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Transcript from IMKC "When They See Her: The Story of Michelle Cusseau‪x‬"

Kimberlé Crenshaw: I’m Kimberlé Crenshaw, and this is Season 2 of Intersectionality Matters, the podcast that brings intersectionality to life by exploring the hidden dimensions of today’s most pressing issues, from #SayHerName and #MeToo to the war on civil rights and the global rise of fascism. This idea travelogue lifts up the work of leading activists, artists and scholars and helps listeners understand politics, the law, social movements and even their own lives in deeper and more nuanced ways.


In 2014, I received an email from my friend and mentor, Barbara Arnwine. She said, "You gotta look at this," and when I clicked on it, I saw something that I'd never seen before. There was a black woman carrying a coffin around Downtown Phoenix, Arizona with a few others, and they were all shouting, "Justice for Michelle!"


Michelle, as it turns out, was Michelle Cusseaux. Michelle was killed in her own home when a police detail was dispatched to her house on a mental health call. This was five days after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. Fran Garrett, the woman who was pictured in the video, was Michelle's mother. Fran decided that she was not going to let the world forget or ignore the fact that her daughter, Michelle Cusseaux, was senselessly killed by the police.


Fast forward three months later, we're all in New York City. This time we're protesting the No Bill against the killer of Eric Garner. We're in a crowd of tens of thousands of people marching, demanding justice, saying the names of Eric Garner, of Mike Brown, of Tamir Rice. And some of us started saying the names of Michelle Cusseaux and Tanisha Anderson, other black women who’ve been killed by the police.


The response of people at the march told us everything we needed to know about the imperative behind Say Her Name. Now a few people said that they were glad that we were saying these names. They were aware that black women were killed by the police. Some of them had been working on this issue. A lot of people were absolutely astonished that women and girls were also killed by the police. They stood in front of our banners, they took pictures. They tried to say each and every name. But there were some who were offended that we were talking about women and girls in this march. Some even asked us, "Where are the men?" Our response was, "The men are on every other poster. The men are on everyone's tongues. What we're trying to do is make sure people understand that when we march against racist police misconduct, when we march and demand the safety of black bodies, we are demanding the safety for all black bodies that are subject to police violence and that includes people of all genders within the African American community.


So, in that moment it became clear that there were two vulnerabilities that black women face. One, they also are vulnerable to police violence, but two, very few people know about it. Very few people know their names. Very few people mobilize around their senseless deaths. It's at that point that Say Her Name was born.


Kim Crenshaw: On this episode, we talked to Fran Garrett, the mother of Michelle Cusseaux, to get some sense of the backdrop. What was it that led her to exercise this act of political agency, even as she was grieving? What was her history of activism? She told us that her activism actually started way back in the 60s, working with the Black Panthers.


Fran Garrett:

Yeah, actually, this really goes back quite some time. Actually, I got started in Oakland, California years ago as an activist working with the Panthers. We started off with the food program for kids, giving the children of our community breakfast. Worked along with Huey and Loraine. That’s pretty much how I got started, way back in the sixties.


Kim Crenshaw:

So being involved with the Panthers, I would imagine that the threat of police violence did come up.


Fran Garrett:

Now if that’s what we’re speaking on, I saw a lot of police brutality in our community. Men, women, and kids.


Kim Crenshaw:

Women and kids as well! I think a lot of people might be surprised that police abused women and children. So what kind of police abuse might be common?


Fran Garrett:

It was just the way of life, the way they treated us, I’ve seen them verbally abuse us, physically abuse us, they would use certain people as examples for us to back off.


Kim Crenshaw:

What do you mean by that, “Used people as examples?”


Fran Garrett:

To maybe beat one, as an example for the rest of us. “If you don’t do what we say, this is gonna happen to you.”


Kim Crenshaw:

So let’s talk a little bit about your children. And in particular, your son.


Fran Garrett:

Yes, David [Cusseaux].


Kim Crenshaw:

Was he older than Michelle?


Fran Garrett:

Yes. Michelle was the baby. He was the middle child.


Kim Crenshaw:

And tell us a little bit about David.


Fran Garrett:

Oh God. He was a- he was an activist. Actually in school, he was an altar boy. Just an all around kid, good natured. He was killed through a drive-by in the early 80s.


Kim Crenshaw:

He was killed?


Fran Garrett:

Yeah, he was leaving my mom's home and taking a friend of his, his jacket. A kid that he kind of mentored. A blind boy and he was taking this kid, his coat home. On the way, he just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and was murdered.


Kim Crenshaw:

Who killed him, Fran?


Fran Garrett:

A group of men coming from Berkeley. Someone had done something to their dog earlier that day in East Oakland, they became irate, went home, got weapons, and came back and just started to shoot anybody they saw walking the streets in Oakland.


Kim Crenshaw:

So this was just a random drive by.


Fran Garrett:

Exactly.


Kim Crenshaw:

So let’s fast forward ahead to 2014. At that point you had moved to Phoenix, but you were back in California on August 14th. Why were you back in California?


Fran Garrett:

For a hearing to see if the guy who killed my- murdered my son, to see if they were suitable for parole.


