Rebel Girls: Police Violence Happens to Black Women, Too

Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

It isn’t the first time. As the fights for Ferguson and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice rage on, I have stood on the sidelines waving my best solidarity fist. But I keep wondering where all the women and girls are in this conversation. I see them leading the marches and the fight. I’ve read their stories and their thinkpieces. I’ve watched as women of color – and especially black women – have connected the dots between what happened in Ferguson, what happened to Trayvon Martin, and the movement for reproductive justice. But this is about more than connecting the dots. Police brutality isn’t a women’s issue because of a complex game of six degrees of separation. This is a women’s issue because our sisters are being impacted directly, and because they’ve been harassed, beaten, raped, and killed by cops for centuries.

Another man/boy shot (not again). Unarmed (his black skin is weaponized). Killed by cops (since slavery). The terrible ever-expanding litany of names: Amadou, Sean, Oscar, Rodney, Trayvon, Michael… We’re on a first name basis (excruciatingly familiar). Collective mourning and grief ensue (my tear ducts are dried out; there’s only rage). Calls for justice in the black community (justice is prosecution and prison). #BlackLivesMatter on a social media loop (numbing). We are trying to convince ourselves that it’s true (we don’t fully believe it). Please make it true (it’s a symbolic prayer).

In the background, a faint sound (a whisper). Aiyanna, Tyisha, Renisha, Rekia (background noise). Woman/girls shot (do they shoot black girls & women?). Unarmed (her skin is a bullet magnet). Killed by cops (since slavery). They are not household names (excruciatingly unfamiliar). A few people mourn (silently). Some calls for justice (more prosecutions and prison). #BlackLivesMatter? (But which ones?)

You’re so selfish. This isn’t the right time, the voice intones. Is that voice in my head? I can’t tell. There never seems to be a ‘right’ time to remember the names of murdered black women (never). Sadness and grief threaten to overwhelm (so tired). Stubbornly I remember (an act of defiance).

Police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the state are not just the enemies of black men and other men of color.

Photo by Jim Young/Reuters via MSNBC

Photo by Jim Young/Reuters via MSNBC

Amid the incredibly disheartening barrage of news updates about white cops killing and hurting black people, there has been a notably lopsided division of attention and passion from both the media and the activists on the ground. Black men and boys are seen as symbols for an entire race of people who deal with police violence. And women and girls, gunned down, raped, and abused by cops, disappear in virtual silence.

Police violence against women and girls is prevelant. Women of color and queer people of color are not “allies” to men in this challenge; they are fully engaged and impacted partners. Their fate is also on the line. Their stories are also being shaped by a police state that actively works to destroy them. That’s why, as Gradient Lair summed up so perfectly here, the kind of erasure and silence that comes from ignoring the names and faces of the women and girls who have faced police violence is a form of violence in and of itself:

The erasure of the history, the experiences, the activism and the reality of Black women in relation to police brutality, extrajudicial execution and State violence is unacceptable. Erasing Black women is NOT “supporting” Black men. It is erasure of Black history, something Whites/non-Black people of colour gleefully engage in via epistemic violence, false equalization and using Black death solely as a trope to center non-Black lives. We can’t also engage in our own erasure. Love itself, as a concept and praxis, needs to be decolonized when it’s expected to be/expressed as the erasure of Black women in the service of Black men. Harm to any Black people is not “pro-Black.” Black women’s truths and lives matter. Black lives matter. And everyone, including fellow Black people, have to start actually believing this. And then start or continue acting against any oppression that seeks to confer anything different from the value of Black life.

Before the riots in Ferguson, women had been persistent in their movements to stop sexist policing which revictimized them. For decades, women have come forward to report rape, abuse, harassment, humiliation, and worse from police. For decades, there failed to be a response of this magnitude.

Women, too, were some of the original targets of police and state violence, and in many ways women of color are still one of their primary strongholds for incarceration, arrest, and abuse. Monica Jones was harassed and imprisoned for taking a ride with someone, guilty of nothing really, nothing except “walking while trans.” And black. And a woman. CeCe McDonald went to jail for defending herself. Women and girls have died or been beaten on camera at the hands of police or state agents and gone almost unmentioned. For queer and trans women, women of color, women in the sex and drug industries, and poor women, the police are not protectors, police violence comes as no surprise.

As Katherine Cross wrote after the Eric Garner decision on Facebook:

For trans women of color in this city, harassment by the police is an ever present risk. From officers who use public searches as an excuse to grope you and answer the puerile questions on every cis transphobe’s mind, to one’s who use your birth control as an excuse to run you in on prostitution charges, to those who will look the other way when civilians try to murder you, there is no safety, no good, that ever came from calling the NYPD. The red strobes of the squad car merely bathe my sisters in suspicion and callow judgement.

In my years working with and sitting on the board of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal aid society that represents and advocates for low income trans women of color in New York, I can safely say that so many of our clients come to us with stories that — if there were any justice — would be considered national scandals, would become hashtags made of tinder to light protest marches and die-ins. Sex workers, homeless people, immigrants documented and not, all have had various run ins with police whose first act of violence is misgendering and whose last they were lucky to walk away from with their life. My sisters are, at best, a rounding error in an officer’s quota, at worst a vent for their frustrations and petty prejudices…

That’s the NYPD I think of, the one I grew up with, that cut a path through my neighborhood, which makes enemies of my neighbors and my sisters; that’s why I can’t say I was terribly surprised by yesterday’s decision.

