In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Elle talks about the erasure of black women from discussions of police violence, and former Oklahoma City police officer and accused rapist Daniel Holtzclaw. The usual forewarnings of subject matter apply.
In the Venn diagram formed by discussing police violence and discussing violence against women, there is an intersecting point that is frequently, and strangely, left out: police violence against black women. Though we have become familiar with the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Walter Scott, we are only occasionally familiar with the names of black women who have also been treated violently by the police. When we do learn of women who have been mistreated by the police, their names or their stories are often accompanied by a narrative that attempts to de-legitimize their complaint, or to somehow turn the victim into the responsible party.
After twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot, his fourteen-year-old sister (unnamed in media accounts) attempted to go to his side, only to be pushed to the ground, placed in handcuffs, and pulled into a police car while her brother lay dying. Officers forced their mother, Samira Rice, to choose between going with Tamir to the hospital or staying with her handcuffed daughter. She chose to go with her son, and was not even allowed to sit in the back with him.
When fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton was tackled and pinned by officer Eric Casebolt at a pool party, the pool complex claimed that the incident happened because Becton and others didn’t have permission to be at the pool party, and the officers were just trying to “gain control of the situation.”
When an unnamed black female student refused to go to the discipline office after refusing to participate in class, school officer Ben Fields flipped the girl out of her chair and dragged her from the room. However, the local sheriff Leon Lott made it clear that even though he was ‘“upset’” by Fields’ actions, the student should also be held responsible for the incident: “‘What she did doesn’t justify what our deputy did. It doesn’t justify his actions, but she needs to be held responsible for what she did’.”
Following the suicide of Sandra Bland (which itself followed being pulled over for nonsense reasons and being held in jail for three days because she was unable to make bail), Texas officials are making a motion to dismiss the wrongful death case brought by Bland’s mother, claiming that it was the inability of Bland’s family to pay her bail that was actually responsible for Bland’s suicide.
And these are only the tip of the iceberg. The African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName report includes names that even I must admit I was unfamiliar with. The report’s authors point out that 2014 was something of a watershed moment for public awareness of police violence against black men, but that police violence against black women has been an equally important, though underreported, issue:
However, 2014 also marked the unjust police killings of a number of Black women, including Gabriella Nevarez, Aura Rosser, Michelle Cusseaux, and Tanisha Anderson. The body count of Black women killed by the police continued to rise in 2015 with the killings of Alexia Christian, Meagan Hockaday, Mya Hall, Janisha Fonville, and Natasha McKenna.
I had to look up most of those names, as I hadn’t read reports of the incidents in which they were killed prior to writing this post. That shames me on a personal level, as well as a cultural level. I should have known these women’s names. We should have known these women’s names.
The violence that police officers perpetrate against the citizens they are supposed to serve does not stop at murder. The AP has found at least 1000 cases within a six-year period in which officers lost their badges because of sexual misconduct, up to and including rape. The AP acknowledges that this is:
unquestionably an undercount because it represents only those officers whose licenses to work in law enforcement were revoked, and not all states take such action. California and New York — with several of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies — offered no records because they have no statewide system to decertify officers for misconduct. And even among states that provided records, some reported no officers removed for sexual misdeeds even though cases were identified via news stories or court records.
To translate, this number only counts those cases where officers were actually punished for the sexual misconduct they performed. There are likely many, many cases where the police officers faced no punishment, or where they were allowed to resign with their law-enforcement certification still in good standing.
The reason I bring up this report is that it represents one of the few exceptions to that silent intersection between police violence and violence against women. Framing the discussion of officers’ sexual misconduct is the story of Daniel Holtzclaw, a 28-year-old (thankfully now fired) police officer from Oklahoma City. Thirteen women have come forward to accuse Holtzclaw of various forms of sexual misconduct.
He’s been charged with terrible crimes, and has a very clear preferred target when it comes to the victims he selected:
Charged with 36 offenses including sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy, stalking, and rape, ex-officer Holtzclaw allegedly targeted 13 women during his three-year tenure with the Oklahoma City Police Department. His victims reportedly ranged in age from 17 to late 50s, but the unifying thread of his accusers is race. Holtzclaw targeted African-American women.
