On December 12, 2021 Lauren Smith-Fields, a Black college student and YouTuber, was found unresponsive in her apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut by her family members; where not long after she passed away. By all accounts from her family, the circumstances surrounding the death of 23-year-old Smith-Fields are murky at best, and Lauren's father Everett Smith has also noted that the manner in which local police are handling the case has made him deeply "uncomfortable".
But if you haven't heard about the untimely death of Lauren Smith-Fields we don't blame you – her story is one that has been largely absent from mainstream media. At the time of writing, the hashtag #justiceforlaurensmithfield has had over 1.7 million views on TikTok, and yet, little has been reported of her story, save for local news coverage. It's a point that many across social media are emphasising, especially when compared to the media frenzy that accompanied the disappearance of white travel blogger Gabby Petito, and in light of the current information we have around her death.
Where was Lauren Smith-Fields last seen?
It's a pertinent question. Earlier that same evening when Lauren Smith-Fields was found unresponsive by her family, she had reportedly been on a Bumble date with an "older white man". As it turns out her date, identified as Matthew LaFountain, was the first person to alert local police to Smith-Fields passing, he is also the last person known to have seen her.
Lauren Smith-Fields was found in her room with unmarked pills, a condom, and a pool of blood at the centre of her sheets, yet when the police arrived no evidence was collected. LaFountain was also let free after implying that she overdosed — Smith-Fields' family have made it plain that she was not a drug user.
Despite this, Lauren's brother Lakeem Jetter has said local police have ruled out investigating the man as they believed "there was nothing to investigate" and in that same conversation "made it seem like the guy was a nice guy”.
As well as this, Lauren's father has also indicated that he is unhappy with the conduct of local police investigating his daughter's death. In an interview with Westchester News 12 Everett Smith said that the limited contact they've had with the authorities has been with a "very insensitive, condescending and arrogant detective". And with the medical examiners having not yet released the cause of death, Smith "had a second autopsy myself paid out of pocket because we felt so uncomfortable with the way it was handled", he continued.
Lauren's mother is yet to receive a response to a letter she sent Bridgeport Police Department in an attempt to obtain answers and local Councilwoman Maria Pereira has said that they owe Shantell Fields an apology. "She sent a really well-written email — it was lengthy, it was extensive, it was very detailed — and I was shocked when she told me just yesterday she had not even received a response."
What has been the response of local police?
As the death of Lauren Smith-Fields is still under investigation, local police have said very little. However, the City of Bridgeport issued a statement about the investigation saying, "the Bridgeport Police Department takes these concerns very seriously".
"The Command Staff of the Detective Bureau is reviewing the handling of this case to ensure that best practices were and are being followed. It is imperative to note that the death of Lauren Smith-Fields remains an ongoing investigation. Our department extends its deepest condolences to the family of Lauren."
'Missing white woman syndrome'
As information continues to emerge about the death of Lauren Smith-Fields, across social media, users are bringing our attention to the disparity between the news coverage on this case and Gabby Petito's, with the term 'missing white woman syndrome' in tow. For those who are unfamiliar with this phrase, first coined in 2004 by the late American Journalist Gwen Ilfill, we're breaking it down for you below.
As the name suggests, what this term refers to is the amount of coverage an individual white woman receives on the occasion that they go missing. That's not to say that this attention is not deserved, we should be up in arms when people disappear, or their death goes unexplained. But what is most striking is that in comparison, when persons of colour vanish, there is hardly ever the same outrage or resources levelled towards them. Because when Bla(c)k women fall through the cracks, the systems that enable their oppression are more than willing to turn a blind eye. And so their families are forced to fight harder for visibility and to have their humanity seen.
Underreported disappearances in Australia
A report released at the beginning of 2021 revealed that between 2011 and September, 2020, 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in the US, and that staggering number only accounts for those who were reported. Yet, we hardly ever hear these persons stories. And while it's easy to point fingers at the state of the US, it's important to remember that here in Australia, the disappearance and deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women of colour, and trans women occurs often and justice is rarely realised.
It took almost three weeks for South Australian police to begin searching for 21-year-old Charlene Warrior, who was reported missing by her family on September 18, 2021. We know that Charlene was on her way to pick up her one-year-old daughter from the child's father's house before she disappeared, her family adamant that she would never leave her daughter.
On October 3, 2021, local police found Charlene's body at Martin Street in Bute, a town in South Australia, before declaring her death to be "non-suspicious" — another common thread in these cases. Even after this, the story barely registered in the mainstream news cycle.
What this silence reinforces is that the life of a white woman is inherently more valuable. Not only is this false and extremely harmful, but it's a reminder that when it comes to anti-racism and reconciliation, there is still much work to be done. It's a work load that should not fall on the already overloaded shoulders of Black, First Nations and other folks of colour — communities who persistently organise rallies, post on social media, and set up organisations while lobbying and putting pressure on relevant government bodies — but one that must be carried by the most privileged.
And while admittedly part of the overzealous reporting on white missing persons cases stems from our fascination with true crime, where much can be said on turning the misfortunes and horrors experienced by real people into entertainment. Alongside the historical occurrence of white women being held up as paragons of virtue and metaphors for the nation state to justify patriarchal white sovereignty (but that's a conversation for another time). Mainstream news coverage plays an important part in creating awareness and crowdsourcing information that social media and word of mouth alone, must work harder to achieve.
Whether a person is young, attractive, white, and wealthy should not determine if they are afforded airtime, let alone justice. It's a link that connects the deaths that are reported in the media and those that are glossed over. A subject that was a large focus in the wake of George Floyd Jr's murder and one that still permeates Australian discourse around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody, which according to the latest figures presented by the national Aboriginal Legal Service stands at 500 deaths since the 1991 Royal Commission.
And while addressing the systemic forces that allow these deaths and disappearances to happen in 2021 is going to take a lot more than this article to solve, the least we can do is say their names and recognise their stories: Lauren Smith-Fields. Charlene Warrior.