Yesterday Miriam Carey, a 34 year-old African-American dental hygienist from Stamford, Connecticut, was shot dead by police after having veered her car into some blockades near the White House and Capitol building, after having gotten out of her car.
Ms. Carey managed to get out of the car, and was shot by several officers. According to a law enforcement official, she was not armed, and it was not known whether she presented an immediate danger.
There is a video clip of her trying to escape the horde of security people, while being pursued by a police car. There may be other clips as well, more graphic, more heartbreaking—but I can’t stand to look for them. It’s still not clear how much of this event was instigated malevolently or was the consequence of a series of misinterpretations, errors, or overreaction. Initially, media outlets were reporting that the woman in the car had a gun and was a shooter. Only later did we learn that Carey was unarmed and had her 1 year-old daughter in the car, who was not hurt. Of the exact story, I am not sure.
What I am sure of was the immediate leap made by police and the media suggesting that Carey had “mental health issues.” Yet, even though various sites ran with headlines suggesting that Carey was mentally ill, they did not provide any solid evidence of this detail beyond a mention by a former employer, a periodontist, that she’d had a head injury resulting from falling down the stairs and the suggestion she had a temper and was fired because of it.
Carey’s former boss, Dr. Brian Evans, told The News that she “fell down some stairs and she had a pretty significant head injury” toward the end of the nearly two years she worked for him.
The story uses Evans’ words denying that her firing had been connected to mental illness to imply the opposite conclusion.
When they let Carey go last year, “it was nothing related to any mental problems that we were in tune to,” he said. But Evans added that Carey had a temper, and he recalled how she became incensed when he asked her to quit parking in a handicapped spot at the medical building.
“She got very angry with that, so that started some friction. And then from there she was never insubordinate per se, or anything like that, but she tended to go against the grain a bit,” said Evans, whose practice is in Hamden, Connecticut.
The story goes on to note her Facebook comments about ‘wack men,’ and her presumably frustrating dating experiences—as if that is a strange thing for a single, presumably heterosexual woman to post.
On NBC, the framing of Carey changed somewhat, but the main impression was that she was still crazy and violent.
Dr. Barry Weiss, a dentist, told NBC Connecticut that Carey was working for him in January 2012 when she suffered a fall and missed two to three weeks. He said that she appeared increasingly stressed after an unplanned pregnancy. Relatives have said that she may have suffered postpartum depression.
Weiss said that he fired her in August 2012 after patients complained that she was too rough.
Her mother has confirmed that Carey had post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter a year before. It is certainly true that defense attorneys for women on trial for killing their children, such as Susan Smith or Paula Thompson, have used post-partum as the basis of insanity defenses. But defense strategies are a poor foundation for identifying post-partum depression with violent tendencies, unless substantial proof is demonstrated.
The fact that Carey is Black has “politely” been ignored, much in the same way that Aaron Alexis’s racial identity was not mentioned by most media in the aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting. In fact, when I heard about the Navy Yard shooting, I assumed that the shooter was a white male. My assumption was partially based on the conspicuous absence of any mention of the shooter’s religious or racial identity and the immediate dismissal that the event was connected to “terrorism” (which amounts to the same thing). As importantly, I knew that most mass shootings are committed by white men, as Mother Jones reported earlier this year. It wasn’t until later in the day, after his photo was posted, that I realized Aaron Alexis was African American.
In his case, as in the case Miriam Carey, we’re starting to see the linguistically polite meme (because every group has got to have a meme!) that is being ascribed to non-teen-aged Black Americans who are associated with violent events: mental illness. For male Black teens, they are still closely associated with inherent criminality, “thuggery,” and other violent, animalistic, and sexualized personifications. We have seen this for centuries. We still see it: from the slanderous superpredator mantle of the 1980’s, to the Central Park Five, who were convicted in the media as beasts and brutes, and the defense of stop and frisk by Ray Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD.
And still true to form, mainstream media reporters notoriously strain their necks trying to find a way to legitimate these stereotypes on behalf of the powerful and political authorities—repeating innuendo without proof—until they can string together a narrative that justifies the faulty assumption with which they began. And so, an unarmed black woman is again quickly assimilated into the meme of crazy, angry women who must have been at fault for the racial perceptions imposed upon her.
A longer, different, version of this article entitled “The Smearing of Miriam Carey: How the Media Bungled the Capitol Hill Shooting,” was published on Salon on Oct. 7, 2013.
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