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Policing Doesn’t Protect Women

As abolitionist frameworks enter the mainstream, addressing gendered and sexual violence is treated like a conceptual trap. It’s not.


On June 30, as part of a virtual discussion on the topic of “Prison as Abuse,” feminist activist Monica Cosby recounted a memory from when she was incarcerated. It was the day after armed police in riot gear, part of a tactical team called Orange Crush, had done a shakedown in the women’s prison where she was detained, she recalled. As these men destroyed the women’s personal things, yelled abuses at them, and aggressively strip-searched them, something clicked for her: “If there was anyone out there who … could understand what it was like to be in prison, it’s someone that’s been in an abusive and violent relationship.” The surveillance, the constant physical and emotional degradation, the isolation, the intimidation, the way that women are taken out of their communities and away from their social safety nets as a way of exerting totalizing control—“It’s the same,” she said. “The exact same.”

The timing of the panel wasn’t an accident. Abolitionist frameworks have tentatively entered the mainstream in the wake of mass uprisings in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. But as they get translated from radical, decentralized spaces into mainstream liberal discourses, they have been treated to dilution, misinterpretation, and resistance. Media characters and politicians alike have committed themselves to the task of decoding what exactly Black Lives Matter and its allies mean by “defund the police,” but the answers they’ve come up with have only sometimes included, you know, taking funding away from the police.

Even for those who are new to these ideas but can see abolition as a long-term goal, there remains the sticking point of what to do about the violence that occurs right now. It is the same double-step that leads someone to demand the abolition of policing at the same time as they demand the arrest of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor. It is the lingering question of what to do with real harm, and the wall of imagination that one hits when punitive justice is the only means by which one has been taught justice at all. The question often goes something like this: Since we can’t expect to wake up tomorrow to a world without police and prisons, shouldn’t we deploy the systems we do have to hold people to account? Wouldn’t doing otherwise be an act of complacency and dangerous leniency? Basically, as long as jails do exist, shouldn’t killer cops or domestic abusers be in them?

But as the abolitionists whose work has brought us to this moment of possible transformation have long pointed out, the answer is no. There is no justice in these systems, only more violence. And as Mariame Kaba points out in The New York Times, even if we accept them at face value—that police exist to “serve and protect”—they are failing on their own terms when it comes to gender violence.

Most rape and assault is never reported to law enforcement in the first place. Of the cases that are, less than 1 percent are referred to prosecutors, and even fewer result in convictions. There are currently hundreds of ongoing lawsuits against police departments across the country, alleging a culture of institutionalized negligence, antipathy, and outright hostility toward survivors. Beyond the structural violence endemic to policing, police themselves are four times more likely than the average person to be domestic abusers.

These things are often framed as proof that policing is “broken,” but that again accepts the premise of the police on their own terms. Gender-based violence enabled by and within the criminal legal system is by design, and it is inseparable from the way that “crime” itself is construed: racialized, atomized, and alienated from broader social problems.

Far from being protected, it’s under the guise of “fighting crime” that Black women, trans women, indigenous, undocumented, and poor women have been subjected to a system of violent policing that continually exposes them to gender-based harm at the same time as it hems them into the margins of society. This system is self-protecting—it conspires to conceal the means through which it reproduces and justifies itself, making it difficult to imagine an alternative. This is the bind that leaves many people, when first encountering abolition and ideas about the end of policing, asking: What about the rapists? But there is a way out, long paved by radical feminists of color, and a future where this cycle of violence is interrupted for good.

This difficulty in imagining a response to sexual violence beyond the criminal legal system is strange given that it is only somewhat recently that gender-based violence came to be regarded as a kind of crime. In her research, Mimi Kim, professor in the school of social work at California State University in Long Beach, anti–domestic violence advocate, and member of INCITE!, an organization of radical feminists of color, traces this shift. “In the 1970s, the police were wholly disinterested in the issues of sexual violence and even more so domestic violence,” she told The New Republic. The latter was explicitly addressed as a ‘family matter’ outside of the boundaries of policing.” The American Bar Association’s official recommendations at the time regarding “the resolution of conflict such as that which occurs between husband and wife,” for example, were that the police should operate “without reliance upon criminal assault or disorderly conduct statutes.”