A 2007 United Nations report found that police violence against women and girls of color had increased, just as it had against men. But nobody was paying attention, despite a legacy of kidnapping and abuse for women and girls of color that goes back to reconstruction. A 2014 report by Black Women’s Blueprint and Women’s All Points Bulletin to the Committee Against Torture cited rape and sexual violence as the second most prevalent form of police violence, one most commonly afflicted on black women, and asked CAR “to acknowledge that police rape, and the rape of Black women, is torture.” The same report found that the overpolicing of women is actually getting worse in the United States. In 2000, black women were incarcerated at a rate six times of that of their white counterparts, and the female population in prisons across the country is skyrocketing. When these women go to jail, they face some of the same police brutality that was targeted at them before: rape, harassment, sexual assault, and physical abuse.

Perhaps worse than the widespread domination of men’s stories in this struggle is the underlying notion that some forms of police brutality don’t seem to be worth a march or a riot. Police have been reported or caught sexually assaulting women, killing women, and mocking survivors on camera. Police have responded to domestic violence calls with the intent to abuse, coerced and forced women in the sex industry or in other vulnerable legal positions to engage with them sexually. Police officers have humiliated trans and cis and queer women and women of color for seemingly eons, and yet even when we march in the name of fucking up their system we cannot remember those names.

I work at the Feminist Majority Foundation, and I was epically proud when one of the members of my team wrote a piece breaking down the many ways in which the fight for justice in Ferguson, and the fight to end police violence, was a feminist issue. The first comment on the piece criticized an edit I had made to adjust one of her sub-titles. “Women Are Victims of Police Brutality, Too,” I made it proclaim. I wanted people to know. I wanted it to be said, and as largely as possible. I was accused of being divisive, of trying to claim that the only issues that matter to us should be those that affect us personally. But I wasn’t. I was simply trying to refute the longstanding narrative that police violence is an issue only for black men. That is not derailing. That is expansion. That matters, and fighting for all black people of all genders to live lives free from police harassment and violence is not harmful. Justice is not a zero-sum game. It is possible to unite and fight for these things together, just as it should be possible to fight for all of the people it impacts together.

Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for writing this. There’s a huge misconception that rape/intimate partner violence are only women’s issues and less serious than “real” violence, like war and police brutality, that are widely believed to only effect men.

    I come across this in the gay community all the time, with the gay dudes in my classes insisting that “it’s easier for lesbians” because gay men are more subject to police violence/harassment, and lesbians aren’t. I recently read a story by Leslie Feinberg in The Persistent Desire about police raids of working-class lesbian bars in the ’50s/’60s, how butches and trans women were arrested, beaten and assaulted by police for not conforming to gender roles, and femmes were arrested on prostitution charges and often forced to “service” officers in order to be released. The story also highlighted that police mainly targeted working class and queer women of color.

    In all my feminist and queer theory courses, even this course I just finished on LGBT history, I’d never learned any of this. Police violence in the queer community is always portrayed as a white/gay/cis/male problem, with lesbians sidelined as allies and queer people of color completely excluded.

  2. I think, as a black person, that part of the problem is that most of those protesting police brutality against black men are (cis/straight) men of color, and homophobia and sexism are still huge issues among straight and cis POC. Hence the lack of fucks given by these same men doing die-ins and shit when the POC murdered is a trans woman or a cis woman.

  3. “That is not derailing. That is expansion. That matters, and fighting for all black people of all genders to live lives free from police harassment and violence is not harmful. Justice is not a zero-sum game. It is possible to unite and fight for these things together, just as it should be possible to fight for all of the people it impacts together.”

    Yes, this. Thank you Carmen.

  4. Thank you for this, Carmen. As much as I support the protests and such, I’ve been annoyed by the lack of attention paid to violence towards black women and girls.

    Where was the mass outrage when the OKC police officer was arrested for raping several black women, or the CA officer who assaulted the professor on the highway? Or when seven year old Aiyana Stanley- Jones was shot in her sleep when the police raided her home? When the chikbok schoolgirls were kidnapped, I barely heard a peep from the BM on my flist.

    I personally commend the efforts of the activists, but I’m reluctant to join them because to my so called “community”, the only lives that matter are black cishet male ones. If you’re female (esp trans), you’re expected to unconditionally fight for those who negate your experience. #tohellwiththat

  5. This was a great, biased as expected from a “feminist” article, No mention of how black boys are victims in the education system, falling behind women in college because of their dual qualifications in Affirmative Action. Women and minority. No mention of the prison population or the fact that black men are raped at high rates in the system leaving angry and denied work. No mention here of how black men WITH college degrees are unlikely to be hired of white men without degrees or how white men with criminal histories are more likely to get jobs than black men without. These feminist statistics are not based on science, they are bias and this is the real reason why black men are still victims of the system. black women don’t help, they say “us too” just like privileged white women with every minority issue.

  6. “I was accused of being divisive, of trying to claim that the only issues that matter to us should be those that affect us personally.” Don’t you often find, Carmen, that the people who criticize feminist efforts project their own logic onto us? Because it seems to me that the reason why women’s lives and bodily integrity are forced to take the back seat is exactly because women’s issues aren’t seen as affecting the lives of men personally (why else would there be the need for the same old tired phrasing of “imagine if this was your wife, daughter, sister who was being raped, beaten and murdered”, as if women’s lives are of value only in so far as they can be related to men).

    What I want you to know, Carmen, is that you know the truth, and we know the truth with you. Don’t allow doubt to seep in and poison you. You know the truth. And now you’ve shared it with us. Thank you for that. I won’t forget this article.

  7. So I recently saw a video of Ray Rice beating his fiance and I was disgusted by the fact the the comments on their were mostly that his fiance “deserved what she got” and “she hit him first he was just defending himself”. Like people really believe that? In the video she barley hit him (he could of been saying shitty things to her but there isn’t audio so I don’t know). Can someone please explain why a guy would say that? (Keep in mind that I just watched the video and that I do not know anything else about this story.)

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