Speaking of Women's Rights: Don't Leave Women Out of the Conversation on Police Brutality

Friday, July 15, 2016

Don't Leave Women Out of the Conversation on Police Brutality

By Kelsey Jones

Last week, in the span of less than 48 hours, two black men—Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—were killed by law enforcement, reigniting protests across the country against police brutality. Thousands of men, women, and children marched in the streets, and millions more shared their grief and outrage over social media.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was started by three women in July 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, has been at the heart of the push to end police brutality since its inception.

Although the #BlackLivesMatter movement itself has made a point of recognizing the specific experiences and intersections of police brutality and gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, much of the media portrayals and public perceptions label police brutality as an issue facing black men exclusively.

Women are primarily discussed as fearing for their sons and husbands, which is an important reproductive justice issue. But without the acknowledgement of black women’s specific experiences with police violence, this framework isn’t telling the whole truth.

“I think any conversation about police brutality must include black women,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history at Georgetown University, in an interview with Dissent magazine. “Even if women are not the majority of the victims of homicide, the way they are profiled and targeted by police is incredibly gendered.”

The African American Policy Forum released a report last year detailing police violence against black women. The list of names is long, and their stories cross lines drawn by age, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and location.

As the report says, “The erasure of Black women is not purely a matter of missing facts. Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them.”

This week marks one year since Sandra Bland died in police custody after being arrested at a traffic stop. She was originally pulled over for failing to use her blinker to switch lanes, and the officer eventually pulled her out of the car after she declined to put out her cigarette and demanded to know why she was being arrested. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later, sparking national outrage after a video of the arrest surfaced.

#SayHerName, a campaign to increase visibility of black women who are victims of police violence, was chanted at protests and rallies across the country. Sandra’s death was a sobering reminder of the vulnerability of black people and the necessity of an inclusive movement.

But the public uproar surrounding Sandra’s death was an outlier to the countless other stories that have been underreported, or not reported on at all. We cannot exclude these women from the discussion on police brutality, race relations, and systemic oppressions. When we #SayHerName, it must carry the weight of every woman who has experienced, and who will experience, injustice at the hands of law enforcement.

Meagan Hockaday and Janisha Fonville were both shot and killed in 2015 after officers responded to calls of a domestic dispute and domestic violence, respectively. Within the span of a few months, videos surfaced of two teenage girls, one in Texas and one in South Carolina, who experienced excessive force by officers. Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by an off-duty officer after he confronted her and her friends for talking too loudly. And the list continues.

Women—especially transgender and queer women—experience the same systemic oppression and violence that black men face. But what makes black women’s experiences distinct is the perceived power dynamic between men and women and the threat of sexual violence.

For instance, Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer, raped and sexually assaulted at least 13 black women—ranging in age between 17 and 57 years old—in the neighborhood he patrolled, targeting women he believed would be less likely to report him or press charges.

Black women experience police violence at a rate almost identical to that of black men, but aside from a handful of cases—Sandra Bland being one of them—those acts of violence do not always spark the same public outcry.

In order to recognize the purpose of Black Lives Matter and create true systemic change, the media, and culture writ large, needs to afford the harassment, assault, and shooting of black women by police officers the same outrage and outcry as that accompanying the deaths of black men.

Because black women’s lives matter, too.

Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud | Creative Commons