The police aren’t just terrorizing Black men. They have a history dating back to Jim Crow of brutalizing Black women, too: tasing, kicking, punching, slamming their bodies. And killing them.
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Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who pretended to be African American for many years, must be somewhere crying crocodile tears because real Black women are suddenly and tragically in the news.
There is war on Black women and girls and the deadly consequences of living while Black in White supremacist America was yet again all too clear last week.
As my academic brother Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, “The existential question of who is black has been answered in the most concussive way possible: the nine men and women slain as they prayed last night at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, were Black. The people for whom this new tableau of horror is most rooted in American history are black as well.”
Last Wednesday, terrorist Dylann Roof carried out his racist mercenary plan in the name of his pathological worldview—his desire to take back the country that is already his and to protect White women from rape. Welcomed into a Black sanctuary, he betrayed the sense of community and fellowship slaughtering nine African-American lives while they prayed to God. But like so often, it was mostly Black women who paid the price. Six of his victims were Black women, and the youngest survivor is a 5-year-old Black girl who lay under her grandmother’s bloody corpse and played dead.
While media narratives continue to focus on Black men and boys through stories of criminality and pathology, the realities of Black female suffering, especially the ways in which White police officers assault Black females in sexually prurient ways, continue to be displaced.
“Black women aren’t just leered at by the police, we’re targeted, too,” writes Rebecca Carroll. “We know this from the cases of Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, and Tarika Wilson, among so many others, even though the spectacle of Black male annihilation in America is so malignantly embedded in the cultural psyche.” To erase the Blue-on-Black women violence, to ignore the racial and gendered specificity, does the work of anti-blackness.
It’s time to address the denial of bodily integrity to Black females, especially through police violence, a violence that stretches all the way to the politics of abortion and birth control. Black women and White men remain, for the most part, in separate worlds, socially distant in most cases. Many of us navigate life without any intimate or even friendly contact with White men. Only a small minority of Black women date or marry White men. Across this gulf, it is easy for suspicion and hostilities to fester; for stereotypes of us to thrive unchallenged in their eyes and guide interactions with us. And so news headlines and videos of brutality exacerbate our fear of White men in general, but White men with badges are a whole other level of scary.
A quick Google search (yes, it is that easy for those who NEED more evidence) of police assaults against Black women and teens reveals too many news stories and graphic videos of women of various ages, some of them visibly pregnant, being cursed at, punched, tasered, kicked, and body-slammed to the ground by White police officers.
For example, in Fairfield, Ohio, police attacked Krystal Dixon and her 12-year-old niece at a swimming pool. Her niece and others were pepper-sprayed and the 12-year-old suffered a broken jaw and ribs when cops grabbed her by the neck and slammed her against a car. Later, the police were commended by their superiors for showing great restraint.
This was just on heels of the violence in McKinney, Texas, where officer Eric Casebolt attacked 15-year-old Dajerria Becton for “running her mouth.” We have gone from White racists dumping acid in pools to prevent Black bodies from sharing leisure spaces with Whites to cops making sure that Black children cannot simply relish in the joys of summer fun.
As the Washington Post reported, “The list of horribles in this video is lengthy. Dajerria and her friends walk away after Casebolt yells, ‘Get out of here. I already told you. Leave!’ Seconds later, he grabs Dajerria and slings her around like a rag doll. Casebolt pulls his gun on two other teens when they attempt to rescue her. He restrains a half-naked and crying Becton, who continually pleads for her mother to be called, face down in the grass. Throughout the encounter, he can be heard hurling expletives at the kids like candy.”
This is all too familiar. A small sampling of headlines and videos showing White police attacking Black women includes:
Kwamesha Sharp, 17 years old, lost her unborn child when a Harvey, Illinois, police officer Richard M. Jones slammed her to the ground and pressed his knee into her abdomen for an extended time, saying he didn’t care that she was pregnant.
Ersula Ore, an Arizona State University professor, was slammed to the ground by a cop for jaywalking.
Lucinda White was tasered by cop R.T. Kahn in Springfield, Illinois, while eight months pregnant.
Another pregnant woman, Nicola Robinson, was punched in the stomach by a police officer in Chicago.
In Rochester, New York, a pregnant woman was body-slammed by a police officer who punched her in the face while another officer smiled.
The list seems endless. Just like the trauma we experience from seeing these videos and related news reports. And then there are the countless cases without video evidence to document the all-too-common brutality. Without “proof,” the brutality they experience is neither visible in social media shares nor the source of mobilization for activists and organizers.
Have we forgotten the Black mother who may have been drugged and raped, strapped to a chair in a Warren, Michigan, police station, where one officer kicked her and another chopped off her hair?
We must not forget the New Mexico police officers who smashed out the windows of Oriana Ferrell’s minivan and recklessly shot into the vehicle as she and her five children fled what she called a wild traffic stop that made her fear for her children’s safety.