As part of the broader agenda of the women’s movement, second-wave feminists fought to bring these “family matters” into the public sphere and incorporate them into a critique of patriarchy writ large. But they found that the political landscape around them was mutating. The tide of neoliberalism—the conservative backlash to the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s—was on the rise, and with it came a rapacious appetite to do away with social safety nets and pour resources into prisons and policing. “With growing attacks against the U.S. welfare state and the stigmatizing of welfare recipients came the increasing belief that crime should be the focus of public and, hence, governmental efforts,” Kim writes in a 2018 paper. This was the era of the “war on drugs,” the “welfare queen,” and the starting point for the country’s soaring rates of incarceration—cornerstones of an outright and sustained campaign of state violence against Black people in America.

White, mainstream feminists looking to gain popular support for their cause took the temperature of their political moment and surrendered to it. They “forged partnerships with the police, framed sexual assault and domestic violence as crimes, and demanded the criminalization of these forms of violence as the only legitimate response to gender-based violence.” These women helped push through now-ubiquitous policies like “mandatory arrest” statutes, whereby the police are required to make an arrest if they have reason to believe domestic violence has occurred. As INCITE! noted in 2001, these laws have had precisely the wrong impact—“a decrease in the number of battered women who kill their partners in self-defense, but [no] decrease in the number of batterers who kill their partners.” The passage of new legislation like the Violence Against Women Act in 1994—part of Bill Clinton’s infamous Crime Bill, which infused police departments with funding, called for thousands of added cops on the streets, and introduced more punitive sentencing measures—was heralded as a victory. Contrarily, an understanding of gender-based violence as bound to state violence and broad social injustices—housing insecurity, poverty, crises in mental health, homophobia and transphobia, etc.—was abandoned wholesale on the level of policymaking. It was a trade-off buttressed by the Clinton administration’s reign of austerity and catastrophic welfare reform, which stripped communities of government resources while painting their (poor, Black) inhabitants as latent criminals. And models of justice that did not rely on the state, the only kinds that might actually serve communities under attack from that same institution, were consigned to the margins.

“In the reformist frame of mind, these gains looked like wins,” said Kim. “However, over time, they proved to be profound losses for the movement—and tied feminists more tightly to the most masculinist arm of the state.” The mainstream anti-violence movement has been mired in the language of crime and punishment ever since.

The result has been interlocking fields of violence for Black, undocumented, Indigenous, and trans people: interpersonal harm on one side and state brutality on the other. But despite the complicity of mainstream feminists for the last half-century, radical feminist communities have continued to develop more holistic frameworks for resisting these layers of violence. Sex workers in particular have been at the forefront of the project. In their book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Worker’s Rights, Molly Smith and Juno Mac write, “when we think of police violence not only as state violence but as male violence against women, the criminalisation of prostitution comes into focus in a new way.” By bringing “criminalization” into the schema of patriarchal oppression, the policing of sex work can be seen for what it is: yet another arena in which Black women, gender-nonconforming people, and others are exposed to violence that, due to their work, is inherently “gender-based.” What else can we call their arrests, deportation, incarceration, the parole terms that threaten their housing and families, the threat of rape and abuse while in police custody or during state-sanctioned police “stings,” and the lack of protection from a system that will always treat them as deserving of such surveillance and punishment? As my colleague Melissa Gira Grant, author of Playing the Whore, writes, “I’ve stopped asking ‘Why have we made prostitution illegal?’ Instead I want an explanation for, ‘How much violence against “prostitutes” have we made acceptable?’”

