In 1998, the women’s unit of the Organization for Black Struggle read a piece by feminist bell hooks as part of our political education session. It totally changed our outlook about being black women. Inspired, we named ourselves Sistahs Talkin’ Back. I’ve been thinking about hook’s “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black” since standing on the steps of the Carnahan Courthouse with six resilient black women from around the country.
A quote in the chapter “Talking Back” puts the public service experiences of these fiercely committed sistahs into sharp view: “those who stand and struggle side by side is a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible.” That talking back is more than a “gesture of empty words.” It is the “liberated voice.”
Since taking office nearly four years ago, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner has been forced to expend valuable resources – time, money and opportunities – to defend herself personally and professionally. This sounded all too familiar to Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton; Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy; Portsmouth, Virginia, Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales; Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida State’s Attorney Aramis Ayala; and Suffolk County, Massachusetts District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
The women came in an unapologetic show of solidarity with Gardner and the lawsuit she was forced to file. These black sistah-warriors boldly represent the less than 1 percent of prosecutors of color in an ocean of white men – men who have been dogged in their alleged pursuit of justice through an anti-black lens. Their actions have wreaked havoc on our families and communities for generations.
Gardner made an extraordinary move on her own behalf after months of racist slander and relentless legal maneuvers to obstruct her office’s progress. Using the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, Gardner filed a federal lawsuit calling out the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) and other white conspirators who have tried to weave a tangled web for her.
A liberated voice will lead to acts of liberation. For Gardner, these other prosecutors and other commanding women who are talking back and standing up, there have been and will be consequences. They will undoubtedly prevail, but at what cost?
Currently St. Louis has four African-American women in city-wide offices. In addition to Gardner, Darlene Green is comptroller, Tishaura O. Jones is treasurer, and Mavis Thompson is license collector (she previously served as circuit clerk for the 22nd Judicial Circuit when it was an elected position). They can all tell stories of the challenges they face in white male-dominated spaces. They all know what it’s like to have their voices muted, their political goals derailed, their successes diminished.
We should expect the attacks on Gardner to intensify in the coming months. That’s because the Democratic primary for her office comes up in August. It is necessary for the likes of Jeff Roorda (SLPOA business agent), Special Prosecutor Gerard Carmody, City Counselor Julian Bush, the Dowd crowd and other defenders of the white status quo to paint the circuit attorney as incompetent and incapable. In the court of public opinion, they don’t have to prove she is guilty of these charges. They just need to create doubt, enough doubt to force cracks in her community support – enough doubt to warrant voters withholding their enthusiasm at the ballot box.
This all connects with Mayor Lyda Krewson’s plan to eliminate, outsource or consolidate city offices and services. It puts her in cahoots with the Republican-dominated General Assembly and the SLPOA to divert cases traditionally prosecuted by the circuit attorney’s office to the Missouri attorney general. HB 1900 is sponsored by a white, non-city state rep from St. Charles County.
What is happening to the Circuit Attorney’s Office is not just a thing for black people to be concerned with. Gardner represents the city and all its citizens. Our tax dollars are being used to both persecute and prosecute her. This is about fairness and justice. It’s about exposing racist hypocrisy when different rules are made as new players enter the field.
If we stand up as bell hooks has encouraged us to do, I know that we can find that place of healing and build a city of new life and growth possibilities. We who believe in freedom must move forward because sistahs ain’t gonna stop talkin’ back and standin’ up. Those days of being silenced are over. Let the liberated voices of women be heard and felt.