A mayor in Ohio has been slammed for describing a 15-year-old girl shot by police as a “young woman”.
Activists say Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther’s initial statement after the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant on Tuesday represents “adultification bias” – a form of discrimination researchers claim uniquely affects African-American girls.
“This afternoon a young woman tragically lost her life,” Mayor Ginther tweeted.
“We do not know all of the details. There is body-worn camera footage of the incident. We are working to review it as soon as possible. BCI [Bureau of Criminal Investigation] is on the scene conducting an independent investigation.”
Social media users quickly piled on, stressing that Ma’Khia – who was shot and killed by Officer Nicholas Reardon while attacking another girl with a knife – was a child, not an adult.
Initial reports said Ma’Khia was 16 but authorities said the teen was 15.
The Washington Post noted that according to a 2017 Georgetown University study, so-called “adultification bias” leads to adults viewing black girls as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”.
In the context of law enforcement, this perception “may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties”, the authors wrote.
“Calling a 15-year-old girl a ‘young woman’ is all too familiar to black women and girls,” Ohio State University researcher Sade Lindsay wrote on Twitter.
The Georgetown study also found that in the education system, this bias meant black girls were suspended from schools at a higher rate and were more likely to be disciplined for “subjective infractions” including disobedience, disruptive behaviour or fighting.
‘Children fight all the time’
Speaking to The Washington Post, Stony Brook University assistant professor Ijeoma Opara argued that racism and sexism meant that “we as a society view black girls as grown women who aren’t capable of being talked to and respected and protected as children”.
She said the incident on Tuesday was simply children fighting, but police responded aggressively due to racism and sexism.
“Children fight all the time, regardless of race, regardless of class level,” she said. “When we think about Ma’Khia or other black girls like her … they’re not given the chance to be in situations that could be de-escalated.”
Marline Francois-Madden, author of The State of Black Girls, told the newspaper that Mayor Ginther’s characterisation of Ma’Khia as a “young woman” made the incident sound like a dispute between adults.
She claimed that this type of language could have mental and emotional consequences. “It makes other black girls feel like they don’t know if they’ll be able to be protected,” she said.
Speaking at a news conference later on Tuesday, Mayor Ginther correctly described Ma’Khia as a child. “The city of Columbus lost a 15-year-old girl today,” he said. “This young 15-year-old girl will never be coming home.”
Ma’Khia’s TikToks go viral
It came as social media users widely shared videos posted by Ma’Khia on TikTok, as an alternative to the graphic viral footage of her final moments.
According to Newsweek, video from Ma’Khia’s TikTok channel, where she mainly posted hair tutorials, had been shared millions of times in the day after her death.
“This is how we want to remember #MakhiaBryant,” the social justice group Until Freedom wrote on Instagram. “Joyful. Beautiful. Adorable. Protect black girls. Protect black women.”
The group described Ma’Khia as a “young girl who had her whole life ahead of her”.
Journalist Miela Fetaw shared another video, writing, “Look at the art. Look at this black girl magic. Look at her joy! Look at that smile and that face. What a beauty. What a baby. Ma’Khia Bryant was just 16 years old.”
Podcast host Tracey Corder added, “Watched a few of Ma’Khia Bryant’s TikTok videos. She was a child full of life and possibility. She was murdered by the police and it is devastating.”
Police received a 911 call at 4.32pm on Tuesday, with a woman heard telling the dispatcher that people are “over here trying to fight us, trying to stab us, trying to put their hands on our grandma”.
The first officers arrived on the scene at 4.44pm.
Footage from Officer Reardon’s body camera shows him exiting his vehicle and walking up on an apparent confrontation involving multiple women.
“What’s going on? What’s going on?” he asks.
Seconds later, one of the women is pushed onto the footpath in front of him. Ma’Khia is then seen rushing at another girl, who is dressed in a pink tracksuit. She is brandishing a knife in her right hand.
“Hey, get down, get down, get down!” Mr Reardon shouts, drawing his gun.
He then shoots the teen, firing four times.
“You shot my baby,” a male bystander tells Mr Reardon.
“She had a knife, she just went at her,” the officer responds.
“She’s just a fing kid,” the man says.
A few moments later, one of the men at the scene asks why Mr Reardon opened fire.
“She came at her with a knife,” he says.
In body cam footage from another officer, the girl dressed in the pink tracksuit says, “She came after me with a knife. So he got her.”
The Daily Beast reported on Wednesday that Mr Reardon appeared to be a “military-trained marksman” and the son of the police department’s long-time basic training sergeant.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is now examining the shooting, and will determine whether Mr Reardon did anything wrong.
“The important step now is an independent and transparent investigation. We will assist them, but we will not interfere in any process that they have,” interim Police Chief Michael Woods told reporters.
“Our role is to provide them the information that they request. We will not provide input, we will allow them to conduct their investigation.”
– With Sam Clench and Lauren McMah