The idea of the Strong Black Woman who can endure anything hearkens back to slavery, but like the myth of Mammy, it is inherently dehumanizing and damaging. We can see its impact in how violence against Black women is perceived even when it comes from those who are supposed to protect citizens, like the police. There is no question that Black men in America have obstacles to overcome, that racism negatively affects their access to opportunity. Black women face the same racism with the added burden of misogyny. Discussions of police brutality in America tend to center on Black men, yet according to the NAACP’s Legal Defense fund, women accounted for 20% of unarmed people of color killed by police between 1999 and 2014.
As a culture, we often ignore Black female victims of brutality and the specific types of violence leveled against them, in part because police brutality against women is more likely to be sexual violence that doesn’t occur in places where evidence is easy to collect and preserve. It’s rare for cases — like Daniel Holtzclaw’s crimes in Oklahoma — to come to national attention. Holtzclaw in January was sentenced to 263 years in prison for 18 counts of sexually assaulting Black women while on duty and in uniform. But after the initial news stories broke, the case faded into the background of the ongoing national conversation about police brutality, seen in movements like #BlackLivesMatter. Holtzclaw isn’t as much of an anomaly as a casual observer might think; according to the 2010 Cato Institute’s study of police misconduct, sexual violence is the second most common complaint made against police after excessive force.
The government has never collected meaningful statistics about victims of police brutality, leaving grass-roots organizations to do the work. Unfortunately, if a case does not reach media attention in many jurisdictions, police have no duty to report their own misconduct to an outside agency, and internal investigations rarely find officers culpable no matter what crimes they may have committed. As a result, a combination of sexism and an ongoing aversion in American culture to recognizing that Black women can be victimized has contributed to a myth that only men are at risk. Video recording makes it even easier to focus on the use of weapons by police, as images of shootings are more likely to incite a public response. Yet there are videos of police officers beating women like Marlene Pinnock, dragging women like Denise Stewart naked from their homes. Typing “cop beats woman” into Google yields dozens of news stories and images. While not all the victims are Black, they are often of color, and in many cases disabled, mentally ill, pregnant or otherwise not actually a threat to an officer armed with a gun and the power of the state.
Whether the stories are from Illinois, Missouri, Ohio or Maryland, more attention tends to be paid when the victims of lethal police brutality are male. Yet Black women of all ages also face the possibility of being abused or even killed by police. There is an idea that police brutality only affects those who have a reason to attract the attention of police. But respectability cannot save Black women or men from police misconduct.
Kathryn Johnston was a 92-year-old woman asleep in her bed when Atlanta police burst into her home with a no-knock warrant. After she was dead, police officers planted drugs, and attempted to frame her for crimes she had never committed. Tanisha Anderson’s family called police seeking help, and instead, officers used such force in restraining her that her death was ruled a homicide. Yvette Smith was shot to death in 2014 while complying with an officer’s instructions. In 2012, Rekia Boyd was shot in the back of the head by Chicago police officer Dante Servin, who admitted that he was firing over his shoulder at someone else when she was killed. The man he shot at wasn’t found with a weapon, and Servin walked away from killing Boyd without even a slap on the wrist after the judge in his trial dismissed the charges.
So why isn’t there a national outpouring of concern for the safety of Black women? Campaigns like #BlackGirlsMatter, #SayHerName and #BlackWomensLivesMatter have attempted to highlight the discrimination Black women face from police, and recent efforts to combat the school-to-prison pipeline that marginalized communities face have highlighted the way that Black girls are being affected from a very young age. But while awareness is growing, a national discussion has yet to begin about the very real impact of brutality on Black women. Discussions of policies like stop and frisk in New York, Chicago’s police contact cards, and other cities’ policing strategies that have used racial profiling and adversely affected Black communities have also centered on men. But Black women who have reported sexual misconduct often encounter it during those stops. In New York City alone, some 16,000 women were stopped in 2011, many were searched by male officers because the policy did not require officers to wait for a woman to arrive to conduct the search. The Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class-action lawsuit — Floyd, et al v. City of New York, et al — and in August 2013, a federal judge found the New York City Police Department liable for a pattern of racial profiling and unconstitutional stops.
