Black Twitter erupted this week after news of Kenneka Jenkins’ mysterious death began slowly making the rounds. The 19-year-old had reportedly been found dead in the walk-in freezer of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois on Sunday. Jenkins’ story — full of murky details, conflicting accounts, a mother desperate for answers, and a growing social media campaign — initially seemed as if it might suffer the same fate that befalls those of other slain young black women and become a cold case. Activists were concerned it would be underreported or ignored entirely.
A viral video originally streamed on Facebook Live by one of Jenkins’ friends ended up inadvertently shedding some light. The video, which has been watched more than 4 million times since Sunday, appeared to some to show Jenkins pleading for help in the background of a hazy hotel room party scene. Amature online detectives fueled theories of what happened in Jenkins’ final hours (at one point, a narrative involving trafficking was even floated), adding to the frenzy. Black media mavens, bloggers, activists, and internet personalities began tweeting about the video, demanding answers. The mass hysteria that swelled in the hours after the video was unearthed then grabbed the attention of some media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, which began looking into Jenkins’ case as well.
But there were still a lot of holes in the timeline of Jenkins’ story.
According to police, the horror began early Saturday morning when Jenkins’ mother, Tereasa Martin, received a call from Jenkins’ friends saying that they had the teen’s car and phone, but couldn’t find her. Martin went to the hotel around 5 a.m. on Saturday to search for her daughter; according to Martin, hotel employees were reportedly dismissive and the police initially advised her to wait before filing a missing person’s report (even though the state doesn’t have an official delay policy).
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) September 13, 2017
At around 1:15 p.m. on Saturday, according to the Chicago Tribune, police finally informed the hotel that Jenkins had gone missing. A spokesman for the village of Rosemont told the outlet that hotel staff and management began “actively canvassing” public areas of the hotel and the ninth floor, where Jenkins had last been seen, but an 11-hour search reportedly turned up nothing. Police were able to view some video from hotel surveillance cameras that same afternoon, but the footage yielded no clues.
Jenkins’ family, which had left the hotel earlier in the day, returned around 6 p.m. Saturday evening to continue searching. At one point, Martin said the hotel called the police on her for taking matters into her own hands, and after a discussion, one of the responding officers “agreed to view the video footage again.” At 10 p.m., officers reported they had found video footage of Jenkins near the front desk (“staggering” drunk) from 3:20 a.m. that morning.
Jenkins’ body was finally found inside the hotel’s walk-in freezer at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning.
The gaps in the story have left social media morbidly captivated.
Jenkins’s friends reportedly gave differing accounts of the evening. The public also has very little information about how Jenkins’ body was found and her official cause of death remains undisclosed. Twitter users continue to debate whether or not Jenkins could have truly let herself in and or out of the walk-in freezer, although a local activist claims to have seen security footage of Jenkins entering the freezer of her own volition, something the family has since disputed. Others have wondered what, if any, responsibility falls on the hotel, which has offered to cover her funeral costs.
Outside of social media, mainstream media outlets have seemed slow to respond. In reality, that’s hardly surprising.
When black girls and women go missing, they are seldom found, and when they wind up murdered, their cases are often left open. Their deaths are typically underreported.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the leading causes of death for non-hispanic black women ages 0-34 is homicide. The CDC also reports that black women experience the highest rate of homicides in the United States, at an average of 4.4 per 100,000 women — a figure which has persisted since the early 2000s. Nearly half of them are killed by an intimate partner. There are also over 200,000 unsolved murders in the United States, a figure that has amassed since the 1980s. In 2014, the Black and Missing Foundation reported that there were at least 64,000 missing black women and girls nationwide.
Compounding the problem, said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, is the way many of those cases are classified — both by police and by the media.
“…A lot of African American children that go missing are initially classified as runaways,” Wilson told USA Today in March. “They do not get an Amber Alert or media coverage.”
— Maggie Huynh (@maggiehuynh) September 14, 2017
The kind of media coverage given to the few victims whose cases are reported is often glaringly biased as well.
Back in the early aughts, national news networks were flooded by an influx of tragic stories about young white women who had gone missing or wound up dead. When 18-year-old Alabama resident Natalee Holloway went missing during a trip to Aruba to celebrate her high school graduation, for instance, her case captivated the media for months, both at home and abroad. Her story was even the subject of several made-for-TV films; a documentary revisiting the case also aired in August.
Holloway’s case and others like it, however, stand in stark contrast to the media focus on missing or murdered black women. According to a study by Baylor University in 2009, when Tamika Huston, a 24-year-old black woman, went missing in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 2004, there was no news coverage from national networks — yet when Lori Hacking, a 27-year-old white woman, disappeared a month later, her picture appeared on the news in a matter of days.
PBS’ Gwen Ifill dubbed the phenomom, “missing white woman syndrome” — the sudden media pivot to cover all aspects of a missing person’s case or murder, so long as it involves a white female victim.
That’s not to say all media is created equal, of course. Beyond the local outlets, black media outlets like The Root and Essence have been relentlessly covering Jenkins’ death since the news first broke. (Mainstream news mostly started reporting after Wednesday.) But the overall focus on Jenkins’ case has been mediocre at best.
Activists are looking to change that. Protesters rallied at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Wednesday evening demanding justice, with even more taking to the streets on Thursday to voice their frustration. Jenkins was also honored with a vigil, and the organization Black Women’s Blueprint has another march planned for Jenkins and other black female victims in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 30.
On Twitter, a small handful of celebrities have pushed for answers as well.
“I pray they find out who did this to #KennekaJenkins,” tweeted rapper Missy Elliot on Tuesday. “This is very unsettling! This is a worry for every parent out there!”
U don't have to thank me love… anyone with a heart who reads this story should be heartbroken😢 & want #justiceforkennekajenkins 🙏🏾
— Missy Elliott (@MissyElliott) September 13, 2017
When followers thanked her for the boost, she added, “U don’t have to thank me love… anyone with a heart who reads this story should be heartbroken & want #justiceforkennekajenkins.”
Police have yet to rule Jenkins’ death as non-criminal. But with a long history of distrust, cover-ups, and brutality simmering between police and the black community, and the longstanding “missing white woman syndrome” still painfully present in media corners, it should come as no surprise that activists and those who cared about her are prepared to do everything possible to prevent her story from being filed away like all the others.