Centering Black Women’s Experiences Of Police Violence
Early one morning in July 2015, a new hashtag – #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland? – popped up on Twitter. The question pertained to the death in police custody of a 28-year-old Black woman from Naperville, Illinois, shortly after her arrest in Prairie View, Texas, on July 10, 2015. Police claimed she committed suicide; her family is certain she did no such thing. They had spoken to her just hours before she was alleged to have taken her own life, discussing arrangements to post her bail.
A few days later, a cop watcher’s video was released by Al Jazeera. You can hear Sandra Bland’s voice in the background crying, “You just slammed my head to the ground! Do you not even care about that?” “I can’t hear!” and “I can’t even fucking feel my arm!” The video ends with Bland thanking the cop watcher for recording the incident as she is placed in a police car. Three days later she was dead.
Just over a week after the first video came out, the police department released a recording of Bland’s initial traffic stop from the police cruiser’s dashboard camera. The video showed officers following Bland for a period of time as she drove away from Prairie View A&M University, where she had just completed paperwork for a new job. They eventually pulled her over for failing to use a turn signal before changing lanes.
These women’s deaths are a product of policing that frames Black women as deserving of punishment rather than protection.
Bland calmly explained, in response to a direct question by Officer Brian Encinia, why she was irritated by the ticket she was being issued, protesting that she was pulling over to get out of the police car’s way, as she assumed there was an emergency. When she finished, Encinia sarcastically asked her, “Are you done?” Bland responded that she was only answering the question she was asked, and told the officer to do what he needed to do so that she could be on her way. Instead of bringing the encounter to a close at that point, as the US Constitution – which limits the duration of traffic stops to the time reasonably necessary to investigate and issue a ticket – would require, Encinia further provoked Bland by sarcastically asking her to put out her cigarette as he finished writing the ticket. Bland asserted her right to smoke a cigarette in her own car.
At that point, Encinia escalated the interaction, ordering Bland out of her car, physically assaulting her when she asked why, and threatening to “light her up” with his Taser if she didn’t comply with his shouted orders. After moving Bland out of view of the dashboard camera, Encinia roughly handcuffed her, hurting her wrists, and slammed her to the ground, striking her head and causing her to lose hearing and feeling in her arm. She was charged with assaulting a public servant, and bail was set at $5,000.
Bland was found hanging in her jail cell three days later. Authorities claim she committed suicide; her family and community suspect foul play. Facebook videos of Bland talking about the importance of taking action, speaking out and resisting police brutality contributed to the sense that Bland was punished for taking a stand for her rights.
Within weeks Bland’s case galvanized protests outside the jail where she died and across the nation, garnering national mainstream and independent media attention. Her case is among the few involving Black women to do so since demonstrations and public debate around racial profiling and police brutality were reignited in the wake of the police killings of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Both coverage and actions were fueled by mounting calls for a response to police violence against Black women, under the rubric #SayHerName.
The Broader Context of Police Attacks on Black Women
While what happened to Sandra Bland was extraordinary in some respects, it was commonplace in many. A day after Bland’s death, another Black woman, 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, was found dead in police custody. A total of five cases of Black women dying in police custody, including Bland and Chapman, surfaced the same month. They were preceded by many more, including Sheneque Proctor, Kyam Livingston and Natasha McKenna. The cause of death varies – apparent suicide, failure to provide necessary medical attention, violence at the hands of police officers – but ultimately, no matter the circumstances, these women’s deaths are also a product of the policing practices that landed them in police custody in the first place: racial profiling, policing of poverty, and police responses to mental illness and domestic violence that frame Black women as deserving of punishment rather than protection, of neglect rather than nurturing.
