘warning shot’. The police blindly fired twenty-five bullets and Breonna Taylor was shot eight times.   No drugs were found. Walker was initially charged with attempted murder of a police officer but this charge was dismissed.

12 October, 2019, Fort Worth Texas.

Atatiana Koquice Jefferson. Image credit: unknown

Atatiana Koquice Jefferson, 28 years old, shot and killed in her home in the early hours after a neighbour made a non-emergency call to the police saying the door to Jefferson’s house was open. Body cam footage showed two police officers walking around the side of her home and one, Aaron Dean entered her backyard. Jefferson went to the widow and when Dean saw her face he yelled ‘put your hands up’ and immediately fired through the window. Jefferson was pronounced dead at the scene. Dean was charged with murder and subsequently indicted.

18 October, 2016, New York City.

Deborah Danner. Image shared by Black Past

Deborah Danner, 66, was shot twice and killed by police Sergeant Hugh Barry, NYPD in her apartment. Danner suffered from schizophrenia about which she had written eloquently. In her essay she worried about what would happen if her medication failed her and asked, ‘Is that a delusion, I ask myself, my belief that I am worthy of respect and a “normal” happy life?’ Neighbors called 911 because, they said, Danner was acting erratically. According to the testimony of an EMT Brittney Mullings, she was trying to explain why they were there in her apartment when Barry arrived and Danner retreated into her bedroom. Mullings recounted that six police officers followed Danner and then there were shots. Jennifer Danner, Deborah’s sister, sued and New York City agreed to a $2million dollar settlement. Sergeant Barry, who was eventually charged with murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide was acquitted by a judge in a non-jury trial in February 2018.

4 January 2008 Lima, Ohio.

Tarika Wilson. Image shared by Black Past

Clutching her 14-month-old son in her arms Tarika Wilson, 26 years old,sought shelter in her bedroom with her other children when the police raided her house smashing down the front door apparently looking for her boyfriend. Officers shot two of their dogs and a third office, Joseph Chavalia, fired blindly into the bedroom killing Wilson instantly and injuring the child in her arms. Residents testified to years of abuse at the hands of the Lima police department. Several protest marches and a visit by Jessie Jackson followed urging the prosecution of Officer Chavalia. Wilson’s family brought a wrongful death suit against the city of Lima which settled for $2.5million but in August 2008, an all-white jury acquitted Joseph Chavalia of criminal charges. The ACLU referred to the killing of Tarika Wilson in their 2014 report, War Comes Home, an indictment of the excessive militarisation of policing in the United States with no public oversight and of SWAT deployment to execute search warrants which ‘revealed stark, often extreme racial disparities’.

29 October, 1984 New York City.

Eleanor Bumpurs, elderly, disabled and mentally ill was shot and killed in her home. The NYPD had been called by housing authority workers who said Bumpers was resisting eviction for non-payment of rent and had a knife. An emergency service unit was unable to get her to open the door so police broke it down, Bumpurs resisted restraint. Police officer Stephen Sullivan shot her hand off with a twelve-gauge pump shotgun, then shot her again in the chest. Charged with second degree manslaughter, Sullivan was acquitted by a judge two years after Bumpurs was killed. Eventually two social service workers were demoted for not obtaining an emergency rent grant for her and for failing to provide her with psychiatric aid.

Hazel V. Carby is author of Imperial Intimacies, A Tale of Two Islands, (Verso, 2019) a history of the violent entanglements of British empire, told through a search through generations of family stories. She is the Charles C. and Dorothea S. Dilley Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and Professor Emeritus of American Studies, Yale University. Her other books include, Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America (1999); Race Men (1998); and Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987). The recipient of the Stuart Hall Outstanding Mentor Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association, 2019, and the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for lifetime achievement in American Literature, 2016, her current project is Black Futurities, beyond the limits of the human.

Main image: #SayHerName Campaign, AAPF

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