Kim Crenshaw:

And what were you hoping to contribute to the hearing?


Fran Garrett:

This particular gentleman, I’ve seen him grow through the years. I had accepted his apology. Two lives were lost- this young man's life was just gone after years in prison. My son. And I had gone to the suitability hearing a few years before that and I recommended to the board that this young man continue about four or five more years in prison.

So this time when I go back, I saw a change, a great change, and I discussed it with Michelle and I was gonna recommend that they release him and she was in agreement with that, you know.


Kim Crenshaw:

Wow. So you are in California. You and Michelle had discussed that this young man who killed her brother should get a second chance and so you were there to advocate that he should be set free.


Fran Garrett:

Exactly, and offered to assist him because I know it's rough out here, with resources, referrals, and his re-entry back into society.


Kim Crenshaw:

Wow. What an amazing act. Here the family is not only willing to allow him to have a second chance, but actually affording him some assistance in doing so. So you're there in California, you're doing this and what's happening in Phoenix with Michelle at this point?


Fran Garrett:

Earlier that morning, her case manager from the mental health agency had called me and Michelle had not been on her medication.


Kim Crenshaw:

And what was she being medicated for, Fran?


Fran Garrett:

Bipolar Schizophrenic.


Kim Crenshaw:

And she was usually managing that diagnosis well?


Fran Garrett:

Oh yes, in fact, Michelle had gone back to school. They had classes. Graduated at the top of her class, and she was working. This particular time she had been laid off and that's why she was upset that day. And normally when Michelle would have a bad day or something, they would call, I would go meet them or they would bring her to me. This time I'm out of town. So they sent the police out to check on Michelle. Michelle was in her home, speaking to them through the security door, told them that she was okay. She didn't see a need to have to go anywhere with them.


Kim Crenshaw:

And what was the need, if it was a wellness check? They went to the place, she was calm, she was in her own home. Why didn't the encounter end once it was affirmed that she was okay?


Fran Garrett:

Someone else came to the scene, the sergeant.


Kim Crenshaw:

It’s hard to imagine that life can turn on something so unnecessary and at the same time so deadly as an untrained officer licensed to exercise deadly force on a whim, in a situation that calls only for compassion.


But Michelle’s death was far from inevitable. We try to imagine another possibility for her and for many others in “Say Her Name: The Lives that Should Have Been.” It’s an original play that I wrote with Julia Sharpe-Levine and G’Ra Asim earlier this year based on years of interviews with Fran, Rhanda, and the other mothers of #SayHerName. The play imagines the lives that these women might be leading today, had their lives not been cut short by police violence.

In this excerpt, we wind the clock back and hear directly from Michelle in a future that should have happened, one in which she survived because someone SAW her, juxtaposed with the story Fran tells, of a tragic moment in which no one did... Here is Ashlee Jones as Michelle Cusseaux and Sharon Debbie as Fran Garrett.


Ashlee Jones as Michelle Cusseaux:

It could have been a yellow, light day. Except my agency didn’t send a cab to pick me up, so that I could go to the doctor to get my meds. And that’s about the point when red washed over me like an unavoidable wave. I was still riding that wave when I called up the agency to give them a piece of my mind.


Household chores—the tedium, the concentration, the focus—they lighten up that red, release the noise of it. I can find myself. At the end, it’s yellow. I can deal with yellow.

I’d just gotten all of my tools out when officers started banging on my front door. Look, I’m about 5’6”, a buck twenty. I’m not a big person. I can’t imagine why they would think they need to send seven officers to my door. I’m in my own house. What kind of a danger can I be?


I opened my door wide so they could see me, but I left the security gate shut. “I’m ok! If there’s a problem, call my mother!” But they wouldn’t hear it. All this for a mental health pick up call. They go,

“Open the gate! Ma’am, keep your hands where I can see them and open the gate now!”


I knew I had to give them a sign, some indication that I meant no harm because there’s not much I would put past police and I have too much to live for. Any altercation with the police has the potential to go sideways for Black folks.


Sharon Debbie as Fran Garrett:

Time and time again, I have tried to imagine precisely what Officer Percy Dupra saw when he opened that door. Probably the face of a very scared woman. A very scared Black, gay woman. All the other officers there said she wasn’t angry or screaming or anything, that she was relatively quiet. She told him she was okay and asked him to go away, and he responded by forcing entry into her house and shooting her.


Ashlee Jones as Michelle Cusseaux:

I thought about the kids in the neighborhood, my nieces and nephews I like to play with and how much I’d miss them. I thought about mama’s pork chops and gravy rice, my favorite dish of hers that I always asked her to hook up right quick because I know it’s such an easy fix and it always hits the spot. Funnily enough I thought about Cory, my favorite newscaster who always kept me laughing when he was on TV. Cory is always out and about, traveling around the Phoenix area on-air, but whatever he was doing he was always a punchline. I didn’t want to picture Cory on the news talking about me.


