Gucci Podcast Narrator:
Hello and welcome back to the Gucci Podcast, for an episode to mark the launch of a special edition of the CHIME FOR CHANGE Zine, dedicated to the #SayHerName campaign, in collaboration with the African American Policy Forum and guest-edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
A daughter who was shot by police while her four-month-old baby boy was in the car. India Jasmine Kager. Say Her Name.
A sister experiencing a mental health crisis who was held down in her home by police and died as a result of their actions. Kayla Moore. Say Her Name.
A sister who died alone while held in solitary confinement. Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco. Say Her Name.
This episode features the stories of each of these Black women who were victims of police violence. Their stories will be told by family members who carry forth their legacy — mothers and sisters who are also contributors to the Zine.
We will hear from Gina Best, the mother of India Kager who was killed by Virginia Beach police in 2015; then Maria Moore, the sister of Kayla Moore who was killed by Berkeley police in 2013; and to conclude, Melania Brown, the sister of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, who died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail in June 2019.
First is Gina Best, a founding member of the Say Her Name Mother’s Network, and a tireless fighter for justice – not only for her daughter, but for all Black women and girls killed as a result of police violence. Gina reads her piece titled ‘Amputated Hearts’.
It begins with a fluttering… of the heart.
How does a Woman react when she learns that within a span of eight to nine months, her life will forever change, and she will become the Mother of a human being, separate from herself? Some women experience alarm, while others experience elation. Either way, she allows that realization to take root in her heart — while she ponders.
What does a Mother do… when she’s made conscious decisions and taken specific actions to ensure the life growing within her womb emerges healthy? She follows the intuitive “inner-voice” of her heart and takes multi-faceted, holistic steps for good care during her pregnancy.
What does a Mother do… when, for the very first time, she hears the rapid, rhythmic “whooshing” of her baby’s heartbeat through the stethoscope or heart monitor during the sonogram examination?
What does a Mother do… when the labor pains have begun, and she’s cognizant that within hours she’ll meet and embrace the special little one she’s dreamt about? She courageously rides the body-wrenching waves of each involuntary contraction, knowing in her heart that the pangs of her journey will eventually cease.
What does a Mother do… as she hears the first whimpers of her little angel moments after birth? She hopes within her heart that her prayers of health and protection for her baby have been answered. She then relaxes within her heart and releases grateful sighs of relief upon hearing the news that her baby is healthy.
What does a Mother do… when for the very first time, she embraces the precious, cherub-faced little being she’s birthed? She stares with mixed emotions of hope, curiosity, concern, and uncertainty, while her rapidly-beating heart is flooded with loving warmth and maternal resolve.
What does a Mother do… as she nurses, nurtures and watches over her little one during the formative years of growing, playing, sleeping, and developing socially in a world fraught with land mines between each of life’s “milestones”? She continues to pray within her heart that her precious child will experience the very best that life has to offer. She makes an eternal pact within her heart that she’ll continue to be a wise protector and “guide” for her child, helping her navigate life, every step of the way.
What does a Mother do… as her daughter approaches the teen years where turbulence and external attacks on her self-confidence are guaranteed, and will most certainly permeate her heart and psyche? She listens, steadies her heart, and reinforces her daughter’s self-worth with loving encouragement, coupled with the stark reality that life isn’t fair. Especially for Black girls living in a world that devalues them, upon sight. She reminds her daughter to be strong of character and fosters a heart of steel amongst people and amidst situations that will try to break her.
What does a Mother do… when she’s done everything within her abilities and her heart to love, nurture, protect, educate, guide, and to facilitate the desires, aspirations and dreams of her daughter through the years, and then she ultimately receives that call? The very call that every Mother dreads within her heart! The dreadful call that sends her heart into audible palpitations upon hearing the icy words: “Your daughter is dead. She’s been killed by the police.”
What does a Mother do?!
What does a Mother do… when in that flash of a moment, the ONLY thing she can see is her daughter’s beautiful visage? And then the vision of her daughter’s face morphs and becomes… contorted. Contorted with excruciating horror, pain, and fear as the fiery hot bullets from the police shooting her— piercing her flesh! Bullets from police with depraved hearts, tearing into the body of an innocent Black Woman.
