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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.