Black Women’s Experiences of Driving While Black
As Bland’s traffic stop demonstrates, “driving while Black” is a phenomenon experienced by Black women alongside Black men. In fact, in 2013, in Ferguson, Missouri, more Black women drivers were stopped than any other group, including Black men. Nationally, when traffic stop data is analyzed by both race and gender, researchers find that “for both men and women there is an identical pattern of stops by race/ethnicity.” (1)
Bland was stopped for a traffic violation most drivers commit on a daily basis on the nation’s roadways without any consequences. She was neither the first nor the last. For instance, astronaut Mae Jemison had a similar experience almost two decades earlier when she was stopped in her hometown by a Texas police officer several years after becoming the first Black woman in space. He alleged she made an illegal turn – she countered that it was a shortcut regularly taken by almost everyone in town to get to her destination. Upon discovering that Jemison had an outstanding traffic ticket, the officer arrested and cuffed her, pushed her face down into the pavement, and forced her to remove her shoes and walk barefoot from the patrol car to the police station – a form of punishment and humiliation sometimes meted out by police officers to women of color. (2)
Sometimes, as was the case for Brandy Hamilton and Alexandria Randle, the traffic stop is followed by a search. In their case, invasive and degrading vaginal cavity searches were conducted by the side of the road outside Dallas, Texas, in 2012. The officers claimed to be searching for drugs after allegedly smelling marijuana on the two women during the stop. No drugs were found. The searches were videotaped on a dashboard camera, just as Bland’s stop was – and the footage is a heartbreaking show of humiliation and outrage. Hamilton and Randle were not alone. In fact, this practice was so pervasive that the Texas Legislature passed a law banning roadside cavity searches in 2015.
Sometimes, instead of looking for drugs, officers conduct unlawful “gender searches” to humiliate or assign gender to transgender and gender-nonconforming people based on anatomy – as they threatened to do to Juan Evans in East Point, Georgia. Evans, an activist with the Racial Justice Action Center who has since died, turned his traffic stop ordeal into a victory, successfully leading the fight for a policy banning such practices in East Point. Unfortunately, countless other instances of similar violations of transgender people go unpunished and unaddressed.
Sexual misconduct is the second most frequently reported form of police officer misconduct after excessive force.
Sometimes, as in Bland’s case, traffic stops are accompanied by threats and use of excessive force. The dashcam video of Bland’s arrest is strikingly similar to another traffic stop, of another Sandra, caught on tape almost two decades earlier. In early 1996, Sandra Antor, a 26-year-old African American nursing student from Miami, was traveling along a lonely stretch of Interstate 95 to visit friends in North Carolina when she was pulled over by an unmarked car driven by State Trooper W.H. Beckwith. Rather than approaching Antor’s car with a friendly “how ya’ doin'” as he was previously recorded doing with white motorists, Beckwith charged out of the patrol car, gun drawn, screaming repeatedly at the top of his lungs, “Roll your window down NOW!” Approaching the car swiftly until his gun was pointed directly at Antor’s head, he proceeded to violently yank the driver side door open and tear at Antor’s clothes, screaming, “Out of the damn car NOW!” Antor is heard explaining that she’s having trouble getting out of the car because her seat belt is still on.
Instead of threatening to “light her up” with a Taser as Encinia did Bland, Beckwith told Antor that she was “fixing to taste liquid hell in a minute,” threatening her with pepper spray. Once she managed to get out of the car, Beckwith threw Antor down on the side of the highway as cars sped by, hitting her as he handcuffed her – much as Bland was thrown to the ground by the side of the Texas road she was stopped on. Although the videotape clearly shows that Antor put up absolutely no resistance to the officer’s abuse, Beckwith is heard screaming, “Quit fighting me!” – much like Encinia subsequently claimed that Bland kicked him, while the dashcam video shows no such thing.
Unlike Bland, Antor lived to tell the tale, explaining Beckwith’s actions in much the same way many of us understood Encinia’s: The officer was punishing a Black woman who didn’t play “Mammy,” who asked questions, who expressed frustration at discriminatory policing, who didn’t show him the deference he felt he deserved. When asked during an interview what she believed Beckwith was thinking when he was hitting her, Antor immediately responded, “Damn Black bitch.” She goes on to say, “He was pissed … Who the hell do I think I am? Don’t I know where I am? This is his neck of the woods,” adopting a white Southern accent for the last sentence. “That is how I interpret it,” she says, summarizing in a single statement the historical context – framed by slavery and Jim Crow – of her experience, as well as the inseparable roles played by her race and gender in informing the officer’s abuse. She may as well have been describing Bland’s arrest, or countless other daily interactions between Black women and police that never make national news.
