May 28, 2015
“The outrage needs to rise on this issue of the serial murders of Black women here in South Los Angeles. There’s a mini-genocide that has gone on right here in this neighborhood. It impacts each and every one of us and it’s a shame that there are up to 200 women missing and as many as 100 killed and this whole country doesn’t know about it,” exclaimed Margaret Prescod, founding member of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders and member of the Global Women’s Strike.
In 1986, the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders demanded that U.S. federal authorities investigate the unsolved murders of Black women in South LA. Between September 1983-March 1986, reports concluded that 15 women had already been murdered. Over the last 25 years, the murders rose to more than 100 women and hundreds more disappeared. All of this occurred under the knowing eye of local authorities who willfully ignored evidence that a serial killer was living in South LA and neglected to inform the community.
Today, one man has been arrested but the community continues to fight for justice and demands answers from the authorities.
War on Drugs and the Criminalization of Black Women
The serial killer, referred to as the “Grim Sleeper” by the media, systematically targeted Black women ranging from 14 to 36 in age. The majority were poor, lived on the streets and many worked as prostitutes to support drug addictions. Like millions across the United States, the majority of these women were swept up in the crack-cocaine epidemic that overwhelmingly devastated Black communities building the basis for the US war against Black people.
In her book “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander details how the US War on Drugs directly correlates to the re-enslavement and mass incarceration of Black people which she reframes as The New Jim Crow. The 1980s consolidated the foundation for a war against Black communities manufacturing and disproportionately inundating Black communities with crack-cocaine across the country.
The War on Drugs has resulted in the deaths and disappearances of countless people in the United States and internationally especially in countries like Colombia, Honduras and Mexico where forced displacement, feminicide and other forms of violence related to the drug war continues to escalate.
For members of the coalition, these women’s stories and the lack of deliberate investigation on behalf of local and national authorities has been driven by the criminalization of poor Black women. Nana Gyamfi, attorney, community organizer and member of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, recounts:
“After the coalition was formed, they were told by high level officers that they shouldn’t worry about this issue because these were ‘just hookers.’ When the coalition brought up the issue with prominent pastors in the community, they couldn’t take this on because it was a moral issue…the moral issue wasn’t that black women were being killed with impunity but that they were using drugs.”
“Tales of a Grim Sleeper”
The truth behind respectability politics and the criminalization of poor Black women becomes blatantly clear in the documentary “Tales of a Grim Sleeper” by Nick Broomfield recently released on HBO this past April. The documentary covers the last quarter of a century struggle that has taken place in South Los Angeles. Broomfield uncovers corners of police negligence that implicates that police essentially sanctioned this feminicide in South Los Angeles.
By 1988, a woman had survived an encounter with the “Grim Sleeper” and reported her story to the authorities. The survivor identified his car, the block where he lived and detailed his physical characteristics for an eyewitness sketch. Authorities also recovered a bullet from a .25 caliber from the woman’s chest. The bullet linked her to eight other women who were murdered in South Los Angeles.
However, authorities did not to release the information to the public nor inform the community that Black women were being hunted, disappeared and murdered in their own neighborhood.
At one point, Los Angeles police officers even referred to these cases as NHI meaning ‘no human involved’ further exposing their dehumanized response to the atrocities against these women, their families and community.
The documentary also traces the life and history of Lonnie Franklin, a South Los Angeles resident whose DNA matched multiple Grim Sleeper murders dating back to 1985. Franklin was arrested in 2010 and is awaiting trial for 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Ten other murders are also pending. During his arrest, police found the photos of 180 women in his home. The whereabouts of these women are presently unknown.
With the release of the documentary, Gyamfi explains, “We want to let people know updated on the case but also look at other situations that have happened with respect to Black women, disappeared and murdered, in LA and around the world. Let’s look at what’s happening in places like Canada with the indigenous sisters there and what’s happening in Mexico. We want people to see the connections so that it’s not just about Lonnie Franklin. Even though it is about him, but it’s not just about him.”
Black Women’s Lives Count
Given recent mobilization with the national network of Black Lives Matter against state sanctioned violence after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the coalition’s affirmation that ‘Black Women’s Lives Count’ has found renewed momentum. The coalition “seeks to bring attention, justice and accountability in the serial murders of Black women in South LA,” and defends the right to life and humanity for the hundreds of Black women murdered and disappeared in South Los Angeles.
As Black Lives Matter continues to expand and other organizations with similar and earlier trajectories advance their work, the connections become clearer. Gyamfi explains, “Black Lives Matter is so beautiful and what we’re dealing with in the Black Coalition is so similar. It’s not just about saying Black deaths count and it’s not just saying Black death matters. It’s really about Black lives matter. The issues are not just about memorializing those that have been killed, and it’s not only responding and acquiring accountability for the murders of our people but also improving the lives of our people here and now.”
Gyamfi expresses, “Black Lives Matter is a call to ourselves, to Black people. Letting people know that our lives matter and not trying to request that the empire knows our lives matter because we know our lives will never matter to them. We have to matter to ourselves to keep these things from happening.”
References: Interview with Nana Gyamfi and transcription of quote from Margaret Prescod at event in April 2015 at the SoCal Library.