What does a Mother do… when in that very moment, her heart is amputated?
What does a Mother do… when there are NO immediate answers or solutions to the persistent question: “WHY did the police KILL my daughter?!”
What does a Mother DO… when she doesn’t know what else to do in a world that INSISTS on doing NOTHING to prevent Black Women from being killed by police?
What does a Mother do?!!
Living with an Amputated Heart
My beloved, sweet, soft-spoken daughter, India Jasmine Kager, was one of the many Black Women who’ve been mercilessly killed by police, and then subsequently and methodically erased and forgotten.
India was also a young Mother of two little boys, Roman and Evan. She undoubtedly experienced all of the heart-felt moments of Motherhood that I experienced. Unfortunately, like hundreds of other Black Women, India had her life stolen from her AND her sons, and at the hands of men working for law enforcement whose hearts were amped on adrenaline while they carried out their murderous acts. Unlike India, those men were allowed to return home to their families and children! With callous hearts, they knew they would be granted legal protection for committing egregious, extra-judicial killings. It is with DEPRAVED hearts that they continue to prey upon and kill unarmed, defenseless Black Women.
With an amputated heart and crushing grief, I recall the dizzying confusion and nausea accompanied by disbelief, dense mental fog and torrential tears as I wrote India’s obituary and picked out her white casket.
With an amputated heart, crushing grief, spinning thoughts and buckling knees, I approached India’s casket as she lay for the viewing. My mind flashed back for a moment as I remembered my sweet Indy when she was a baby sleeping in her white bassinet. I leaned over Indy and kissed her forehead while wishing that her warm-hearted nature would miraculously return, and her heart would begin to beat again.
With an amputated heart, I struggled with the burning visual contrasts of seeing beautiful Indy laying in her white bassinet, then, and her white casket, now.
What does a Mother do… and why must we now live with amputated hearts and unrelenting, crushing grief? It is a question that I ask myself every day.
Like our daughters, we were violently forced into this excruciating space by cold-hearted killers, who have given NO consideration for our lives. There exists no amount of anesthesia that can numb or alleviate the pain of our amputated hearts.
With amputated hearts, we are forced to somehow endure and make it through the dark, oppressive nano-seconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years that have passed since our daughters and other Black Women have been killed by police with impunity.
With amputated hearts, we are plumbing the depths of our sorrow in a world that chooses to separate, defer and ultimately detach any semblance of legal justice for Black Women who’ve been killed at the hands of cold-hearted men.
What kind of heart does an individual possess when they stand by idle, inactive, and silent when a Black Woman is gunned down by police?
With an amputated heart and crushing grief, I observe the societal climate and ask why is it that the stories of Black Men who are killed by police are subsequently amplified and receive immediate public attention? Conversely, the complete opposite response is evident when it is discovered that a Black Woman’s life has been snuffed out by police.
With amputated empathy, individuals working for and within “the system” choose to continue regurgitating convenient platitudes instead of dismantling the misogynistic laws that support them.
People hastily make the defiant declaration that “This is NOT America” and “We’re better than this!” when they decry evil crimes committed against children, the elderly or other defenseless people. But what has happened to our collective hearts as we stand by and watch, while Black Women continue to be killed by law enforcement agents, unabated?
Our Ancestral Mothers and Grandmothers suffered with broken hearts while living in a world where they were assaulted, viciously raped, and impregnated, and then had their children literally ripped out of their arms and sold away by enslavers with hate-filled hearts.
With an amputated heart and crushing grief for my precious daughter and her little sons, I ask: has anything really changed?
Are you willing to examine your heart? Are you willing to step up, and make a tangible difference to prevent another amputated heart?
It was seven years ago that I received a phone call at work that changed my family’s life. As I rushed home to my Dad, all I could think was: “My sister is dead, my sister is dead, my sister is dead.” That mantra ran through my frantic mind as I tried to navigate traffic and while absorbing the reality that I would never see her alive again. I never got a chance to return her phone call from two days before, I never got a chance to update her on the latest family gossip, and I never got a chance to keep her safe.
