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Remembering Sarah Reed at a vigil in Holloway

How the tragic death of one black woman reminds us of the struggle faced globally

TextSO McBeanPhotographyJade Jackman

Editor's note: Dazed attended the vigil for the life of Sarah Reed outside Holloway Prison yesterday evening. Sarah Reed was a vulnerable black woman with a history of mental health issues who told her family that she'd been sexually assaulted while being held in a mental health unit. She tragically took her own life last month. We asked S O McBean, who attended last night's vigil, to explain why she was out to show her support for Sarah's family. These are her words. 

Last night, a large crowd formed outside Holloway Prison in order to honour the life and strength of Sarah Reed. 

In 2003, Sarah Reed was handed the dead body of her baby and forced to carry it home. In 2012, she was brutally assaulted by a police officer who walked away with no more than hours in community service and a suspension. On January 11 2016, Sarah was found dead in her cell. 

Prior to Lee Jasper's widely shared blog, there had been little attention given to this by the mainstream press. At her vigil, Jasper said: "By sharing this experience, we wanted to get the story out. Mental health care in the prison system needs to be reformed. We need to invest in people and communities; we have to get justice".

This is because, while her story is shocking, Sarah Reed’s story is not unique. Every untold, unheard story of the unsung black women whose children are treated like garbage, who are beaten by police, whose skin makes her easy to falsely accuse of crimes and hard to believe when she says she has been sexually assaulted is the story of Sarah Reed. Every story of unrecognised black women who respond to the oppressive world around them with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues is the story of Sarah Reed. 

As many black women said at the 200-strong vigil last night, black women’s voices and stories are often invisible. Sarah Reed’s case is unusual: not only are people saying her name and telling her story, but when she was assaulted by an officer in 2012 the incident was caught on film and he was convicted of common assault. The Black Lives Matter movement in the States, led and organized by queer black women, and the names of black women like Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd and Tanisha Anderson have taken black women from the invisibility of the margins, to the forefront of anti-racist consciousness.

When we live in a world that constantly fails black women, a world where everyday black women have to confront multiple oppressions simultaneously, a world where black women’s bodies are collateral to a racist, sexist, capitalist system – when we live in this kind of world we must say that Sarah Reed did not die in a cell at Holloway prison on January 11. Regardless of what happened in that cell she did not kill herself. The system and its enforcers in uniform and suits failed, and killed Sarah Reed.

Our movement was overdue the stories and voices of black women recounting their experiences of navigating a life where sexism, racism, class oppression and mental ill-health makes too many aspects of their lives a sharpened blade. Hearing about the lives of working-class black women – not as the mothers of someone else abused by the system but as black women in their own right – was a rare moment for our movement against police brutality. The vigil was powerful because we were surrounded by black women who struggled and not only stayed alive but survived a world that was built on us but not for us. The crowd at the vigil was a mixed bunch of people and this is no surprise given the multiple intersections of oppression and marginalization that create Sarah Reed’s story.

She was a woman of colour and a mother who lost her child in 2003 and suffered from long-term mental health issues. In October 2012, she alleged she was sexually assaulted while being detained under the Mental Health Act, and in November 2012 she was beaten up by a police officer. Just like the 1974 story of Joan Little (a working class, African American woman with a history of mental ill health and drug use whose self defence against rape led to the death of her white, prison guard attacker) Sarah Reed’s story and struggle has the potential to unite people from all walks of life who experience a multitude of connected oppressions and struggles.

You can support the Sarah Reed Campaign for Justice here