Sharon Debbie as Fran Garrett:

He says that when he opened the door, Michelle was holding a hammer. Maybe, I don’t know. I do know that she was terrified. I do know that she was changing the locks on her door earlier that day, which is why the hammer and nails were there to begin with. He claims he shot her because the look on her face made him fear for his life— even though he was behind a screen door, even though he was armed, even though his fellow officers were standing right behind him.


Ashlee Jones as Michelle Cusseaux:

Finally, one officer made her way to the center of the group. Suddenly our eyes locked, and we took each other in. I was afraid, but all at once, I saw that she was too. Another male officer tried to interject, but she silenced him with a wave of her hand. “I see that you’re okay, this was just a mental health call. You’re not in any trouble.”

I was glad to hear it but my heart was still pounding in my chest. “Thank you,” I heard myself croak. “If you don’t need anything more from us, we can be on our way,” the young woman officer said.


Sharon Debbie as Fran Garrett:

Despite her schizophrenia, despite her slight stature, despite the fact that the police were there in response to a call for medical assistance, Michelle never had the luxury of being seen as a damsel in distress. Because of the look on her face? (Sarcastically) Because he interpreted her fear as aggression. Had she been a white woman, it’s hard to imagine— no no no, it’s impossible to imagine— Officer Dupra doing what he did.

Why were police officers with zero mental health training sent to her house that day rather than licensed professionals? She was in crisis, she just needed some help. You wouldn’t send surgeons into a burning building, just like you wouldn’t send firefighters into an operating room. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Police are trained to attack. Trained to kill. They’re not trained to de-escalate, to soothe, to practice harm reduction. A nail can only withstand as much weight as it was built to hold. Otherwise, it crumbles.


Kim Crenshaw:

What crumbled that day was Michelle’s life, left hanging on the whims of an officer that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and a system that didn’t care about the risk that an officer like Dupra posed to a woman like Michelle. When Fran wonders what officer Dupra saw when he saw her daughter, when she asks herself what motivated this man to take over the situation, the engage her daughter with unnecessary aggression—she suspects, she knows he didn’t see a woman in crisis, a woman in fear, but a body to be brought to heal, a problem to be solved.


Fran Garrett:

He decides to take her life, because of a look. He'd never seen her before. How do you define a look?


Kim Crenshaw:

How?


Fran Garrett:

I mean, I’ve never seen a person before- the officers there kept saying that she was asking to call her mother. Michelle was the type of person, she thought I could move mountains, you know, and call my mama. A neighbor called, was telling about what was going on. I ask her to ask an officer to come to the phone. And they didn’t.


Kim Crenshaw:

So you were on the phone when they are at Michelle’s home, and no one is willing to come to the phone to actually allow you to resolve the situation, and basically they’re telling you we don’t need to talk to you.


Fran Garrett:

Right, right. I was just wanting to speak to the officer, and like I said, it was a neighbor who had called me to let me know what was going on. A downstairs neighbor.


Kim Crenshaw:

Oh, my God.


Fran Garrett:

...that Michele was up there, and the police were out there. And then they said, “Oh my God, I hear a shot,” and then they wait and I'm saying, “Well what is it? I'm frantic on the phone and then they said they're bringing her down now.”


Kim Crenshaw:

I talked to Rhanda last year and I'm just so struck by how police in these situations so often disregard the familial bonds that mothers have with their children. You weren't able to talk to Michelle in the same way that Rhanda wasn't able to talk to Korryn, and you just have to wonder: what are they thinking at that moment about the value of life, and the value of family, and the value of your motherly bond? Not to think, oh, well her mother is on the phone. She can step in and resolve this situation without us taking this life.



Fran Garrett:

Right, right, right, and why was there a need to remove her from her home? She was calm. She had no warrant. I mean, why would the police want to remove her from her home?

Kim Crenshaw:

So here's a situation where the value of the person's life is less than the value of the desire to take total control of the situation, even if taking control of the situation means taking someone's life. I mean that’s just... it's mind boggling. I really think it's hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that a life can be so insignificant that it can be taken because of a look on someone's face. Because of anger, that they're unable to control the situation and because of a disregard of a mother's love for her own child.

And what do you think he saw? What was in his eyes when he encountered Michelle? Who did he see?


Fran Garrett:

She wasn't the damsel in distress, we know that, he didn't see her as being that way. Someone coming to assist, and that's their job to protect. He came in like gang busters, I guess he saw just a black woman, a crazy black woman, a lesbian, dreadlocks, he didn't want to take her shit. He was not going to take her shit even though she never said anything to him.

I can see a look of shock, a look of fright, to be afraid that all of this is happening to me all at once, and what have I done? I'm in my own home, should the safety of my own home. Now I'm surrounded by all these policemen and now this one is cursing me through the door, open the, you know, fucking door and all this, and he’s sick of her shit. He's not gonna take her shit. I could imagine the look.


Kim Crenshaw:

Of fear.


Fran Garrett:

Fear, fear.


Kim Crenshaw:

And you know, there are studies that frequently show the ability to read faces of black people, the ability to see pain, or to see fear, is often suppressed in white people. One could imagine that what he saw was fear and confusion and he interpreted that as hostility.


Fran Garrett:

They seem to think that we're angry when in esse