Deconstructing the racist and sexist context around the violent arrest of an 18-year-old Black woman.
The Circus is an essay series chronicling formative moments of race, class, and identity through the eyes and experiences of one man's time in Madison. Read the rest of the series here.
“I can’t fucking breathe. So when I die, it’s on you.” - Genele Laird
The Circus is back in town, and we don’t even need our tickets. Telephones are the front row. A Black woman is the main event. And humanity is, notably, absent once more.
The new story goes: 18-year-old Genele Laird was aggravated and searching for her phone inside East Towne Mall. It’s confirmed that she had a knife in her pocket at the time of the incident; it’s alleged that she brandished it inside East Towne Mall during her search, and threatened to kill the security staff before exiting the mall to the outside area. Laird claims she made the call to police to intervene in the situation, while MPD spokesperson Joel DeSpain claims the only call made in this incident came from the East Towne security staff.
MPD claims that the 6-minute footage Daniel Patrykus (a.k.a. RichBoy Robinson) released on social media is a mere fragment of a 15-minute incident, to suggest that the community lacks true clarity of the event. The official police narrative paints a different narrative than the one we have on camera: Laird was frantically kicking and spitting at officers, thus justifying their use of tasers, a spit hood, and some punches and kicks to Laird’s stomach.
The main event has gone viral already, joining the deep leagues of trauma readily accessible at a single click. Laird spent two nights in the Dane County Jail, with four potential felony charges to her name. If convicted, she’ll be forever condemned even if she never owns a jumpsuit. Her housing, schooling, and employment opportunities will forever be subjected to the merciless clutches of Big Brother. Her lost cool may cost her a downfall no child should know, especially not over a lost cell phone. Chief Koval is hopeful for a restorative solution to this incident, but as of now, the matter is nowhere in his clutches.
In a mere 48 hours, Genele has become the nation’s new hoodrat. The rhetoric rots the tongue, and places her in the company of a Sandra, Rekia, Bree, Marissa, and so on. To what do we owe these Black women but the suffering we expect them to know as their very blood flowing? Any human should know that the police will respond like that should they choose to lose that cool and wild out, but a hoodrat must not know no better. A hoodrat has no one there to teach her no manners. A hoodrat squeals when it knows it’s doing wrong. At this rate, a hoodrat will have a child and die before they see a diploma or degree.
Genele Laird is no hoodrat, no dumb bitch, no idiot that’s so lucky she was spared the gun. In truth, we know nothing of Genele Laird but the sweat-glazed knee and fist in her gut, and the Taser in her leg. According to her family, she’s a sweet child with no criminal record who follows the rules. The way they spoke of her a few nights prior—in a tenacious past tense—it was as if she met the gun. It’s a horrific familiarity those elder Black bodies must know too well: the condition of being reduced to collateral even when one still has a pulse. In a time when their daughter, sister, family member sits in a cell, the defensive seems to be all there is to do. They know their Genele as a human being capable of right and wrong; not a comment, not an agenda, and not a Circus act.
Where is the hoodrat in demanding your belongings be returned? Where is the hoodrat in yelling and screaming and acting irrational? In 48 hours, the people defending Genele aren’t excluding the possibility that she may have acted irrationally and spazzed out in the mall this week. They aren’t excluding it because it’s nowhere near the point. When does our just society, one that knows not of the justice it craves, trade a tangible human for an Invisible Hoodrat? My guess is the curls in her Black head, the twang on her Black tongue, the rage of her Black body being violated.
Despite Koval’s deflection, six minutes of context is more than enough to confirm the obvious: a Black woman with her hands behind her back, dropped to the ground with a swift knee and fist. The knife that continues to appear in this dialogue remained in her pocket when this occurred. It’s unclear if she spit on those trying to detain her, but the writhing of her body is nothing more than a response to a pressure Genele may have been unacquainted with prior to her being accosted by the bodies of the law service she’ll one day pay for. No matter the teenage behavior inside that evening, it will never justify the weight of two officers pinning and punching and tazing her when a simple-enough detainment is blundered by their hand.
Remember that the only justifiable context is signed in ink and delivered in uniform. Our documentation of these Circus acts, these Black hysteria highlight reels, has never been enough to shut the Circus down. It’s worth remembering when the news outlets in our town only follow the police narrative, leading them to report inaccuracies on the faith of an institution whose trust forever hangs in the balance. The police institution of ours, like many, will spend our money on armored vehicles, but fight like hell against external reviews of their policies. It’s the same one that amplifies their emphasis on community policing, but succumbs to the tone-deaf lifestyle that protects itself when the “uncommon” incidences of excessive force continue to unravel a system built and operated upon targeting certain citizens over others. The Black cargo is always on sale, and a press conference will wash away the sins for a night or two.
To support the arrest of Genele Laird is to excuse the inadequacy of power and to revoke the vulnerability of a young woman. It forces her into an Invisible Hoodrat canon which must perish at all costs. Genele, like the Black women before her, cannot be angry or loud or uncooperative. She cannot make mistakes or misjudgments. Ironic, given that the Invisible Hoodrat lives against these expectations. This archetype knows no boundaries, no better, no way to comply and surrender its body as if self-preservation is a guarantee once it complies. Everyone claims to know this hoodrat in their hood, no matter the count of bullets and batons beaten into Black flesh. Remember that these individuals know nothing of it, that these hoodrats don’t exist.
Still, it begs the question of what our officers and neighbors saw at East Towne Mall that evening: a Black woman in need of help, or a hoodrat in need of correction. No matter the vision, the inspiration must perish if we truly demand the justice we’re unacquainted with.
But if we did, who’d come to The Circus?