Locked in the paradigm of policing, how much violence have we similarly made acceptable? How much violence against “survivors” have we made acceptable? It’s through the work of groups like Survived and Punished, which organizes on behalf of criminalized and incarcerated survivors, as well as the stories of survivors themselves, that we can uncover some answers. In recent years, several cases have risen to prominence as some of the most egregious examples where victims found themselves persecuted by the state; cases like those of Marissa Alexander—who faced 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot at her abusive husband when he threatened to kill her; Nan Hui-Jo—who tried to flee to her home country of Korea after repeated abuse by her husband and was instead found guilty of abducting her own child; Eisha Love—a trans woman who went to the police to report an attack on her life and who was then arrested herself for injuring her attacker before being incarcerated in a men’s prison; and Cyntoia Brown—who was sentenced to over 50 years in prison at the age of 16 for shooting her 43-year-old rapist in self-defense. The stories of these women and so many others whose names we will never know are best synthesized by feminist activist Beth Richie in her 1996 book Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women: “The cases presented here are extreme not because the women themselves are extreme, but because the degree to which their lives are stigmatized and marginalized is extreme.”

Survived and Punished calls it the “Good Victim” problem. The multiform ways in which society already pathologized and criminalized the conditions of these women’s lives—their Blackness, their sexuality, their immigration status, their class positions, their “criminal records”—prevented them from being seen as victims in the eyes of the state. And as nonvictims involved in a crime, they became criminal themselves. Author, activist, and victim advocate Andrea Ritchie puts it this way in Invisible No More: “White supremacy demands such complete control of Black women and women of color that it takes very little to perceive us as out of control.” The result is that the United States is filling prisons with survivors of rape and domestic abuse. According to the ACLU, up to 94 percent of incarcerated women in some women’s prisons are victims of past sexual abuse.

But as feminist Beth Ritchie writes, “You do not need a prison to build up a prison nation.” Instead, the export of carceral practices beyond the prison, through surveillance, the hoarding of resources, and the constant threat of coercive violence, is enough to exercise control over women in their homes and their communities. The same framework is behind the systems that force victims into houselessness and poverty and threaten them with deportation. “Survivors who are already criminalized are not recognized as people in need of support and advocacy,” Survived and Punished writes on its website. “Their experience of violence is diminished, distorted, or disappeared, and they are instead simply seen as criminals who should be punished.”

So how do we account for sexual violence—undisappear it without reproducing the same violent logics of the carceral state? What do we do with the rapists?

In April 2000, a group of radical, queer feminists of color convened a conference in Santa Cruz, California, to contend with this question and others in the struggle against gender-based violence. Much of what we in the U.S. know today about alternative models of justice is owed to the Color of Violence Conference. It was there that INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence formed and collectively developed tool kits to recast state and interpersonal violence as mutually constitutive forces, building on the work of abolitionists in the 1960s and ’70s. In recentering their own communities, which were at once brutalized by the criminal legal system while being denied recourse to it, these women developed strategies to circumvent it, and they named it “transformative justice.”

As opposed to punitive justice, which excises people from their communities, the principles of transformative justice are rooted in a practice of community accountability. Here, perpetrators are treated as people (rather than eternal criminals) who have the capacity to permanently change their behavior. Survivors are treated as agents (rather than eternal victims) who can ask for and be provided with whatever resources and courses of action they might need. Forgiveness may be part of that equation; it may not be. And harm is located within a broader nexus of violence within the community. In her seminal work Are Prisons Obsolete?, abolitionist Angela Davis writes that the prison “functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.” Transformative justice, on the other hand, does not let us off so easily. It asks us to understand acts of violence as arising from conditions of scarcity, trauma, and oppressive hierarchies like racism and sexism. In doing so, it reveals the pressure points where real interventions can have real impact.

