[Trigger warnings: sexual violence, beatings, police brutality, domestic violence, racism]
The recent events in Ferguson, MO probably have a variety of significance for people, when, in response to a policeman shooting dead black teenager with his hands up and then leaving his body lying in the street for hours, and the policeman in question, neither arrested nor charged, continuing to draw a salary, the black community turned out in massive protests, and were met by militarized police, snipers, and tear gas. Many black Americans have described the killing of Brown as an example par excellence of the way police occupy their neighborhoods and abuse the residents. For many white Americans, it was a shock to see such a baldly racist assault on people protesting the murder of a kid, as immersion in white privilege had led many to dismiss the accounts of pervasive police brutality and abuse black people regularly report as isolated incidents (I’m leaving out the whites who chose to use the events to bolster their narratives of white supremacy, because fuck them).
For me, as a white woman raised by anti-racist Marxists, it was both startling and a confirmation. It was a confirmation of everything my parents had told me about the police while I was growing up. It was startling because it was such a complete confirmation of what I had been told, and perhaps because I had been lulled into a bit of condescending “I’m sure they’re exaggerating” attitude by a white pop culture awash in narratives of good-guy cops violating people’s rights for the greater good. But I had been warned. I had been told that police were committed to protecting the entrenched interests of those in power; that they were abusive, brutal, and not to be trusted; that it had nothing to do with the personal morality or racism of individual cops, but was a systemic, racist corruption; that the people they were interested in protecting was above all themselves. Twenty-five years ago, my father was called for jury duty once and when asked if he would trust a cop’s testimony, said absolutely not. The potential juror next to him, a black man, responded by saying that if a cop called him up and told him it was raining outside, he’d ask his wife to look out the window and check. My father asked to shake his hand.
So when I think about feminism’s relationship to law enforcement and the US legal system, I’m bringing with me a very particular political background, one that sits uneasily when not actively clashing with liberal feminist priorities that I have often supported.
Despite white mainstream feminism’s adoption of the term “intersectionality,” an awareness of systemic police racism and brutality, the militarization of the police and their effect on black communities (and others—see below) seems to drop away whenever that feminism takes up the issues of sexual and domestic violence. The solutions bandied about and that we are rallied to support tend to revolve around law enforcement, for example, the Violence Against Women Act. But how can we act like the police who respond to sexual and domestic violence calls are somehow not the same police who were tear-gassing black people in their own front yards in Ferguson, not the same police who wrote an op-ed piece telling us all that if we didn’t want to be the victim of police brutality, we needed to obey them unquestioningly and without any show of defiance? When a black woman in Ferguson, or anywhere else in the US, for that matter, is raped, or beaten by her partner, do we as feminists seriously expect her to call the cops? Is that the only solution we’re offering? If so, it’s no surprise that so many black women don’t see feminism as their movement, a movement that has fully embraced the meaning of intersectionality and integrated their interests and concerns. Because they’re right.
The list of black men killed by police is a long one; Michael Brown and Eric Garner are only two of the recent names added to it. But what about the women and girls? Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, Shantel Davis, Tarika Wilson, Aiyana Jones—they’re equally dead. Professor Ersula Ore was assaulted on her own campus. We have video of the California Highway Patrol brutally beating Marlene Pinnock and of two cops in San Antonio, Texas beating twenty-one-year-old Destiny Rios. When feminists advocate for VAWA and increased law enforcement involvement as the best answer to sexual violence, we’re telling black women to turn to the people who kill them.
To say nothing of rape. Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City police officer who is charged with sexually assaulting eight black women after pulling them over for false traffic stops, who chose his victims with the care most predators do, picking women who were low-income, some of whom had a history of drug use—women who would be less likely to be believed. He’s not the only one (to be fair, I do not know the race of the women raped by these officers; they could be just as dangerous to white women). Is this whom we’re telling black women to call?
And it’s not just the cops. What happens to black women in the legal system? Well, look at Marissa McDonald, who’s facing a possible sixty years for firing a shot that hit nobody at her abusive husband (from the same prosecutor who lost the George Zimmer man case, no less). Look at Cece McDonald, the trans woman imprisoned and denied medical care because she stood up to street harassers and defended herself when the conflict turned physical—hell, there were commenters on this site who argued that she gave up her right to self-defense because she turned to the harasser and answered him back, commenters on this site trying to find a way to exculpate a white man with a swastika tattoo who was shouting racist and transphobic slurs at a passing woman from the clearly unfounded (sarcasm) charge of neo-nazi-ism. She was put in solitary.
Black women are not the only women who just might not want to turn to the cops if they’ve been raped and/or battered. What about trans women? A trans woman who calls the cops has to steel herself for repeated misgendering at the least. What about undocumented immigrants? What about sex workers? These women are particularly vulnerable to the cop-rapists discussed above. What about Native American women, for whom police are representatives of a hostile state responsible for the genocide of their people?
And let’s not pretend that those women who like me are white and comfortably middle-class are invulnerable. To pick recent notorious cases in my hometown, police can get away with raping us if we’re drunk, because after all, that cervical bruising could have happened in the shower—what? Don’t you scrub your cervix every morning? (One of those cops is currently suing the victim for $175,000,000.) And police can get away with making explicit plans to kidnap, rape, torture, and kill us because hey, those were just plans. He was just talking. And a jury will refuse to convict a cop for rape because his victim can’t remember vital details about the incident…like the color of the car parked opposite. White women may be raised to trust the police (or not), but look at these men. We’re supposed to call them? Their buddies?
Speaking of cops, have you seen the domestic violence rates on them? Cops who smoke a joint or steal can count on losing their jobs, but cops who beat their wives or girlfriends? Hey, there’s a thirty percent chance they’ll still be on the job, and quite frankly, I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s that low. Even so, families of police officers experience domestic violence at a rate two to four times the average. These are the people we’re supposed to trust to enforce VAWA fairly? These are the people in whose hands we’re placing that power?
This is not a new topic or a new conversation. It’s just one that white liberal mainstream feminism has been avoiding in favor of supporting and strengthening police and legal power. Black women, trans women, sex workers—they’ve been having this conversation for quite some time. Feminism needs to take their voices and analyses on board. We need to stop pretending that black women, NA women, trans women, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, are marginal women, women whose concerns aren’t representative. We need to stop envisioning rape victims as mainly white, middle-class or professional, cis citizens; we need to understand what it means for a policeman not to be an ally, and we need to understand that while that could be any of us, it’s far more likely to affect some of us than others. And feminists—white liberal mainstream feminists especially—need to really think about how much we are willing to collaborate with an increasingly militarized police force that is routinely responsible for the deaths of black women and men.
I’m not saying that calling the cops is never the right answer for any woman. I’m saying there are numerous situations in which calling the cops can’t be a woman’s go-to, and numerous reasons for many women not to trust them. I’m a white middle-class professional cis woman with a good knowledge of my rights and excellent access to advocates. I would probably talk to police if I were the victim of a crime. But feminism and feminist solutions can’t be just about me. What other solutions and ideas are out there? Well, here are some places to start:
Free Marissa Now! has put out a book, No Selves to Defend, consisting of essays by various women of color about what it means for them to defend themselves when the legal system punishes them for it.
Lauren Chief Elk has written two excellent pieces about Native American women and sexual violence, No IVAWA, and There is No “We”: V-Day, Indigenous Women, and the Myth of Shared Gender Oppression.
INCITE is an organization of “radical feminists of color working to end violence against women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color, and our communities.”