In my dream world I would have received a frantic call from Kayla, stating the police were at her door. I would have told her to be calm, and that Dad and I were on our way. Dad would have arrived first, and would have urgently entered her apartment and instantly diffused the situation, as he did many times in the past. This situation would be no different. He would have escorted Kayla into the ambulance, as he did many times in the past. He would have explained she needed mental health services, as he did many times in the past.
In my dream world, Kayla would have lived.
She would have lived… to see the rise of #BlackGirlsMatter, and #SayHerName, and #BlackLivesMatter—the new awakening of social movements and social transformation that finally begins to embrace the lives of women, trans communities, and intersectional allies in the fight against racism and sexism. She would have seen the connection between COVID-19 and systemic racism as dual pandemics—both in need of attention from around the block, and around the world!
Kayla would not be content staying home, watching all of the chaos in the streets after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and so many others. She would gather her squad, and contact her Berkeley city representative, whom she addressed by first name only, Kriss, as they were close friends. But Kriss Worthington would try to get a word in, without success, because Kayla was outspoken and could talk circles around anyone. Kriss would, nevertheless, take up the cause as articulated by Kayla, and help lead the movement for police reform—today, if Kayla were alive.
But since she has been taken from us, we must advocate on her behalf for alternatives to calling the police when a person is experiencing a mental health crisis. Inviting the police into a tense situation can lead to escalation and increase the risk of harm to the individual in distress.
We, as a community, need an increase in the number of Mobile Crisis Teams in the East Bay. Instead of calling 911, the community should be able to access help via phone dispatch. A trained civilian point of contact in crisis situations would ensure police are not first responders, and allow the civilian contact to take the lead and interact with the person in crisis.
Unfortunately, killing a Black woman in crisis is becoming more and more common. For those who have mental health challenges, the constant dehumanization is debilitating. Mental health problems are seen as crime problems, which invokes violence through restraint and punishment as the “first response.”
The City of Berkeley has had seven years to implement change and have yet to get it right. Since Kayla was killed, we have seen minimal improvement. One hour of availability has been added to the city’s mobile crisis response, and police continue to be called in as first responders to mental health emergencies. This is not good enough!
Even though I feel contempt in my heart, my mind is still rational. I am here to prevent the next death, and I am here for all the families who have loved ones with mental disabilities. Kayla was obese, she was on drugs, she was poor, she was Black, she was schizophrenic and she was killed because these characteristics are all the cops saw. What the police did not know was that Kayla was a daughter. She was a sister, she was an auntie, she was loved by her friends and family, and she did not deserve to die that night. She did not deserve to die on that floor, left exposed and uncovered, while referred to as an “IT…” She was and still is an “IT” to police. That is how they see us. As subhuman. And that is why nothing of value has been done. The next “it” will receive the same murderous treatment by the cops.
In Kayla’s case, the use of force could have been avoided had the officer followed basic guidelines. The call was for a disturbance involving someone who was off their medications, and in mental crisis.
“Did that person assault someone?” No.
“Was that person clearly psychotic?” Yes.
But instead of asking these basic questions, the first thing the officer did—before calling for an EMT or even speaking to Kayla to assess her mental state—was to run a warrant check. All the training in the world cannot change the mindset of someone who does not bother to provide assistance or counselling to keep the peace, and instead offers violent “enforcement” to conduct the law. The role of police in addressing non-violent 911 calls needs to be eliminated.
We need alternatives to police responding when a person is experiencing a mental crisis.
Thirty-five percent of emergency calls in the City of Berkeley are mental health calls, and yet Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) has been trimmed down from a voluntary 40 hours of training to now a mandatory eight-hour training for all police officers who are in direct contact with the public. The police who responded to Kayla’s call for mental health treatment did not have anyone from the Mobile Crisis Team (trained mental health professionals) to assist with assessing Kayla. The officer ran a warrant check on Kayla, before she finally spoke to her, for approximately five-to-seven minutes, and then attempted to arrest her on a faulty, unconfirmed warrant that described a person with Kayla’s birth name, but with a different date of birth. The officer’s insistence on serving the wrong warrant led to Kayla’s death.
