WMC Women Under Siege

From civil rights to Ferguson: What’s missing in media coverage of police violence

Anyone watching the news this past August could think they’d been transported back to Montgomery, Georgia, circa 1954. Darren Wilson, a white police officer, had shot dead 18-year-old black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Images of police in riot gear unleashing dogs and water cannons on protesters dominated every TV network. Violence between demonstrators and police erupted in the small town.

Almost every major news outlet, however, concluded that Wilson would see no jail time. As predicted, Wilson remains free, on paid leave.

Daily reports of excessive police force used against people of color, like in the Brown case, have illuminated some ugly truths about “post-racial” America. The exact nature of these truths is the subject of ongoing debate but at the core of it is the lingering legacy of racism. Yet while the issue has the media’s attention, black women have been mostly left out of this conversation on dominance and violence. Pundits and activists focus on the imperiled black man. This is understandable, considering that cases of brutality involving police are most often reported by black men and that the evidence is often more visible (in Brown’s case, his dead body left on the pavement in the sweltering heat for four hours). But the abuse visited on African-American women and girls—while often more insidious and more hidden—is no less horrific in scope and involves a system in which police can be not just indifferent but even abusive.

A 2007 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that police abuse of men and women of color has worsened. And in cases where police are not abusive, crimes against black women and girls often do not receive the same attention from law enforcement as their white counterparts. 

The same study found that “[w]omen of color, and particularly African-American and Latina transgender women, are routinely profiled on the streets and in their homes as sex workers by police, regardless of whether they are engaged in sex work at the time, or whether they are involved in the trade at all, and subjected to stops, strip searches, and arbitrary arrest and detention on a regular basis.”

Today, long after the abolition of Jim Crow, blacks continue to feel the effects of institutionalized racism in the justice system. I asked Danielle McGuire, professor of African-American studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, how much she thought we, as a society, had progressed. She laughed.

“I think if we started asking and we started looking we’d probably find a lot of situations that have echoes from that past,” she said.

In her book, At the Dark End of the Street, McGuire outlines how the exploitation, demonization, and dismissal of black women have been American pastimes since the birth of the nation. She argues that the civil rights movement as we know it began as an effort to protect black women’s bodies. She writes:

The sexual exploitation of black women by white men had its roots in slavery, but continued, often unpunished, through the better part of the twentieth century. As Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow arose, white men abducted and assaulted black women with alarming regularity. White men lured black women and girls away from home with promises of steady work and better wages; attacked them on the job; abducted them at gun-point while traveling to or from home, work or church; raped them as a form of retribution or to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy; sexually humiliated and assaulted them on streetcars and buses, in taxi cabs and trains, and other public spaces.

White plantation owners caught in the act of sexually abusing their slaves (usually after the appearance of biracial children) often avoided responsibility by claiming they had been tricked by a cunning seductress. Records from the time show that most white Americans in the Antebellum South viewed black women as animalistic and unintelligent. White women, embarrassed by the indiscretions of their husbands and sons, either refused or were powerless to acknowledge what was happening, often in their own homes with their full knowledge.

The resulting stereotype of a cunning, dusky jezebel is one that continues to color legal interactions between black women and law enforcement to this day. In a study in the Journal of Black Psychology, students surveyed were less likely to sympathize with a victim of sexual assault or seek justice for that victim if they knew she was black. The prevalent if subconscious demonization of black women has created a victim who can never be believed—a perfect target.

And who could be easier to manipulate than a woman whom society already believes is sexually immoral?

The birth of a movement
On September 3, 1944, a young black woman named Recy Taylor was abducted and raped by six white men while walking home from church in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. Taylor’s attackers—Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbertt Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper, and Robert Gamble—accused her of cutting a white man in line in another town. The rape was immediately reported to the police. Hugo Wilson, who drove the vehicle, confessed and named his accomplices, but the police never interviewed the other suspects. Wilson was fined $250.

Enraged, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rallied behind Taylor. The organization sent its best investigator, an activist against sexual assault on black women, to her aid. That investigator’s name was Rosa Parks.

In the ensuing legal battle, Abbeville police did everything they could to discredit Taylor. Local newspapers ran salacious stories. One headline speculated that Taylor’s husband had offered the rapists $600 to defile his own wife. Taylor’s home was firebombed.

When the trial was brought before a grand jury, the sheriff who originally refused to arrest Taylor’s rapists claimed she had been “nothing but a whore.” All the men claimed Taylor was a known prostitute and had been a willing participant. One of the assailants, Culpepper, admitted in detail how he and the other men had kidnapped and raped their victim—an exact retelling of Taylor’s own account—but Culpepper’s testimony “failed to convince jurors” of his guilt and an all-white, male jury let Taylor’s rapists go free.

The Abbeville trial nearly destroyed Taylor, but it galvanized not only the black community but labor unions and women’s rights groups as well. It was in this crucible that the foundation for the Alabama bus boycott was forged.

McGuire says she was shocked when she read about the Taylor case. She quickly connected the dots. “Taylor can’t be the only one,” she thought.

McGuire says she began poring over newspapers that had circulated in the black community during that time. She discovered that scholars had overlooked—or ignored—what African Americans had been talking about on the front pages of their newspapers and in courtrooms and in testimony to congress and in letters to the NAACP and the justice department. She discovered that long before there was a modern women’s movement in America, black women were saying, “Enough!”

History repeats itself
On June 18, a 57-year-old African-American woman identified only as J.L. said she had been driving home from a friend’s house in Oklahoma City when she was stopped by police. She said police officer Daniel Holtzclaw accused her of drinking and driving. She showed him that the Styrofoam cup in her front seat contained Kool-Aid.

Then, she said, Holzclaw forced her to perform oral sex on him. 

J.L. immediately went to the Oklahoma City Police Sex Crimes Unit and gave her statement to a female officer. Soon after, five other middle-aged black women came forward with similar stories.

Although Holzclaw is currently in jail, on bond of $5 million, the average length of prison time served by police offenders for any crime is only about 14 months. Soon after his arrest, Holzclaw’s family released a statement that claimed the testimony presented by the prosecution was based on statements from “felons, prostitutes, and others who would have personal motives beyond the basic truth to fabricate their stories.”

Jenn Marsh, vice president of victim services at the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network in D.C., says this method of trying to intimidate or discredit the victim is common. “Sexual predators—whether its children or adults—they look for a vulnerable population: people that they will be able to control or manipulate,” she said.

A five-year survey by the U.S. Justice Department found 60 percent of all sexual assaults committed in the last five years were not reported. Of the few cases that are documented, only about 4 percent result in felony convictions. In light of these statistics, Marsh said, most victims feel hopeless. “[Perpetrators] tell the victim: ‘Nobody will believe you. You’re just an addict or sex worker,’” she said. A lot of times, the victim, she said, come to believe that, too.

I asked Marsh what, if anything, counselors could say to comfort victims who did reach out for help.

Marsh’s simple reply was something that few black female victims of sexual assault or police misconduct ever hear. Something probably few people ever said to Sally Hemmings, Recy Taylor, J.L., Anita Hill, or Crystal Mangum. Something every victim of sexual assault desperately needs to know.

Marsh told me, “We tell them we believe them and it’s not their fault.”

With national attention still focused on Ferguson, Missouri, it seems the nation is finally on the brink of real discourse about police brutality. It’s time to talk about the fact that women, too, are victims of this broken system.

(Photo courtesy AFP/Getty Images)


EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog has been corrected to reflect that the city of Ferguson is in Missouri.


More articles by Category: Race/Ethnicity, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Civil rights, Black, Activism and advocacy, Sexualized violence



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