During the Alabama special election between Roy Moore, a man with a history of predatory behavior toward teen girls, and now-Sen. Doug Jones, we heard again what has become a mantra for progressives: “Black women will save us.”
Black women turn out at incredibly high and reliable voting rates, something that institutions like the Democratic Party are finally starting to notice. When Jones won, praise for black female voters was far and wide. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez tweeted: “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
The question remains: If black women will save us, who will save black women? Who will come to our aid and take action to support us when we’re assaulted and violated by the very same people meant to uphold the law?
I watched the video of Chikesia Clemons’ arrest in a Waffle House in Saraland, Ala., and I can only imagine the horror she experienced when three white male police officers forced her to the ground, pulling her dress and exposing her breasts. Or the fear in the pit of her stomach as one officer choked her and another threatened to break her arm.
This is the intersection of state violence and sexual abuse, which so many black women have experienced from institutionally powerful white men. Clemons was violated, humiliated, and then arrested and charged for her own assault.
We’ve seen it time and again: Every time high-profile instances of police violence against people of color occur, there is a concerted effort to criminalize the victims, to make it look as if they brought about their own abuse. There is always a narrative chock-full of bold lies, whether it’s the fabricated presence of a gun or the innocuous charge of “resisting arrest.”
Whenever women are assaulted, we’re hit with the misogynistic “She was asking for it” response that says we brought our trauma on ourselves and we should suffer the consequences. This can have a direct impact on whether or not charges are pressed—and against whom.
As a black woman, I’m left with a new question: Why is there such fascination with and fetishization of black women’s strength, but such failure to support us when we experience trauma? Our strength is either celebrated for its usefulness or perceived as a threat and a reason to harm us. Our vulnerability and humanity are always ignored.
We are vulnerable. Too many women in America—particularly black and indigenous women—experience sexual violence, abuse and even death at the hands of law enforcement. Let’s get one thing straight: This is a gendered form of state violence, and it is pervasive. We have seen women get shot in the head by Border Patrol agents, like Claudia Gonzales; girls assaulted at pool parties; women forced to the ground with their bodies exposed, as Clemons was.
No one should stay silent in the face of these abuses and violations of the humanity, dignity and rights of black women and other women of color.
Waffle House, a company with a history of racial-discrimination lawsuits, a company that just this week incited racist police violence again—this time against a black couple in Florida who pointed out that Waffle House overcharged them for juice—needs to hear this. The company is doubling down on its support of Clemons’ assault and arrest.
Women’s March issued an open letter to the CEO not long after Clemons was assaulted, urging the company to demand that the Saraland Police Department drop all charges against her. The company has chosen to ignore our letter. It is trying to ignore calls from black activists to boycott the business. Waffle House can’t ignore the power of a united sisterhood of women supporting our black sisters and taking to the streets.
I am working to harness the power of the Women’s March network to become an unstoppable force that defends women of color from state violence—not just for Chikesia Clemons, but for all of us. Law enforcement officers across the nation need to know that women won’t stay silent while they continue to violate our human and civil rights. We won’t sit down and take it when they beat us, violate us and then try to punish us for surviving.
My organization has marched. We’ve shown that women are a force to be reckoned with. We will use that force to defend sisters who are assaulted and criminalized—from Chikesia Clemons to Claudia Gonzales to the women whose names we don’t know.
We’re gathering on Friday, June 15, outside the Waffle House headquarters in Atlanta to deliver our demands in person.
We are our sisters’ keepers. We have to be.
Tamika D. Mallory is a 36-year-old mother to her teenage son and a nationally recognized activist who is well-known as one of four co-chairs for the 2017 Women’s March on Washington; she currently serves as co-president of the Women’s March. President of Mallory Consulting, a strategic planning firm, and board member of the Gathering for Justice, Mallory has landed on Time’s 2017 “100 Most Influential People” list and Fortune’s 2017 “World’s Greatest Leaders” list.