by: Toni A. Wilson, Director of Culture and Narrative Shift
When I heard about Carlee Russell’s, 25, story a few hours after she went missing, like many Black women who move when called to action, I jumped on social media and began doing my part in making sure she was brought home safely. I read everything I could so that I was in the know of what happened and I listened to her mother and friends so that I knew who Carlee was. The story behind Carlee’s disappearance was that she had seen a child alongside the highway while driving home in Hoover, Alabama, and pulled over to check on their safety. Her wig, Apple watch, and phone along with her car were found at the scene of the “crime.” Since Carlee’s story made national headlines on July 13th, she has since been home and informed the media that she indeed falsified the story and none of it was true. On July 28th, Carlee was arrested and bonded out.
Two Things Can Exist At Once
In this world, living as a Black woman means constant demonization — living as a Black girl means adultification and criminalization. Our existence is marred by the perception of singularity, an identity that is sometimes exclusively viewed through one lens of misogynoir, racism, anti-Blackness, and every phobia and ism you can name. However, I’m grateful that we live in a world where we’re all able to develop a politic where multiple things can (and should) be true at the same time; while Carlee Russell lied about her disappearance, criminally punishing Carlee would reinforce a carceral system that weaponizes gender bias and disproportionately incarcerates Black women. Sending a Black woman to prison for faking her disappearance wastes tax dollars, resources, and robs Carlee of a future where she can receive mental health care and support.
Carlee Russell lied and that does not set a precedent for missing Black women and girls. We should still be dedicating all of our time, effort, and resources to bringing home the nearly 100,000 Black women, girls, and gender-expansive Black folks who are missing. No, Carlee is not setting us back. And she does not deserve jail time or to be criminally punished for this mistake. In order for us to rethink the ways we “punish” people for things we believe are punishable calls for us to unpack the ways we think about harm, policing, and our commitment to upholding the carceral system. We must kill the cop in our heads.
Abolition, Anti Carceral Feminism, and Policing
Abolition politics and anti-carceral feminism helps us to understand that what Carlee Russell did was wrong and caused pain to people in her family/community, but she doesn’t deserve jail time. There is no founding reason to believe Carlee Russell faking her kidnapping hurt folks’ efforts to find actual missing Black women and girls because to be honest, mass media were never looking for missing Black women and girls to begin with. Remind me of the last Black woman or girl that went missing or was abducted and received national news coverage? Unless you are a missing white woman, the media does not see you. To continue to use that narrative plays into the very white supremacist ideologies that any time a Black person “messes up” or “strays” they have now set Black people back hundreds of years. It’s white supremacy that makes Black people feel as though if they do anything that brings public shame or embarrassment to the Black community — which isn’t a monolith by the way — that there would be no way to escape the ridicule or blowback because it means that all Black people were in on it.
Carlee Russell was the first “missing” Black woman that many of us have ever seen make local and national news. This is what deserved to be interrogated. I believe the reason why we heard so soon about her story was because there was the element of the missing child/toddler that she pulled over and said she was helping. Do I believe her story would have made national news without that element; absolutely not. There needed to be something else at stake other than just her life in order for the mass media to take notice. When we go missing, there always has to be something larger at stake — something more important.
Who’s Going to Arrest the Karens?
We’ve seen white women lie to the police and file false reports, but have we seen them serve prison time? Not at all. In fact, Emmett Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant accused Emmett Till in 1955, a then 14-year-old boy, of whistling at her which caused his violent and disturbing lynching only for her to confess years later to lying. Carolyn lived her life outside of prison walls until the day she died; April 25, 2023. Folks want charges pressed against Carlee Russell so badly but who is pressing charges against the thousands of white women who make false reports about Black people walking around, grilling, laughing, and minding their business in public? Or all of the “police resources” that are used to over police our communities when there are dozens of police and patrol cars monitoring Black and brown people and children in neighborhoods when they’re walking home from school, playing basketball, or just playing music and eating ice cream in the park.
