The streets have always been a site of political struggle, but this year, how women have been positioned on the streets is a lesson in community building and feminist solidarity. While the Ferguson, Missouri, protesters became a huge story in 2014—even coming close to being named Time‘s Person of the Year—few may remember just how central women of color have been in mobilizing this movement: from Feminista Jones, who organized one of the first national protests against the shooting death by police of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, to young Black women finding their voices on the streets, at rallies, and in meetings, to social media activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi creating the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of injustice against Trayvon Martin, which is now used to mobilize the masses in continued protests throughout this country and the world.
Despite the heartbreaking and rage-inducing moments of Black death that galvanized these actions, the way that women of color and many others who followed their lead have taken to the streets, carrying signs, staging die-ins, disrupting traffic and calling for holiday-sales boycotts can only recall triumph in the wake of defeat, life in defiance of death, and community as resistance against organized power and militarization.
We must gender this moment and recognize women at the forefront of these street movements, especially when measured against the other big story this year: sexual violence and street harassment. How can we engage the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality more effectively so that women aren’t forced to “choose” or “prioritize” issues? After all, there is something to be said when women en masse can take to the streets to protest police brutality but, on her own, a woman can’t walk down a street without being harassed. The Hollaback catcalling viral video that sought to raise awareness of this fact got mired in its own racial politics when it positioned only men of color as the perpetrators of street harassment against a sole white woman. In an environment in which Black men and boys are presumed guilty and deemed dangerous, predatory and criminals—hence why they are vastly more racially targeted by police than other men—such sexual politics tend to reinforce other forms of oppression.
At the same time, when even supermodel Beverly Johnson finds herself weighing racial politics against sexual politics before finally deciding to break the silence on her experience of being drugged by Bill Cosby—the latest in a long line of women making similar accusations against the revered comedic icon—she reminds us of the need to maintain social justice on all fronts. As Johnson so eloquently stated:
As I wrestled with the idea of telling my story of the day Bill Cosby drugged me with the intention of doing God knows what, the faces of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other brown and Black men took residence in my mind…I reached the conclusion that the current attack on African American men has absolutely nothing to do at all with Bill Cosby. He brought this on himself when he decided he had the right to have his way with who knows how many women over the last four decades. If anything, Cosby is distinguished from the majority of Black men in this country because he could depend on the powers that be for support and protection.
This is yet another terrain on which to do battle. After all, as Johnson noted, this is not about submerging sexual politics in the interest of racial politics. This is about justice, about community, about building a different way of being accountable to each other. Both police brutality and rape culture are essentially based on the same dynamic: of power and control, of discipline and punish. While the deaths of unarmed Black men and boys can galvanize a movement, I would hope that police officers like Daniel Holtzclaw of Oklahama, who was arrested this year for the sexual assault of nearly a dozen women—all African American—will be as equally condemned as police officers Darren Wilson of Missouri and Daniel Pantaleo of Staten Island.
On the other end of the spectrum are rape survivors who don’t dare go to the police for fear that their stories will not be believed. And yet, VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) was put in place with the idea that the police—who can be more predator than protector for certain groups of citizens—will be an ally in the fight against sexual violence. This is not always the case. Just look at the broader cultures of violence that find it easier to victim-blame than support; dead teens like Travyon Martin and Michael Brown are demonized and rape survivors like “Jackie” from the infamous Rolling Stone article on the University of Virginia are now called “liars” when “discrepancies” appear in the story.
So where do we go from here? There are no easy answers, but we can continue the conversation and look to our cultural producers and activists for creative visions. When earlier in the semester students in my course on women and hip hop were feeling their complete disempowerment over issues like street harassment, I offered them songs and music videos by our celebrated hip-hop artists. I gave them the examples of Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.,” which brought the issue of street harassment to the fore long before Hollaback was even thought of, and Dominican artist Maluca’s “El Tigeraso,” which critiques the problem of street harassment while simultaneously reclaiming the streets for community and sisterhood. This is a common recurrence in the music and videos of women hip-hop artists: from Queen Latifah’s “Just Another Day” to Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” to Lil’ Kim’s “Lighters Up” to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” to Beyoncé’s “No Angel.” Whereas their male counterparts see the streets as the site for turf wars and surveillance of women’s bodies, women artists routinely highlight the streets as the site for community gathering—where the women, the children, the men, and the elders keep watch over each other, where the eateries and other places on the block become vibrant spaces of living. When women reclaim the streets, they do so in solidarity and in community nurturance and sustainability.
The streets may prove to be unsafe—from police brutality, from rapists, from environmental pollution, even—but on those streets and en masse, women will assert the right to life.