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Alabama police officer shines a light on domestic violence against black women

“Who gives these victims a voice? Who's going to speak up for them?”
John Young, an Alabama police officer who is spending his 'off duty' time advocating for black women who are victims of domestic violence.
John C. Young, an Alabama police officer who is spending his 'off duty' time advocating for black women who are victims of domestic violence.Tim Jones / for NBC News

A routine City Council meeting in Mobile, Alabama, took an unexpected turn in April when John C. Young stepped up to the lectern.

Speaking solely as a private citizen, not as a police sergeant with 26 years of law enforcement experience, Young leaned into the microphone and delivered a heartfelt plea: City leaders need to do something to stem the high number of black women in Mobile being killed in domestic violence incidents.

Five black women were killed in 2016, six in 2017 and five by April this year — 16 women dead, mostly at the hands of black men, over three years — Young told the council.

"And no one said a word about it," Young recently told NBC News in an interview.

Young, 47, who asked the seven-member council to commission a local university to study the issue, says that the killings have been virtually ignored in Mobile. He said there was more media coverage given to the 2016 death of Michael Moore, a black teenager who was fatally shot in Mobile by a white police officer after a traffic stop. His death led to protests and marches by the city’s black community.

“I'm not arguing about the validity of those protests and marches,” Young said. “That’s hypocritical to me, to state that a single life is more valuable than these other 16.”

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, black women are 35 percent more likely to be victimized by domestic violence than white women and four times more likely than white women to be killed by a boyfriend or girlfriend. An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black women's overall homicides rates in the U.S. are higher than women of any other race or ethnicity.

“So, who gives these victims a voice?” Young asked. “Who's going to speak up for them?”

A week before his emotional council presentation, Young walked about two miles to the government plaza where the meetings are held holding a sign that read, "Black men, please put down your guns." (National homicide data confirms that firearms are the most common method used to kill black women.)

Young, who works in the patrol division, said that instead of expressing outrage over the murder statistics at the council meeting, a black woman approached him, leaned in and said, “You know, white folks do this, too.”

Such responses, he said, contributes to the black community's silence on domestic violence.

Sa'iyda Shabazz, a Los Angeles-based social commentator and writer, tells NBC News domestic violence within the black community deserves attention, but it shouldn't be considered only a black problem.

“Black-on-black crime is a thing, but not in the way that the media tends to make it out to be,” Shabazz said, adding that domestic violence is a taboo subject among all races. "It’s not exclusive to the black community that you are more likely to be killed by someone from the same race or by someone you know.”

Justice Department data shows the rates of total violent crime where the victims and offenders are the same race are higher than when they are not.

Shabazz says that longstanding racist stereotypes, particularly the narrative that black men are more threatening or violent than men of other races, is contributing to the silence on the issue among members of the black community, especially black women.

“I believe a lot of black women are reluctant to talk because they know it fits into the stereotype that has long been held about [black men,]" Shabazz said. "But when you see the story of a white woman on the news who is missing or murdered, it is framed in a totally different way; she’s the ‘soccer mom’ and it plays into the stereotype of the benevolent white victim. As black women, we don’t get to be viewed as victims of anything.”

Young says Mobile City Council members have yet to respond to his request or to even “acknowledge the problem — that there’s almost a war going on against black women.”

The lack of response, he insists, is frustrating.

“They could have brought attention to black women being murdered by black men and they didn't,” he added.

Representatives for the city of Mobile did not respond to requests for comment.

Media reports of Young’s presentation said three council members responded publicly, with one, C.J Small, being quoted as saying: "It's going to take more than just the seven of us. It's also going to take the administration. It's also going to take the citizens of Mobile, the community at large."

Council Vice President Levon Manzie reportedly told Young that counseling services and the support of churches are needed to address the issue, along with “the help of the older generations in our community."

Young says he has no plans to stop his crusade; since his presentation he has hosted “prayer walks” with Mobile-area churches and spoken to civic, educational and religious groups across Alabama.

He says it is the least he can do to honor the lives of the black women who’ve paid the ultimate price.

NBCBLK contributor Chandra Thomas Whitfield reported this piece with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University Fellowship program.