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“WHY ARE WE NEVER THE DAMSELS IN DISTRESS?” COMMEMORATING MICHELLE CUSSEAUX ON HER BIRTHDAY

By Fran Garrett, whose daughter was killed by Phoenix police six years ago

Birthdays are a big deal – they mark the passage of time and set the stage for the coming year -- but for mothers who have lost their daughters to police violence, remembering the birth and the death can be traumatic.


This is why, for six years -- every August 17th -- I invite police, press, and the public to my home to celebrate the birth of my daughter, Michelle Cusseaux, who was killed by police during a mental health pick-up in 2014. It did not have to happen, and on Mental Health Monday, I want to remind us of what can be done differently.


For Michelle, and others just like her, I organize a large gathering at a local recreation hall, hosting keynote speeches by mental health professionals, supportive counselors who do intake for those in need, and yes—I ask the police to speak at these events. I want them to know the people who they will likely need to interact with, rather than violently arrest or kill during routine calls to homes.


Every year I commemorate Michelle’s life, and highlight the fact that living with a mental health diagnosis is not a capital crime – yet when police came to Michelle’s home, it became a crisis that resulted in her death.


When police arrived, rather than intervening on her behalf, and accepting her explanation that she was fine, a police sergeant ordered officers to force open a locked screen door and entered my daughter’s home. He shot her through the heart. 

His reason for shooting? He said he was fearful, based on the “look on her face.” My daughter was 50 years old, she had a history of mental health problems, and she was a Black woman in need of assistance.


I say her name in the same breath that I mention other women who are killed during mental health calls by police who are untrained and unaware that their fear of unarmed women might incite violent actions to subdue them. These victims’ only crime, it seems, is that they are Black and women in crisis. 


But why aren’t Black women in need ever treated as damsels in distress? We may never fully understand how, or why, Black skin and female gender strike fear in some police officers’ hearts, but we do know what to do; and I am a mother who can attest to the strength of those who are not fearful, but determined to celebrate the lives of our lost daughters who deserved intervention, compassion, and a trained response during police calls for mental health crises. 


I am a member of the African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName Mothers Network—five years old and growing—who insist on commemorating our lost angels’ lives, and reciting their names as a call for reforming police. We have achieved some success, for there is strength in numbers.


To quote AAPF co-founder, Kimberlé Crenshaw: “‪Black women with mental health diagnoses know they’re at risk of being killed by police. But that knowledge does not protect them. Since 2018, the list of Black women in crisis killed by the police has only grown. This is why we can’t wait.”



Law enforcement has a role to play in our daily lives, but the changes and reforms we seek as mothers and public advocates can ensure more lives are not lost. And today, we are making a difference.

In Phoenix, Arizona, we mandated a special squad of plainclothes police who are trained by mental health professionals and social workers, so that when they receive the call for a mental health pick-up, they are accompanied by social workers, and have a clear understanding of the purpose of the call, and the likely consequences of their actions.

The sergeant who shot my daughter used excessive force; he was placed on administrative leave; he was demoted; and he later retired—however, I continued to advocate for more judicial consequences for those who are found liable after using excessive or deadly force.  It did not happen in time to save my Michelle, but some mother soon will benefit from our actions.


This is a continuing battle for police reform which I and other mothers of Black women who are gunned down must and will advocate for.  I speak in concert with others who ask everyone to “Say Her Name” on Mental Health Monday, to remind everyone that Black women and Black people disproportionately suffer violence and death at the hands of police.

And yes: it is systemic racism—whenever police face unarmed Black women their first response might be “fear”—that’s part of our racial climate, I believe; but their second response cannot be violent or excessive force. It has to be restraint, and consistent training, and expectation that they will treat us as human beings.


I invite concerned citizens, the press and the police to join me in embracing reforms and addressing needs of those suffering loss and recovering from trauma: emergency assistance for those with financial demands; bridge loans -- we want to be financially independent and back on our feet again; scholarships, healing therapies, and childcare support for those demonstrating hardship. And, finally: gifting families with children to provide relief and a chance to be a kid again.


This should not be impossible, and could be borne by a caring community in the midst of crises. I am honored by the response of the WNBA to highlight Black women who have been shot down, and by donors who have provided real support in so many areas. Let’s keep that up! 


The time is now because the demand for AAPF interventions has exploded since the COVID-19 outbreak and the increase in police shootings. Every time I wear my #SayHerName t-shirt it reminds me that our daughters aren’t seen, and provides an incentive to others to recognize that their stories must be included.

Join us in honoring Michelle, and the lives of all Black women, girls, and femmes killed by police or while in custody during mental health crises. Please join us all as we #SayHerName!

Fran Garrett drew attention in August 2014 by marching her daughter’s casket from City Hall through downtown Phoenix, to protest inaction and lack of investigation into her daughter’s shooting death by police. It was days after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri.<