Police violence hurts Black families

December 17, 2014

The mainstream women's movement should start taking up the issues that affect Black families, especially mass incarceration and police violence, argues Michelle Farber.

THE GRAND jury decisions not to indict Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo in the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner has rightly sparked a nationwide discussion around the state of police violence against Black and Brown men and women in the U.S., as well as the systemic racism that runs through U.S. institutions.

A new vein to the mainstream discussion of police violence emerged recently during a press conference with Garner's widow, which pointed out how police brutality and mass incarceration are also issues of reproductive justice.

In a press conference on December 3, Esaw Garner, referring to the police officer who murdered her husband, said, "He's still feeding his kids, when my husband is six feet under, and I'm looking for a way to feed my kids now."

The concept of reproductive justice, as coined by the women of color-led organization SisterSong, is defined as follows:

The reproductive justice framework--the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments--is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one's life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one's decisions is important for women of color.

Esaw Garner speaks to the press about the loss of her husband Eric
Esaw Garner speaks to the press about the loss of her husband Eric

In a nation where the police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes murder another Black man every 28 hours, Black families live in constant fear that their sons, fathers, husbands, partners and brothers will be the latest victim.

It is essential that we, as reproductive justice activists are present to make the argument that it is not enough to have the right to have children or terminate a pregnancy, but that true reproductive justice means being able to parent without fear your child will be murdered for playing with a toy gun in a public park or for going to the store to buy Skittles.

Hannah Giorgis writes about the terror she feels constantly for her brothers:

That kind of fear is immobilizing; it is unproductive and unending. It wakes you up at night, claws its way out of the pits of your stomach and into every memory of the precious child you love. It is a fear Black women know intimately, a fear that slips easily into our dreams because it is grounded in realities we want to turn away from during daylight hours...

And yet, I do not hear this aspect of Black parenting--this wholly rational fear that babies will be snatched from our arms and this world before their own limbs are fully grown--addressed by white advocates in gender equality and reproductive justice. Is it not an assault on Black people's reproductive rights to brutally and systematically deny us the opportunity to raise children who will grow to adulthood?

This fear that Giorgis articulates is the definition of terrorism. Black women and families experience parenthood in a fundamentally different way than white families because of the constant and ever-present threat of police violence.

BLACK YOUTH and young adults have come forward over the past few years and described how parents or guardians gave them "the talk"--essentially guidelines for behaving in public in order to minimize the chances of a possibly fatal encounter with police.

After the murder of Trayvon Martin, former NBA player Etan Thomas wrote that he would soon "have to ruin my son's rose-colored glasses view of the world we live in." This "talk," he said, would focus on verbalizing any movements you might make in front of a police officer, as well as making sure to stop in a crowded, well-lit place. This brings to mind the parallels between the instructions given to young men of color and those given to women in general in order to avoid violence or rape.

Tamura Lomax at the Feminist Wire wrote about pushing police brutality into the sphere of a broader understanding of feminism, echoing Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech:

I am a Black mother and a Black wife. I fear for my beloveds' safety every day. Ain't I feminist, too? Ain't the potential murder of my loved ones and how that may impact me and others in my community a feminist concern, too?"

There is a rich history of Black women leading the struggle to bring issues of racial equality to feminist circles, with Sojourner Truth as one of the first documented, followed by Ida B. Wells' anti-lynching campaigns. The civil rights and Black Power movements helped touch off the fight for women's liberation under the leadership of women like Ella Baker and Angela Davis.

In an era in which intersectionality and overlapping oppressions are concepts that are flowing more and more freely from the mouths of feminists engaged in women's liberation struggles, we must push for mass incarceration and police murder to be included in our fight for reproductive justice.

Black families not only have state-sanctioned police violence to fear, but in the era of mass incarceration and the continued war on drugs, they also live under constant threat of their family members being put in prison. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic Blacks made up just under 40 percent of the prison population in 2009, while accounting for only 13.6 percent of the U.S. population in the 2010 census.

Furthermore, one out of every six prisoners in California (with similar statistics in states with "three strikes" laws) are serving life sentences, often for nonviolent offenses. The vast majority of these prisoners sentenced to a year or more in state or federal prisons--57.1 percent--are also of peak childbearing ages, being between 20 to 39 years old. Furthermore, 52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates reported being the parent to a minor child in 2007.

The reality of these statistics is that police violence and mass incarceration restrict the basic human right to choose to raise a family, and to raise that family without the threat of state violence or separation in the Black community.

It is high time that the mainstream feminist movement take a moment to listen to the cries that have echoed from Black mothers and families all across the country. We must unite our message to incorporate the call for the ability to raise a child safely to adulthood into the call for reproductive and bodily autonomy, for they are one in the same.

A version of this article was first published at the Sage Femme blog.

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