A community in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, continues to mourn and protest the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot dead by the police on Saturday. The details of Brown’s death are still unfolding as witnesses come forward and the Justice Department pursues a federal investigation. But there is one fact we do know: Black and brown men experience a disproportionate amount of harassment, violence and killing by police. Brown’s killing occurred on the heels of Eric Garner’s death last month from a police chokehold and the police shooting of John Crawford III in an Ohio Walmart last week. And these are just the cases that have gained major media attention.
The killing of Michael Brown, who was slated to begin college this week, made Ferguson resident and protester Monica Timmons thankful that she isn’t a mother:
Let’s be real, you know? What do our sons got to look forward to? This? You want to bring a son to this? So he can get killed? No.
Timmons’ words echo the sentiments of a number of black mothers during the height of mob violence in America. Black feminist playwrights like Angelina Weld Grimke and Georgia Douglass Johnson called attention to lynching’s injurious impact on black mothers in Rachel (1916) and A Sunday Morning in the South (1925), respectively. Grimke went even further in her short fiction to feature women characters that either refused to have children or committed acts of infanticide rather than see their sons murdered by lynch mobs. Lynching was taken up as a feminist issue due in large part to Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign.
Wells’ investigative journalism and her pamphlets, Southern Horrors (1892) and A Red Record (1895), dispelled the myth that white men were lynching black men to protect white women. Wells established lynching as a means of curtailing black citizenship rights rather than defending white women’s honor. If white men were as chivalrous as they purported to be, they would not have raped black women with impunity, Wells reasoned. Furthermore, lynching as punishment for rape did not explain the lynching of black women.
Like lynching, police brutality is a feminist issue. For one thing, it’s a reproductive rights matter. Reproductive justice advocates champion “the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.” When parents live in fear that their children’s lives will be taken at the hands of the police, their right to raise their children is not being protected. When Michael Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, holds up a cardboard sign that reads, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son,” he is attesting to the violation of his rights as a parent and a human being. Brown’s mother, Leslie McSpadden, likewise laments that after all she’s done to encourage her son to pursue his college education, he can be gunned down in the street:
Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway. ‘They’re going to try to take me out anyway.’
But that’s not the only reason feminists should care about police brutality. Women, and particularly women of color, are not only the mothers, sisters and partners of men killed by police, they are also victims of police violence. The videotaped beating of Marlene Pinnock, who was stopped on July 1 for walking on the highway, is the latest documented case of a police officer using excessive force against an unarmed woman. Just last year, a Chicago police officer was indicted for the 2012 shooting death of Rekia Boyd.
Professor Elwood Watson is right to point out that police violence against black women too often goes unnoticed. At the same time, even if women were not mothers or victims of police violence, it would still be a feminist issue. Feminism aims to eradicate sexist oppression, but it must do so by addressing the ways sexism and inequality intersect with other forms of injustice. Black feminists who were a part of the Combahee River Collective codified this expansive notion of feminism in their 1977 statement:
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.
Interlocking oppressions should not only concern feminists of color. All feminists that purport to be committed to social justice should be as outraged by police brutality as we are by other acts of gender and sexual violence. To be sure, feminists must shed light on the increased violence that women of color and trans people experience at the hands of the police. By the same token, we can acknowledge police brutality as a gendered form of racial violence that is overwhelmingly experienced by black and brown men. Acts of violence that are disproportionately committed against men are also gender issues.
Police brutality cuts across race, class, gender and sexuality. Feminists that believe in reproductive justice must speak out for the rights of mothers and fathers to parent their children without fear that police and self-appointed neighborhood watchmen will deprive them of a future. Feminists must also ensure that women and sexual minorities that are subject to profiling and police violence are not subsumed by male-centered narratives of racial trauma and oppression. And feminism is not just about women’s oppression. As advocates for social justice, feminists should respond to undue acts of police violence against women and men.
Jennifer Williams is an assistant professor of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She is at work on a collection of essays on feminism, race and culture in the 21st century.