Those 36 charges again, only address the women that have come forward. Oftentimes there are many more victims that decline, for various reasons, to press charges against their attacker. Holtzclaw deliberately chose victims in marginalized positions; women who would be less likely to report the crimes he performed, and who would be even less likely to be believed if they did so:
[M]ost of the 13 accusers were poor black women with either warrants or suspected of involvement in illegal activities such as prostitution or illegal drug consumption. According to some of his victims, he would offer to not arrest them if they complied with performing sexual acts. The women complied, fearing arrest and incarceration.
Holtzclaw abused his authority to coerce women into sex. So why, as Treva Lindsey asks in her article for Cosmopolitan, haven’t we heard more about it?
Before reading the Cosmopolitan article and finding the AP article, I had only read about Holtzclaw on Jezebel. When I started researching, I found that my usually reliable favorite Slate had run just two articles, nearly a year apart. The first was when he was initially arrested (and was accompanied by a fairly flattering photo of Holtzclaw following a tryout for the Detroit lions, though Slate did acknowledge the tryout was “unsuccessful”). The second was after the beginning of his trial, when his victims began to give testimony (this time they chose a much less flattering mugshot for the article). Slate also linked to a year-old, but fairly extensive, BuzzFeed report on the incident. But there has been no campaign to see justice for Holtzclaw’s victims in the way that there has been for similar incidents with male victims, and the press coverage, on the whole, has been sparse. As far as I can tell, there’s no Facebook page calling for justice for Holtzclaw’s victims, but the “Justice for Daniel Holtzclaw” page has 965 likes. That’s 965 more than he should have.
Lindsey points out that Holtzclaw’s victims, and the lack of outcry regarding their treatment, ties into a terrible history of discounting black women as the victims of sexual violence: “A historical precedent exists… for black women being viewed as un-rapeable and not credible as witnesses to their own experiences with sexual violence.” The stereotype of black women as “Jezebels,” women with insatiable sexual appetites and various sexual wiles, has been used as an excuse for sexual violence since it was used to justify slave owners raping their slaves.
Holtzclaw, and other officers who have targeted black women for sexual violence, took advantage of this stereotype when committing their own crimes. The #SayHerName report explains, “Black women are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault by police due to historically entrenched presumptions of promiscuity and sexual availability.” Black women are framed as “willing” victims, at fault for their own victimization.
Holtzclaw’s lawyer tried to capitalize on the culturally-accepted dichotomy between the “un-rapeable” women who were Holtzclaw’s victims, and Holtzclaw himself as the respectable police officer and former football star. In front of the all-white jury, he made a reference to the “street smarts” of the victims, coded language meant to bring up negative images of “urban” individuals who are involved in crimes:
His reference to “street smarts,” vague but derisive, attempted to reinforce the idea that the accusers were involved in criminal activities associated with the “streets,” such as sex work and drug usage. Consequently, these women should not be trusted as they are lying to cover up their criminal activities or were high when these alleged incidents occurred. Framing these women as liars and as criminally inclined builds upon a tendency not to see black women as victims. In stark contrast to the accusers, the defense attorney described Holtzclaw as an “all-American good guy.”
This is a blatant attempt to diminish Holtzclaw’s culpability for his own actions, or to even suggest that the actions never occurred at all. The lawyer conjures images of scary, sexually licentious black women who are trying to ruin the poster child for hyper-masculine Americana, rather than the image of a corrupt policeman preying on the women he is supposed to protect.
Black women who are the victims of police assault should not feel as if no one cares about their stories. They should not feel as if their stories would matter more, if only they happened to be men. #BlackLivesMatter should not be implicitly leaving out the lives of black women. Holtzclaw’s trial should not be an afterthought on a major news site. It should not be the responsibility black female writers and Cosmopolitan to shout into the void in an attempt to bring attention to a horrific act of police misconduct. Holtzclaw should not have more supporters than the women he assaulted. His lawyer’s story of the ‘“all-American good guy,”’ the picture of Holtzclaw trying out for the Detroit Lions, should not be the major narrative for the case.
And when we hear the stories of Holtzclaw’s victims, we should not be asking “What did she do?” but rather, “What can we do?”
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not discussing the intersections of sexual violence and race, she studies gender in popular culture.