Three recent killings in the Los Angeles area have put the spotlight on the disparate impact of American gun violence on Black women and the lack of attention their stories receive, as the country reckons with some of the most intense spates of gun violence in years.
Both killings took place on weekends, a mere two weeks apart. On 8 January, California officials found the body of Tioni Theus, a 16-year-old girl who was found shot at a busy onramp of the 110 freeway. On 23 January, sisters Breahna Stines and Marneysha Hamilton were among four people shot dead during a mass shooting at a birthday party in Inglewood.
Neither incident received much coverage outside of local news, raising questions about which stories are elevated in the national spotlight and which mass shootings grasp the country’s attention. While discrepancies between the attention for white victims of violence and Black victims of violence is nothing new, community organizers and researchers worry about the message this phenomenon continues to send to young Black girls about their worth and potential.
“This image of a young Black girl on the side of a highway with cars driving by speaks to the invisibility of Black life,” said Nikki Jones, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley. “Black girls are contending with the messages that their life is disposable, and that’s an extremely dangerous message.”
Theus was born in LA’s Compton neighborhood. Family members described her as loving, caring and smart, and fond of playing golf. Her life was turned upside down when her mother was severely injured in a motorcycle accident and moved into an assisted living facility, they said. On the evening of 7 January, she reportedly told her father she was meeting someone at a party, according to the LA district attorney George Gascón. Hours later, her body was found.
Officials said on Wednesday that California highway patrol is continuing its investigation with assistance from Los Angeles police. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office suspects Theus was a victim of sex trafficking, and said court documents identified her as a victim of child sex exploitation.
But officials did not announce any suspects or a motive for the killing. Authorities did announce a $110,000 reward for tips that lead to an arrest in the case, a move Theus’s family and Black Los Angeles residents had been asking for for weeks.
As attention for Theus’s killing has picked up in recent days, so have comparisons between the reaction to her death to the killing of Brianna Kupfer, a 24-year-old woman stabbed to death in the furniture store where she worked on 13 January. Days after that killing, which garnered nationwide media coverage, police announced a $250,000 reward for information. A suspect was arrested on 19 January.
Like Theus’s killing, the mass shooting that claimed the lives of Stines and Hamilton initially received little attention outside of local news outlets and social media.
Family members have identified to me the two women who died in the ambush. Breahna Stines (in pink) turned 20 years old today. It was her party. Her 25 year old sister, Marneysha Hamilton, was also killed. Sending love to all those dealing with this loss. @CBSLA @Inglewood_PD pic.twitter.com/3dBIfVjAxX
— Joy Benedict (@joybenedict) January 23, 2022
Two sisters, Stines, 20, and Hamilton, 25, were celebrating Stines’s birthday on 23 January when multiple shooters opened fire, killing the pair as well as Teron Whittiker and Jayden Griffin, both 21. Inglewood’s mayor has said the shooting appeared to have been a targeted “ambush” that involved multiple weapons, including a rifle and a handgun. The mayor described the incident as the worst single shooting crime in Inglewood since the 1990s.
The next day family members mourned at the scene with flowers and balloons.
Yet the incident did not garner the national attention and condolences that other shootings with multiple victims have. Rather than it being a story about senseless gun violence upending lives, it has become a local crime story.
“The framing of these stories gives us permission to respond in certain ways,” said Jones on the different ways mass shootings are covered. “There has been a historical investment in the presumed innocence of whiteness and the presumed criminality of Blackness.”
Tina Sampay, a freelance journalist who goes by Slauson Girl, and who has been covering Theus’s case and calling for greater attention to her family’s search for justice said: “The differences speak to how we in the inner city are seen as disposable, and when these things happen they’re acceptable because of the environment that they live in. It all just reinforces the negative ideas about the value of their life.”
Stines, Hamilton and Theus’s deaths come after more than 18 months of increased homicides across the US, most of them perpetrated with guns.
Across the US, homicides increased by 30% between 2019 and 2020, the largest single-year jump in the 60 years the FBI has been tracking such data. In California, homicides increased by 30%, with 523 more homicides in 2020 than the year prior. Black residents, despite comprising 6% of California’s population, made up 31% of the state’s homicide victims.
Official homicide data for 2021 is not available yet, but partial data suggests the trends appear to have continued.
While most of gun violence victims were Black men, at least four Black women and girls were murdered per day in the US in 2020, according to the FBI data, a sharp increase compared with the year before. Homicides of Black women in California nearly doubled in 2020, with 99 being killed compared with 55 in 2019, according to FBI data analyzed for the Guardian. Los Angeles, where Stines, Hamilton and Theus died, led the state in Black women’s death with 50 of the killings happening in the county.
Criminologists are still trying to understand how much of the increase in killings of Black women last year was related to domestic violence, and how much is a part of the rise in community violence since the start of the pandemic. But advocates and scholars say the increase should be followed by efforts to address the factors that have long made Black women face a three times higher homicide rate than white women.
“Black women and girls are being murdered and I don’t think anyone is paying attention,” said Lawanda Hawkins, a Los Angeles-based victim rights advocate with Justice For Murdered Children, the organization she founded in 1996. “Tioni was a little girl, and they threw her body out like she was nothing. That cut up my heart,” said Hawkins, who has been a mainstay at vigils for Theus, Stines and Hamilton.
Hawkins said she has long implored city officials and police to create a commission that looks specifically at killings and unresolved cases among this demographic. But so far, nothing has materialized. “We need to be sending a message that they’re fighting for these Black girls,” she added.
“Right now, Black women and girls see that their lives don’t matter, and we need to let them know that your life as a Black girl matters. We want them to know they can reach for the stars.”