To be pregnant and black in America is to face a gauntlet of bad odds. From the possibility of substandard prenatal care to discriminatory hospital treatment during labor and delivery to higher rates of maternal and infant mortality than other ethnicities, it’s no easy task to bring a child healthily to term as a black woman in this country. Despite those obstacles, there are some things black pregnant women should, presumably, be able to do without threat, assault or injury—things like dropping their daughters off at elementary school, even if that drop-off results in a verbal dispute with another motorist in the school parking lot. The case of Charlena Cook of Barstow, CA proves otherwise.
A few things are important to note about this particular incident. First, a police body camera captured it, which suggests that officers felt the use of excessive force with a pregnant woman who posed no physical threat to them was sanctioned by and would be justifiable to their department. Second, Cook was exercising a legal right not to self-identify. ACLU SoCal attorney Adrienna Wong confirmed in a press release that “Even if an officer is conducting an investigation, in California, unlike some other states, he can’t just require a person to provide ID for no reason. Officers in California should not be using the obstruction law, Penal Code 148, to arrest someone for failing to provide ID, when they can’t find any other reason to arrest them,” she said.
Third, the Barstow Police Department not only stood by their officers’ use of force but also denied the incident had anything to do with race. Their statement, issued May 24, reads:
The Barstow Police Department continues to be proactive in training its officers to assess and handle interactions with emotionally charged individuals while conducting an investigation, for the protection of everyone involved. This incident was in no way racially motivated, as implied by the ACLU. Barstow is a racially diverse community as is our Police Department, and we affirm our Police Department’s commitment to protect and serve all of our residents.
Of course, the arresting officers didn’t appear to be interested in protecting Charlena Cook or her unborn child. Endangering both seemed like a reasonable decision because, in their assessment, Cook was an “emotionally charged individual.” But according to the video footage, Cook wasn't especially emotional when she began giving her statement to the inquiring officer. She was no more upset than anyone would be immediately following an argument. Cook did note, however, that the other woman involved was white. "I could feel threatened by her because she's white. She’s white and she’s making threats to me,” Cook tells the officer, after explaining that the woman said she would hit Cook’s car.
As soon as race was mentioned, the officer repeated a request for her to tell him her name and stated he would give Cook "two minutes" to confirm that she was legally obligated to furnish identification. But just as she placed a phone call and began to explain her situation to a listener, the officer grabbed her and initiated arrest. That's when she became emotionally distressed.
Cook repeatedly told the officers she was pregnant and the arresting officer’s response was that she should stop resisting. Once he had Cook in a police car, he said, “So you say you’re pregnant. Just go ahead and cooperate so we don’t have to…” His voice trails. Moments later, his colleague asks if he’s okay, but no one asks the same of Cook, who’s sobbing and bewildered.
The video, which is more than 11 minutes long, is gut-wrenching. All police brutality footage is. But Charlena Cook is a pregnant black woman whose condition was ignored so completely that her prenatal wellbeing and the health of her child were directly threatened. Just before the video footage faded, Cook was surrounded by male cops and not one of them expressed any awareness or concern about her medical state. If any case should spark national outrage, it should be this one.
Black women’s encounters with police rarely receive the wide-scale attention that black males’ experiences do. Barstow Police dropped the charges against Cook, but her case should still be forcing a national conversation about the methods police use to handle expectant mothers. Cases like these have definite racial implications, but they have gender implications, too.
Through viral protest campaigns like poet Aja Monet’s #SayHerName, black women activists are doing the critical work of amplifying the names and stories of black, female victims of police brutality. And as Natasha Lennard notes at Fusion, the erasure and decentering of those names and stories dates back decades. Charlena Cook isn’t the first pregnant black woman to be assaulted by police. She’s neither the younger nor the oldest black woman to experience racialized police brutality. But I hope hers is a name and story we’ll remember. If the case of a pregnant mother being thrown to the ground outside her daughter’s elementary school, simply for legally refusing to identify herself, isn’t evidence enough that our discussion of racially-motivated police brutality must be reframed to afford gender-based violence equal footing, it’s unlikely that any case will.
Stacia L. Brown is a freelance writer and mother based in Baltimore, Maryland. She blogs at stacialbrown.com.