For some women, driving while Black turns deadly, as it did for LaTanya Haggerty, who was killed during a traffic stop in Chicago in 1999; Kendra James, who was killed during a traffic stop in Oregon in 2003; and Malissa Williams, who was killed in Cleveland in 2015 after a police chase that also stemmed from an alleged failure to use a turn signal.
Mya Hall, a Black transgender woman, took a wrong turn onto the campus of the National Security Agency just outside Baltimore, Maryland. She was shot by police as she was turning around and attempting to leave. Given no benefit of the doubt, no professional courtesy and no chance to explain herself, Hall’s life was taken as if her Black life, like so many others, didn’t matter: a casualty of the presumption that transgender people of color are inherently violent and their lives inherently not valuable – and of the structural transphobic discrimination, violence and exclusion that ultimately placed Hall in police crosshairs. Hall’s death came just weeks before Baltimore erupted in outrage following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, but was not centered in the Baltimore uprising that followed.
Hidden Abuse: Sexual Harassment and Assault by Police
Traffic stops are also frequently a site of sexual harassment and abuse, as evidenced by the experiences of a dozen Black women sexually assaulted by Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who preyed on women he pulled over, including a 57-year-old grandmother he stopped as she was heading home from a domino game in 2014. He ordered her to lift her shirt and bra, and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Hundreds more such cases have been documented by researchers, leading the International Association of Chiefs of Police to issue a report and the Cato Institute to conclude that sexual misconduct is the second most frequently reported form of police officer misconduct after excessive force.
The New Jim Crow
A few months before Sandra Bland’s death, Twitter lit up with posts tagged #McKinney. A police officer had violently assaulted a 14-year-old Black girl named Dajerria Becton in McKinney, Texas, in response to calls for removal of Black youth using a neighborhood pool.
“He grabbed me, twisted my arm on my back and shoved me in the grass and started pulling the back of my braids,” Becton said. “I was telling him to get off me because my back was hurting bad.” Again, the officer’s conduct sparked local and national outrage. Again, the case was outrageous, but not unusual. Every day police officers sexually harass, tase and assault young Black girls. Becton’s experience was not only reminiscent of Jim Crow era policing of pools, beaches and lunch counters; it reflected historic and present-day patterns of gendered policing of race and borders – between communities and between countries.
Punishment Rather Than Protection
Sometimes police violence spreads into homes, in the context of calls for help. In February 2015, a Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer responding to a domestic violence call shot Janisha Fonville in front of her girlfriend, who maintains that Fonville posed no threat to the officer, who had a history of using excessive and deadly force.
In the end, Fonville, Hall, Becton and Bland’s cases – while each unique and egregious – are merely four cases of police violence against Black women that happened to take place in the first half of 2015. Collectively, their cases feature several of the longstanding patterns of police abuse of Black women that have played out in the shadows over the decades and centuries.
Police violence uniquely affects Black women, but not exclusively. Indigenous women have been primary targets of colonial, state and police violence since 1492. Latinas like Jessie Hernandez, a 17-year-old queer Latina shot dead by Denver police in January 2015, are also clearly in the crosshairs of police profiling and brutality. Asian women are routinely profiled and subjected to discriminatory policing of prostitution-related offenses, as well as police violence. Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian women have similarly endured consistent police profiling and violence, particularly over the past decades in the context of the “war on terror.”
Racially Gendered Threat
The mere presence of Black, Indigenous and immigrant women is deemed unwanted, “dangerous” and “out of place” in public spaces and punished through “broken windows” policing, which echoes past enforcement of Black Codes, vagrancy laws, laws governing gender-appropriate clothing and “common nightwalker” laws. No matter how young, vulnerable or innocuous, women of color are treated by police as if they inherently present a racially gendered, sometimes sexual, threat to the peace and well-being of white America.
It is no longer tenable to continue to operate as if women of color are not targets of state violence.
The truth of this assertion is borne out by the statistics documenting street stops in New York City, where rates of racial disparities in stops, frisks and arrests are identical for Black and Latino men and Black and Latina women. It can also be seen in the 800 percent increase in incarceration rates of women since the 1980s, the vast majority of whom are Black and Latina due to racially discriminatory drug enforcement practices and responses to poverty and violence. And it manifests in the racial disparities in enforcement of prostitution-related offenses.
