All 22-year-old Tiarah Poyau said was: “Get off me.” The graduate student at St. John’s University had aspirations of becoming an accountant at a top firm. On Monday, she took a break from her studies for celebration at Brooklyn’s West Indian J’Ouvert festival. But what should have been a day of good food, laughter and dancing turned into a nightmare.
According to early reports, while walking with some of her friends along the parade route at 4 a.m., Poyau was approached by 20-year-old Reginald Moise, who began grinding on her without her consent. Poyau told him, “Get off me.” Moise then pulled out a gun and shot her in the eye at close range.
He shot her.
Later, he told the Daily News he doesn’t remember what happened that night. It’s no longer clear whether the shooting was related to the grinding incident. According to reports, the 20-year-old also told one friend that he didn’t know the gun was loaded.
But however the final story shakes out in court, initial reports of Moise’s violent response to Poyau resonated with many women. The picture they painted ― of a man apparently so shaken by the thought of rejection, by the idea that he was not entitled to a woman’s body that he actually ended her life ― is all too common.
As writer Son of Baldwin put it in a Facebook post published on Wednesday: “What we black men say cops do to us (inappropriately touch, harass, kill), we do to black women (inappropriately touch, harass, kill).”
Can we be real for a moment? What happened to Tiarah Poyau is not an anomaly. It is an example of an ongoing issue that we’re not talking about because of its painful implications. Black men in this country are already stereotyped and denigrated enough, so calling out black men’s sexual violence against black women is precarious, to say the least. But it must be done.
Because there have been other women like Tiarah Poyau: Mary Spears, who was gunned down in Detroit, Michigan in 2014 for saying “no” to a man’s advances. Parish Sashay, a Washington, D.C, comedian who was beaten into unconsciousness for denying the advances of a group of men after a show in 2015. Lakeeya Walker, a pregnant woman who was kicked and beaten by a man in March 2015 for not saying “thank you” when he held a door open for her. Janese Talton-Jackson, who was shot and killed by a man who approached her in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bar in January.
This is a reality for so many black women, and it’s one that we shouldn’t run away from by not discussing these women and the circumstances around the violence they’ve endured. Black women, of course, are often encouraged to ignore this reality when we’re told by black men to ignore the dark pasts of black men like Bill Cosby and Nate Parker. We are urged by those in our community to disregard their behavior towards women in the interest of not perpetuating a racist Hollywood system that tears down black men while uplifting white men with similar pasts like Woody Allen or Sean Penn. We’re expected to march and chant in the streets for causes like #BlackLivesMatter, while focusing so keenly on the brutality of black men alone that the need for hashtags like #SayHerName become vital.
This doesn’t mean that all black men are bad (just as calling out any form of sexism doesn’t mean that all men, period, are bad). But what it does mean is that sexism within the black community is real, and it has violent ramifications. It’s not OK that in 2013, black women were murdered by men two and a half times more than other women, according to a 2015 Violence Police Center study. And it’s not OK that most of those black women, according to the same study, were murdered by guns.
But the important distinction here is that based on what cops told the press after the shooting, Tiarah Poyau wasn’t just a victim of gun violence, but also of sexual violence. She was the victim of male entitlement and male aggression. But maybe men like Reginald Moises are also victims, just in a different kind of way. They’re the victims of toxic masculinity, which at times manifests itself in an overemphasis by some of these men on aggression and violence.
There’s a long painful history, going all the way to the days of slavery, of black men being emasculated in front of their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. But the only way we can move on from that pain is if we accept, right now, that the fear and anger that black women feel after stories like Tiarah Poyau’s come to light is valid, and worthy of a real dialogue. Now, more than ever, we need unity. We need understanding. And we can’t get there until we have an open and honest conversation about the ways we can do better.
Click here to donate towards Tiarah Poyau’s memorial service.
This story has been updated to include that Moises doesn’t remember why the shooting occurred.