This is not a simple process. It also does not mean an instant, clean eradication of violence. In these accountability processes, friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, community organizations, apartment complexes, labor unions, and other sites of social and community meaning work together to repair harm done and generate safety in their communities, often with some degree of involvement by either the survivor or the perpetrator, or both. Within the context of these processes, survivors are afforded more flexibility to decide for themselves what justice looks like. This is critical, because the open secret of sexual assault is that even if the criminal justice system worked perfectly (putting rapists behind bars), it would still have little to nothing to offer survivors in the way of healing. “One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that people mostly want … answers. ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘Why did you do this to me?’” Mariame Kaba has said of this work. “They want you to admit that you did what you did.… The current system … makes it impossible for you to admit that you did harm.” Here again is the weird double bind of “crime” on full display: In the context of the criminal legal system, to admit guilt is to submit to possible punishment and violence. There is no incentive to take responsibility for harm done, which is often the very thing that survivors need. Accountability processes create a structure in which a perpetrator can voluntarily “enter into accountability,” as INCITE! puts it.

Of course, if justice is going to happen at the level of the community, it is important that those communities are materially fortified and equipped to deliver on the promise of transformative justice. But Mimi Kim warns that it is not enough to tinker at the edges of our fraying social safety net. “In looking towards investments in social welfare or public health as demanded today, it is also important to be clear about the punitive histories of these systems in the United States,” she says. Writing in The Chronicle of Social Change, Dorothy Roberts makes a similar point: “Abolitionists must also ask … whether the recommended reallocation of money and authority will reduce and not increase other parts of the state’s punishment regime.” In her piece, Roberts goes on to lay out how the “family regulation system,” embodied by agencies such as Child Protective Services, is a central perpetrator of this “punishment regime.” CPS, she writes, is no less than “a multi-billion-dollar government apparatus that regulates millions of marginalized people through intrusive investigations, monitoring and forcible removal of children from their homes.” For Kim, as well, these bodies require a kind of transformation rooted in abolition: “They are not in and of themselves helpful, much less liberatory. We need to make demands for the humanization of these systems.”

None of this—the massive redistribution of resources, the dismantling of the prison industrial complex, the institution of transformative justice models—can be accomplished without the complex work of reimagining what justice means for victims of gendered interpersonal violence and gendered state violence.

In the weeks since mass uprisings first erupted around the country to protest the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a new coalition has organized around the call to defund the police. The speed with which this demand moved from abolitionist circles that have long been made marginal into something resembling a mainstream position has been both dizzying and thrilling, but as this vision travels through wider circles, Black feminist abolitionists like Kaba remind us to be wary of liberal sleight of hand:

Congressional Democrats want to make it easier to identify and prosecute police misconduct; Joe Biden wants to give police departments $300 million. But efforts to solve police violence through liberal reforms like these have failed for nearly a century. Enough. We can’t reform the police. The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.

Mealy-mouthed politicians will scramble for ways to keep full abolition at arm’s length, and we have already seen the specter of sexual violence be used as a convenient pretext. (The president, an accused rapist many times over, has also embraced this line of critique.) And so, survivors have a role to play in this movement, both by acting as guardians of their own experiences—with a refusal to let their stories be appropriated by the police state—and by helping lead the effort to reimagine how harm and violence can be accounted for outside of a crime and punishment model that has singularly used and failed them.

This is the crux of what Angela Davis calls “abolition feminism,” as opposed to what sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein has identified as “carceral feminism.” While carceral feminism obscures and props up the violent power of the state, abolition feminism unearths the rot at the core. Simply: The institution of policing requires there to be “crime” in order to justify its own existence and certainly to justify its bloated department budgets. So the state has every incentive to stretch the definition and the province of “crime” as far as it can go and ensure that it is continually reproduced. This is the scheme that both allows and demands that resources be sucked away from Black and working-class communities, divesting from their education, their lives, and their well-being.

But if carceral feminism developed hand in hand with the rise of neoliberalism, the retrenchment of the welfare state, and an influx of money into the prison-industrial complex, it stands to reason that an anti-carceral or abolitionist feminism can take hold by the reverse process: the revitalization of social safety nets, a commitment to economic justice, sustained movements against white supremacy, and the defunding of the racist carceral state. As a rallying cry, then, “defund the police” is even more powerful than it appears on its face. Not only does it meet this particular political moment with forceful clarity, it identifies the historical roots of the problem it seeks to address. It is both means and end, all at once.