We must remember countless Black women in Oklahoma reportedly raped by Officer Daniel Holtzclaw. The brutality of these cases did not lead the media to descend upon Oklahoma City; it did not prompt marches and widespread organizing from both civil-rights organizations or White feminist organizations, much less politicians.
These videos and the daily (un)headlines trigger outrage, unrelenting stress, and debilitating trauma not just because they remind us that we are fundamentally viewed as the enemy by increasingly violent and militarized police forces nationwide, but because they aren’t new. This violence is part of a larger historical narrative that is encoded into our cellular memory and the essence of our DNA. And we feel the weight and force of history behind every word, every attack, every slam, every slur, and every blow.
As recounted by Danielle McGuire in her brilliant At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, the history of America is littered with examples of police brutality toward Black women and teen girls. The cult of womanhood, the mantra to never “hit a girl” and notions of chivalry have never been afforded to Black women.
That the physical assaults and sexual exploitation of Black women by White men has its roots in slavery, where White slave owners exploited Black women’s bodies to bolster their own political, social, economic, and sexual power.
After slavery, Black women were routinely abused by employers, cops, bus drivers, and other authority figures, who retained power over Black women’s bodies by limiting and policing White women and Black men’s sexual and marital choices.
Throughout the Jim Crow era, White men used physical violence as a means of coercion, control, and harassment, with the ritualistic rape of Black women prominent. It is no wonder that when Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, and released to her family that night, the very first thing her mother asked was, “Did they beat you?” Because she knew. All Black women knew.
McGuire tells the story of Gertrude Perkins, a 25-year-old Black woman in 1949 who was accused of public drunkenness. The cops stopped her while walking home. They took her to a railroad embankment and repeatedly raped her at gunpoint, forcing her to have “all types of sex relations.”
In 1946, Viola White refused a bus driver’s order to move out of her seat. The police were called. The officer beat and arrested her. She filed a lawsuit. The officer retaliated by seizing her 16-year-old daughter, driving her to a cemetery and raping her. As the officer thrust himself inside her, she stared at his car and focused on memorizing his tag number. Still, the officer was never charged. He was allowed to slip quietly out of town.
Claudette Colvin was called a “black whore” then yanked from her seat and kicked down the aisle of a bus in March 1955. Officers joked about her breasts and bra size.
This was, and is, the reality that Black women face in America. As McGuire writes: “Away from the public glare and in the backseat of a White man’s car, anything could happen.” They could take a Black woman wherever they wanted and do whatever they pleased with them without fear of punishment. “It was the worst possible situation for a young Black woman—something generations of mothers had warned their daughters to avoid at all cost.”
As Fannie Lou Hamer reminded us, “A Black woman’s body was never hers alone.”
Nor was—or is—a Black girl’s or woman’s body ever protected, or able to feel safe from the threat of harm.
The very sight, idea, and existence of our bodies represents a defiance to White supremacy, to those empowered to protect and serve anti-blackness. McGuire recounts how police, like the ones we see today, were furious that young Black woman had “defied” them. The fact that they see defiance in our very presence is telling.
There are no other groups of women, except trans, whose femininity seems to incite rage and attack as opposed to protection. The fact that we live and breathe is considered a punishable offense. White supremacy empowers White men, and society as a whole to violate our bodies.
No matter the specifics of these recent attacks, there is an undercurrent of sexual violence and dominance that cannot be ignored. The sight of White male police officers choking, grabbing hair, straddling, grabbing the back of necks, and pressing their crotches against Black female bodies during arrests highlights the ways that sexual and racial violence operate within White supremacy. The violence against Black men is every bit as pervasive and reprehensible, but it is different in this sense.
And so if, as women, we have no agency over ourselves, if we cannot count on anyone to look out for our well-being or protect us when attacked, we are fair game, available to be preyed upon at any time. If pregnant Black women can be routinely attacked—something we can’t even imagine happening to White women—and their growing babies treated as fair game, there is no sanctuary to be found.
The message is clear and felt each and every day: We can be harmed physically, intellectually, psychologically, and even economically and there is nobody that WE can call to help us. We can’t dial 9-1-1 and feel the least bit confident that we will be helped, protected, sheltered or treated as anything but vermin and scum of the lowest order. If we are treated appropriately, we are pleasantly shocked. But still, we can never let our guard down, not even for a moment.
We are no longer picking cotton and other cash crops on their plantations, but their racist underlying attitudes and behaviors are now alive and well in police forces everywhere we look. And each time White male cops step into our personal space and put their hands on our bodies it is a kind of historical reenactment that triggers our collective memory and traumatizes us over and over again.
And if you listen to closely to the voices of the Black women and girls in these videos you’ll hear them defiantly cry: “Don’t touch me! Get your hands off me! Why am I being arrested?” Those words and their defiance are a demand for title to their own bodies, a cry heard over hundreds of years of American history.
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