People are using the excuse of Carlee “wasting resources” as a reason why she deserves to have the book thrown at her. America’s police departments across the country spend over $100 billion dollars on police budgets every year. Across cities, police departments receive one-third of the entire cities budgets, and with poorer cities, including cities like Hoover, Alabama where Carlee is from and was reported missing. I say all of this to say police budgets are already overwhelmingly high and they aren’t ever using those budgets to protect Black folks and keep our communities safe. Carlee Russell didn’t “waste” any more resources than anyone else.
Roads to Restoration
When I learned about Carlee’s hoax, it made me wonder if there was ever another time in herstory when another Black girl faked her own kidnapping and received national attention. It led me to the story of Tawana Brawley — a 15-year-old Black girl in the 80s from Wappinger’s Fall, New York who ran away from home for 4 days and attempted to cover it up by exclaiming that she’d been kidnapped, raped, and had racial slurs written on her body. After a six-month investigation, it was said to be a lie and Tawanna’s reason for lying was that she didn’t want to be beaten by her mom’s boyfriend for running away from home. A teenage Black girl ran away from home and later admitted to lying about experiencing physical harm because she wanted to avoid the actual physical harm she was promised from a stepfather who had physically beaten her in public before, openly sexualized her, and killed his first wife citing self-defense. There’s something to be said about the trauma one has experienced and is trying to escape when they’re willing to go to great lengths such as cutting their own hair and covering their body with feces; things that Tawana did to escape her stepfather’s wrath.
Anti-carceral feminism asks us to engage in restorative justice processes. Abolition calls us to challenge the current criminal systems’ impact on marginalized communities and focuses on restorative justice, community support, accountability, and addressing the root causes of the harm. Black women are already thought to be liars and deserving of whatever harm comes our way so I’m not surprised that the media and people who were praying for her safe return then became the people calling her out of her name. I think one of the most disheartening realities left from this ordeal is that no one has considered Carlee Russell’s mental state. As a social worker with clinical experience, I can assure you that anyone who is willing to plan such an elaborate scheme for attention deserves more understanding and empathy to begin to understand why she took this route and what support she could possibly need instead of criminalization. We live in a society that is filled with so much misogynoir that it’s so hard for the public to see Carlee’s humanity and I’ve even seen more people call for her arrest online than I’ve seen for Tory Lanez — who has been found guilty of shooting Megan Thee Stallion three years ago. The same people who I’ve seen say “defund the police” or “dismantle police” are the same people who I’m seeing call for Carlee’s imprisonment.
On August 2nd, it was announced that an Alabama GOP lawmaker plans to introduce legislation that would make faking an abduction a felony and mandatory restitution requirements the full cost of resources expended by law enforcement. Is this not excessive? Is it just for us to charge someone for a fake crime? By the exact definition of this new legislation, an actual crime has to be committed. Was Amy Cooper arrested in New York and forced to pay “restitution” when her crime indeed hurt someone other than herself? Where’s the bill for police officers who fake police reports; which they often do? What does it mean when we decide to make examples out of Black people and force them to pay debts when they’re already underpaid and generationally economically oppressed?
Now We Heal: From Misogynoir & More
I didn’t feel like my labor was in vain when it was found that Carlee was safe and had made the story up. I didn’t feel ashamed for believing her and feeling happy that it actually wasn’t true. I just felt at ease that I wouldn’t have to make her a hashtag or wonder if she was being sex trafficked. Carlee Russell deserves empathy and in order to do so, we must work against carcerality to understand Carlee in her multiplicities. We must explore what were the systems Carlee was up against that led her to this decision? What was she running away from? We cannot criminalize Carlee.
Carlee deserves compassion and an ear to understand why she did what she did. Carlee’s story should help us to want to know the truth; her truth. What could have been so terrible in Carlee’s life that this was her plan of action? And what will life be like for Carlee now in this aftermath?
I’m not in the business of discarding Black women and I hope as we all move closer to a place where abolition is possible that we begin to center the person instead of the punishment.
If you’d like to know more about missing Black girls and women and how to take action in your city, check out Black and Missing.
Toni Wilson is the Director of Culture & Narrative Shift at Girls for Gender Equity. She is also a social worker, organizer, cultural critic, plus size influencer, fat liberationist and BlackFeminist from Brooklyn with roots in Jamaica. She can be found @ FatBlackLuxury.