A Rock and a Hard Place: An Interview with Val Carey

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We sat down with Valarie Carey, retired NYPD sergeant and sister of Miriam Carey who was gunned down by Capitol Police and Secret Service in 2013 to discuss our project, FORGET-ME-NOT. We touched on storytelling as activism, Black women leading the charge, the contrast to how Insurrectionists were handled in D.C., the healing power of NYC’s African Burial Ground, and how she is fostering Miriam’s legacy one decade after her death. 

Register for the Miriam Carey Butterfly Brunch, sign the petition to reopen her case and check out a summary of our conversation below.

What is it like to live – or die – between a rock and a hard place?

If you speak to Valarie Carey, ex-cop and sister of the late Miriam Carey, it means being blamed for your death at the hands of police because of alleged post-partum depression. Sandra Bland’s mysterious death is shrouded in detractors saying she should not have mouthed off upon being pulled over. Despite her case files being meddled with and documented racism among Forsyth police officials, Tamla Horsford’s unaccounted death is often met with “she had no business being at an all-white sleepover.” Black women navigate the world with our skin color weaponized, like our male counterparts, and our voices silenced, like our white peers. The armor that has metallized to shield from systemic threats somehow deems us as unneeding of protection…a rock and a hard place.

Violence committed against Black women may not be as sensational and outright, because the threat of our female bodies is not perceived as immediate, but the harm to our bodies is just as penetrative and deadly. It often happens in the dark – at a nightclub, away from cameras in a cell, slumbering in a bedroom as with Breonna, early AM in the cliffs of Malibu as with Mitrice. It can be argued that this more circumspect, nuanced threat of violence requires more layers of protection, yet the reverse often happens. “Why was she even there?” “My daughter/partner would never.” “She should know better.”

With intimate knowledge of how Black women can so easily be endangered, especially when no one is looking, Valarie Carey was taken aback by the lack of outrage for her sister’s shooting death: shot at twenty-six times by Uniformed Secret Service Police with five bullets hitting her in the back after an erroneous U-turn with her one-year-old baby in the car seat. “I believe every woman, every mother should be up in arms.” Her rallying cry sets the stage for FORGET-ME-NOT our docuseries celebrating the lives of women whose deaths have been scaffolded over by unjust policing, and centering African Burial Ground National Monument – a memorial for the final resting place of 15-20,000 of Manhattan’s first Africans, who have been similarly scaffolded over by history – as a restorative site for healing.

Unlike the above-named women and more like our fallen, unarmed brothers senselessly murdered by police, Miriam Carey’s death was very public. Yet, one decade later – Valarie and her family have still not received proper notification of Miriam’s death. Having enforced police protocol for years, Valarie knew something was amiss with Miriam’s case from day one. “We didn’t get notification so we had to drive 5 hours [to DC] to go identify my sister. Even then I wasn’t able to identify a body, they gave me a photo of her.” Miriam’s murder was international news, but dominated the media cycle for only a few days because it became a “political hot potato.” It happened feet from the White House and under our first Black president: a young mother not in the commission of a crime was gunned down. With neither criminal history for the media to point even more fingers nor protesters demanding justice, her story faded away. To this day, the officers responsible for Miriam’s death have not even been named, never mind indicted.

If not this public atrocity, what would it take? What is required for communities to avenge Black women with as much vigor as they do our respective counterparts – Black men and white women. Part of the reason why Valarie entrusted me with Miriam’s story is because I “looked like her… a sister telling another sister’s story.” She felt Miriam had a place at the African burial ground and experienced the site profoundly when I’d given her a tour for her first-time visit. “[Being] able to honor and pay tribute to the ancestors with roses, and able to ground, and then just talk about how they were being covered up and then the parallel of Miriam’s story being covered up, it just allowed me to feel some emotions that I may have not been aware that I needed to feel.”

(In addition to sharing an alma mater, Philippa Schuyler Middle School in Bushwick, and hometown of East New York, Brooklyn) our shared belief that Black women are best equipped to stand up for each other – as light bearers for our own stories to cushion that space between the rock and hard place – bound Val and me as producers on FORGET-ME-NOT. “We’re always the catalysts, the driving force behind causes and I just feel that (not just for Miriam but) for other Black women who have been killed by the police: why haven’t more of us stood up and said this is wrong? We’re always waving a flag standing on the frontline for others, especially our Black men and where are the Black men supporting us as a whole?” In the meantime Val is looking to ensure that those who look like us can realize their dreams in Miriam’s name, perhaps in the form of a scholarship for Black women interested in dentistry. Miriam was a dental hygienist looking into opening “almost like a temp agency for dental hygienists” before she died.

The deafening silence around Miriam’s death, and departed Black women akin to her, climaxed on January 6, 2021. Watching D.C. law enforcement fire less bullets at a mob of Insurrectionists than they did at a mother and baby fueled me to seek out Valarie; I’d watched the car chase that ended with Miriam’s murder also play out on local news as a DC resident at the time. That day Val “tweeted about how they had so much reserve and control and care with these thugs that stormed the people’s house [and] then [she] started to get anxiety…pulled back again to 2013.”

Valarie took up the mantle to bring her sister’s killers to justice and tell her story since that tragic afternoon on October 3, 2013, and has been carrying it ever since. Beyonce’s song “I Was Here” embodies Val’s journey to “amplify [Miriam’s] name and her image in the public for people to know she was here. As publicly as they killed her, that’s how public the justice needs to be. [She] could have just went quietly to the DOJ with the signatures [or] emailed them. No. [She] printed them and went to the DOJ and then tweeted about it because [she] wanted people to see that this is part of the story of what we’re doing, and when [she] says ‘we,’ [it’s] because her ancestors are behind [her] to get justice for [Miriam].”  

Ten years after Miriam’s death, the question remains: what would it take for folks, including Black women, to fight for Black women unjustly attacked? For us to do the work required to suss out what’s happening to Black women when no one is looking? The interwebs have jokingly called the Alabama captain’s throwing his cap in the air the “Black signal” because within minutes Black men and women came by land and sea to defend him against a group of White people who’d pounced on him and set off the infamous Montgomery Boat Brawl. Had he been a Black woman similarly jumped for trying to do her job, would she have been met with retorts of “she should know better” and “my daughter/partner would never”?  One cannot help but wonder.

Well consider Miriam’s Butterfly Brunch on October 8, 2023 – marking a decade since her bright light was snuffed out – Val’s “Black signal.” “I want people to know that it is not too late for people to activate around her story to get the justice that I seek, and I know [Miriam] is seeking from the other side. Those officers who have not been named need to be named and they need to be held accountable. Not only did they take a life, but they’ve ruined multiple lives: Miriam’s nucleus (their mother transitioned shortly after Miriam’s slaying.) This is time we can never get back. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. She should still be here.”

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I was intentional about omitting images of Miriam Carey’s death day  in “Forget-Me-Not,” our last project and first nonfiction endeavor since graduating from Tisch Graduate