But stopping one problematic practice in one city isn’t enough to disrupt a societal norm that makes the dehumanization of Black women’s bodies so acceptable that few even realize that we are in danger. Ask any Black woman in America who lives in a major U.S. city and she probably has a story about the police that isn’t positive. My own stories date back to the eighth grade and I’ve never been in trouble with the law. Yet, I’ve been stopped, harassed and, yes, even frisked by officers on the pretense that I fit some mythical description. And legally there is nothing I can do about it, because as the law stands now, the assumption is that Black people, Black bodies are inherently dangerous simply for existing. Add in the frustrating realization that for Black women, our own communities and communities that should stand in solidarity with us don’t even think of us as deserving safety, and the conversations get even harder to have in good faith.
Our bodies are criminalized for existing; that’s where terms like “driving while Black” come from. But if you can’t walk while Black, sleep while Black or even shower while Black, then what can you do? Black women and men are targeted by police for existing while Black, and as a culture, we have to discuss not only why that happens, but also what kind of long-term impact this kind of policing has on communities. A favorite response to any complaints about police brutality is the specter of violence in Chicago. Residents are often lambasted for not being more cooperative with police, yet if you have to worry as a community that calling police for help can get you killed, then how do you trust them? When your city is home to the Jon Burge torture scandal, the death of Rekia Boyd and a “Black site” secret interrogation facility as reported by the Guardian in February, then what is your relationship with police? How does any community facing the risk of having a member be a victim of extrajudicial violence every 24 hours engage with those who can dispense that violence and often get away with it? It’s easier to insist that a community under siege prove its right to exist than it is to address those oppressing the community and demand accountability. But the easy road is often the worst possible approach.
When Officer David Casebolt in McKinney, Texas, was filmed kneeling on the back of a 14-year-old girl in a swimsuit, some people were outraged. Unfortunately, many more found a way to blame the victim for the crime of being at a pool party in a gated community. The fact that she was an invited guest, that the police didn’t bother to find out that Black residents were throwing the party, and that the fight they were called to break up was allegedly started by white residents hurling racial slurs didn’t really register in the national conversation at first. Over and over again, it has taken an outcry via social media by Black women and their allies to garner attention for these kinds of cases. If we know that racial profiling is wrong, that excessive force is inherently an abuse of police powers, then why don’t we know, as a society, that brutality can happen to Black women too? Why aren’t the national conversations about policing more inclusive?
Erasure is not equality, and that is particularly relevant in discussions of police brutality where an entire community is being harmed, and focusing on the safety of some members can only increase the danger to others. Gendered assumptions about police misconduct further contribute to the marginalization of those already most at risk. And it is not just cisgender people in danger. Police violence against transgender people, while woefully underreported, continues to escalate. While gender identity should not be a factor in safety, clearly it has as much of an impact as race. Just as identities intersect, so too can factors of oppression. Policing in America is inherently flawed, and fixing it will require more than one community stepping up to address the social factors that have made the institution what it is today.
Black Lives Matter has never meant that no other lives matter. For those who hear “Black Lives Matter,” and insist that “All Lives Matter,” the way to show that is by making sure every life is valued, that every community is protected. A focus on the lives of those who are not Black cis men doesn’t mean that the lives of Black men don’t matter, it is just a recognition that other lives are endangered and that we must work together to protect everyone.
The ideal of policing is that it exists to protect and serve our communities. All our communities. Not just those fortunate enough not to be marginalized. As allegations of police misconduct continue to expand, as victims are increasingly from communities that may have once been able to trust the police, the question can’t be, “Why does this matter?” It has to be, “What can we do so this doesn’t keep happening?” Whether the answer is to lobby for better federal oversight, ensuring that police agencies aren’t investigating their own misconduct, or some other measure, we all must work to fix the problem instead of insisting that victims can somehow do something different to avoid being targets.
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.