These are but a few of the patterns that inform police violence against women of color and trans and queer people of color: pretextual traffic stops accompanied by physical and sexual violence, profiling, discriminatory targeting, unlawful and degrading searches, and the extortion of sex in the context of both the war on drugs and enforcement of prostitution laws. Punitive police responses premised on presumptions that Black women, women of color, and transgender and queer people are inherently violent and must be beaten into submission – even in the context of calls for help – are also prevalent. And the exclusion of racially gendered bodies from public spaces – and from public discourse around profiling and policing – is all too common.
Say Her Name: Visibility and Resistance
Thanks to an increasing chorus of voices, the invisibility of women and trans and queer people of color’s experiences of policing is slowly lifting. The founders of the Black Lives Matter movement have notably and explicitly insisted that all Black lives matter – including those of women, trans people and queer folks. Black women have also shifted public conversations through their powerful leadership on the ground in Ferguson, New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland and around the country. The publication of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women also contributed to increasing visibility, as did the call for the first National Day of Actionto End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls on May 21, 2015, by Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter and Ferguson Action. Over 30 communities across the country responded with vigils, direct actions and protests focused on the experiences of women like Fonville and Hall, along with countless others. Sandra Bland’s death was commemorated by light actions in dozens of cities. T-shirts and memes listing the names of women killed by police, along with art exhibitshighlighting Black women’s experiences of police and state violence, have sprung up, building momentum.
Centering women and trans people’s experiences will push us beyond police reform to a radical reimagination of public safety.
The question then becomes not only whether these experiences will remain within the frame of the conversation, but also whether they will inform our thinking and action around policing and safety. It seems, despite continued resistance in some sectors and the ongoing erasure of the experiences of women and trans and queer folks of color in others, the debate has moved past a point of no return. It is no longer tenable to continue to operate as if Black women and women of color – queer and not queer, trans and not trans – are not targets of state violence, or underserving of attention. Of course, it is incumbent on all those concerned with police violence to take up the charge to ensure that, going forward, our analysis and actions are driven by the ways in which the policing of gender and sexuality work in the service of the policing of race and poverty, making women, trans people and queer people of color targets of police violence in ways that are both similar to, and different from, the ways in which other members of their communities are targeted.
Which, of course, raises the question of how bringing the experiences of Black women, women of color and LGBTQ people to the center of the narrative shifts the shape of resistance and the form of demands.
Take the issue of racial profiling; the conversation is incomplete unless it incorporates a discussion of the ways in which it affects women like Bland, Becton, Hall and Fonville. And remedies will be insufficient unless racial profiling bans – such as the federal End Racial Profiling Act – also prohibit profiling based on gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, as recommended in May 2015 by thePresident’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, at the urging of activists across the country. And policies enacted to effectuate such profiling bans must include measures to address gender and sexuality-specific forms of racial and gender profiling, such as confiscation and citation of possession or presence of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses or “lewd” conduct.
Centering women and trans people’s experiences will also require movements against police violence to expand our analysis of state violence to include sexual assault by police, violence against pregnant and parenting women, policing of prostitution, deadly responses to domestic violence and the routine violence and violation of police interactions with transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
It will require us to pursue solutions that are both gender-specific and inclusive – whether it’s demanding that special prosecutors appointed to investigate police killings also investigate police rapes; calling for an end to Taser use against pregnant women and children; or advocating for civilian oversight bodies trained to effectively adjudicate and administer discipline in cases of sexual assault and homophobic and transphobic abuse by police.
Most importantly, it will push us beyond police reform to a radical reimagination of public safety. When we begin to understand that police are a significant source of violence against women and LGBTQ people of color – even as they are promoted as our protectors – we must question whether countering police violence is really a question of dealing with a few “bad apples” or problematic policies. Challenging police violence requires a challenge to the institutional structure itself, which is deeply rooted in policing the boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, poverty and nation. Going forward, our charge is not only to protest the killings, demand policy changes and call for accountability, but also to nurture values and structures that will truly produce safety for all of us.
2. Kathryn K. Russell, The Color of Crime – Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment and Other Macroaggressions 36 (1999); “Dr. Mae Jemison was made to walk barefoot.” New York Amsterdam News, Vol. 87, No. 11, Saturday, March 16, 1996:4, 36.