Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

We're Still Failing Black Women and the Murder of Tioni Theus Is Proof

The 16-year-old was found dead on the side of a freeway in Los Angeles last month. Her family says, "Justice needs to be served.”

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A photo of Tioni Theus posted to a family member’s Facebook account.
A photo of Tioni Theus posted to a family member’s Facebook account.
Screenshot: Facebook/Solona Theus

In early January, Tioni Theus, a 16-year-old Black teen, was found with a gunshot wound in her neck and left on the side of an onramp to the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles. It was reported that drivers first spotted her lifeless body on their commutes as they made their way through morning traffic. Some called 911, others did not. When the California Highway Patrol finally arrived, an investigation was launched by the Los Angeles Police Department. But everyone from local reporters to activists to family and community members noted that whatever early momentum there was to solve Theus’s case seemed to have dissipated in almost no time at all. While officials eventually announced a $110,000 reward for tips that might lead to an arrest in the case, it took weeks of begging from Theus’ family and Black Los Angeles residents for them to do so.

In the days that followed Theus’s murder, Brianna Kupfer, a 24-year-old white student, was found stabbed to death in the furniture store where she worked in a seemingly random attack—also in Los Angeles. The killing instantly made national news and prompted police to announce a $250,000 reward for information mere days after. A suspect was arrested on January 19 after a bonafide manhunt.

Apart from the Los Angeles Times, very little reporting has been done by national outlets on Theus’s case, nor have there been any social media campaigns of such ubiquity that would result in her face ever ending up on a $20 t-shirt.

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Two years ago, as uprisings demanding justice for Black lives gripped the nation and the face of Breonna Taylor was emblazoned upon everything from magazine covers to t-shirts, many white people and institutions made promises never again to look away from a social justice movement, especially one at the intersection of both race and gender, as they historically have. Evidence that such promises have not been kept can be found everywhere, across institutions and industries and, more recently, on the side of a highway in Los Angeles.

Of course, this is part of a pattern spanning centuries, one that has come to increasing consciousness in the last decade. While we’re more aware than ever that the lives of Black women and femmes do not receive the same care as that of a white woman or femme—particularly in the cases of death or tragic circumstance—very little has been done to change it on a legal or legislative level, and even less has been done to ensure that only “perfect” victims get a hashtag.

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In recent weeks, as court records have become public, it’s been noted that there is evidence Theus “may have been the victim of human trafficking,” with records indicating that the teen was identified as a victim of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported that Theus’s family had fallen on financial straits following the hit-and-run of its matriarch, Theresa Kincy, in 2019. While Theresa survived, she’s spent the last few years in a rehab facility and suffered extensive brain damage. The incident left Theus particularly vulnerable, being preyed upon by a man in his 20s on Instagram who, her cousin Nafeesah Kincy said, pulled her into prostitution, though other family members have trouble believing this.

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As of now, the California Highway Patrol is investigating the teen’s killing with assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department. A motive has not been determined, and no suspect identifications or vehicle descriptions have been released. Ultimately, Theus’s family has said they’re hopeful for justice, yet are very aware that the murders of Black women and girls like the person they lost are sadly still only a footnote in the reporting surrounding violence against women, specifically that of white women like Kupfer.

“That’s not taking away from that child’s life being lost or what her family has experienced,” Nafeesah, Theus’s cousin, said of the Kupfer case. “I’m happy they found somebody [to arrest]. Justice needs to be served. But justice needs to be served for everybody, not just particular people.”