The Gender of Police Violence

“Bye, sexy.”

A teenaged boy launched the comment in my direction from just a few feet away. We’d just been sitting at a table together for about an hour, at a weekly meeting for young men in the neighborhood. I was stunned by the young man’s transgression, but, as many women are conditioned to do, I didn’t respond. Instead, I let the inappropriate comment hang in the air as I left the room.

No Haiti No Orleans by Michael Massenburg.

Like most American women, I have been the target of uninvited comments like this one in the past. The regularity with which such intrusions are directed at women in public space recently inspired its own hashtag, #YouOkSis. The co-creators of the online campaign, Feminista Jones and @BlackGirlDanger, hoped the use of the hashtag would break the silence surrounding the experiences of black women and girls with street harassment. “I wanted to center our voices,” said Feminista Jones in an interview published in the Atlantic, “because I feel like black women’s voices are not always amplified. And I feel it’s my responsibility to do that.” Another recent online effort is #SayHerName, which was inspired by the activism of the Black Youth Project 100 and allies like the African American Policy Forum, a group that published a report called “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” This report seeks to amplify and center the experiences of black women and girls in local and national debates about police violence and reforms.

#YouOkSis and #SayHerName are modern-day campaigns made possible by the technological advances of the twenty-first century and fueled by the power of Black Twitter. Yet the efforts to understand violence as a continuum that includes black women, who also confront police violence and are disproportionately affected by various forms of violence against women, are a throwback to an unfinished black feminist project, one that Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie address in the #SayHerName report: “Black women have consistently played a leadership role in struggles against state violence—from the Underground Railroad to the anti-lynching movement to the current Black Lives Matter campaign—yet the forms of victimization they face at the hands of police are consistently left out of social movement demands.”

#SayHerName and #YouOkSis challenge the legacy of excluding black women and girls from conversations about violence in the black community. In doing so, these online efforts and their on-the-ground actions document the painful and liberating stories of black women and girls. The parallel movements also run the risk, however, of once again presenting these experiences as distinct and competing, rather than parts of a larger whole. Yet it is crucial for the safety of black men and black women to see structural violence and interpersonal violence, police violence and street harassment, as interconnected.

The “bye, sexy,” farewell followed a discussion of police aggression. The discussion took place at a weekly meeting in a public housing complex in San Francisco’s Lower Fillmore neighborhood. I lived there for more than two years while researching a new book. Lincoln, an African American man and father figure to several local teens, led the group. (Names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.) The weekly discussions helped participants process difficult events in the neighborhood, including arrests. On this night, the group was grappling with a recent arrest in the neighborhood. As Lincoln tells it, the incident began when the police got a call that a black man wearing a white T-shirt—a description broad enough to fit every young man in the room—had a gun. When the police arrived, they arrested a man known to the group but, it appears from the conversation, not known for his involvement in street violence. The police handled the man roughly, handcuffing him and slamming him to the ground before throwing him in the back of the police car.

Some of the boys at the meeting saw the arrest; they are saddened and frustrated. I join Lincoln’s efforts to help the boys make sense of the incident, asking them how they felt after witnessing the arrest. One boy says that it makes you feel like you want to hurt the police. Lincoln reminds the boys that they can’t hurt the police and returns to my original question. He asks the group again to talk about their feelings. One of the younger boys, about twelve years old, answers, saying that the arrest of the man makes him feel like it is racist, like the police do not like black people. They deliberately go after the older black men, he says, so that soon just young boys like them are going to be left on the property, and then they will need a pass to get on housing-complex property. I ask whether after witnessing the arrest they feel like the police are there to protect them. They say no, adding that the police do not care if somebody gets shot. When I question how it makes them feel about power, one boy says he feels like he has no power. I ask the group what they can do if they have no power. Stay out of trouble, do well in school, one boy suggests. Pressing, I ask, what else? The usually boisterous group falls silent.

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Nikki Jones is associate professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence and a forthcoming book, The Chosen Ones: Black Men, Violence and the Politics of Redemption, from which this article is adapted.

Source Citation

Jones, Nikki. 2016. The Gender of Police Violence. Tikkun 31(1): 25.

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