But Kayla committed no crime. She was not a danger to herself or others; her roommate called for help because Kayla had become agitated without her medication. And she had no one else to call. Previously, Kayla had waited over two months to see a psychiatrist in Berkeley, but when she arrived at the clinic she was turned away, as the provider was not available to see her.
Seven years later, I still hope for change. It has been a crushing, draining, uplifting and empowering exercise in patience that I pray will end with more positive results for others. What began seven years ago was a movement that gave a voice and humanity to a Black, transgender, mentally disabled woman named Kayla Moore.
We continue to fight for change, and create much-needed policy reform to mental health responses in the city of Berkeley, where Kayla lived and where Kayla died, unnecessarily, due to police negligence in a mental health call that went awry. Say her name.
My baby sister Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco died while in the care of the notorious Rikers Island in New York City on June 7th, 2019. Layleen was a beautiful, vibrant, and proud Afro-Latinx transgender woman. She was being held on a $500 bail she could not afford. She was only 27-years old when she died alone while being held in solitary confinement. These truths pain me every single day.
What happened to Layleen is a reality for so many Black trans women who are fighting for their survival. Her story reflects a blueprint for how many transgender women of color are harassed, targeted, profiled, and funneled through a violent system that for many results in death. This is the case for far too many who are barred from accessing sustainable employment.
My sister was arrested in 2017 in a sting operation for prostitution. Layleen had tried hard to find employment with no luck. She told me stories of going into fast food chains with “now hiring!” signs displayed only to be denied a job application and discriminated against for her gender identity. She turned to sex work as a way to provide for herself and be self-sufficient. This was important to her – to be financially independent. That is probably why she never told me or the rest of my family she was even arrested. If she had, we would have paid her bail and she’d be alive with us today.
This prior prostitution charge meant automatic lock-up for any other interactions with the police. So when she was arrested in April 2019 for an alleged altercation with a taxi driver, a claim made by the police that my family has yet been able to verify, she was immediately taken to Rikers Island. Shortly after, as shared in a report by the New York City Board of Corrections, there was a pressure campaign to put Layleen in solitary confinement simply because she was trans.
They put my sister in a box, alone, with her pre-existing medical conditions, because she was a transgender woman. Solitary confinement is a practice that isolates inmates in prison for upwards of 23 hours a day with little to no contact with another person for an indefinite period of time.
No human being should be subjected to this state-sanctioned torture, let alone simply for who they are. It is a horrific practice that is condemned by the United Nations and that takes too many lives year after year.
In a video released by my family to the press, it shows the correctional officers not checking in on Layleen for long periods of time. In one critical moment, video footage shows the correctional officers opening my sister’s cell door and visibly laughing just moments before she is pronounced dead. The thought of her suffering when she could’ve been saved will haunt my family and me for the rest of our lives.
The criminalization of sex work, rampant transphobia throughout society and in workplace environments, the targeting of trans women and sex workers by the police, the violence that is the prison system, and complete disregard of human life, all contributed to my sister’s death. We could as a society address the systemic barriers in accessing resources like safe housing, employment, and trans inclusive healthcare that otherwise could create safety for trans women like my sister. Instead, the systems we currently have in place took my sister’s life.
But Layleen’s memory should not be one solely of violence, she is not just another hashtag. Layleen was so caring and full of life. She would give her last to a stranger, something I witnessed many times over. Everyone knew her for her bubbly personality, her laugh, and big heart. She loved house music and dancing and getting on my nerves. Layleen was part of the House of Xtravaganza, her second family, and had many “daughters” she took care of. She was an angel to many of us, myself included. That was Layleen, that was my sister.
My sister was so full of life before it was prematurely taken from her. I will continue to scream her name, to anyone who will listen, until there is justice for my sister. I will fight until what happened to my sister doesn’t happen to any other person simply for being brave enough to live in their truth.
Gucci Podcast Narrator:
Thank you for listening. Discover more about Chime for Change and it’s new zine in the episode’s notes.