“It’s never true that *no one* is talking about a thing. It’s often true that *not enough* people are talking about a thing ...,” anti-violence activist Mariame Kaba recently tweeted from her popular @prisonculture account.
That is certainly true of sexual violence by police officers, described as something “no one talks about” in a recent piece on The Root. Kaba is just one black woman whose work was erased by this casual stroke of the keyboard: She has been talking about the issue of sexual violence by police for years. Most recently, she lifted up the case of Tiawanda Moore, a black survivor of domestic violence who attempted to report a sexual assault by the officer who responded to her call for help when her boyfriend was beating her. She was instead prosecuted for recording investigating officers trying to dissuade her from filing the report. Kaba co-organized court watches, petition drives and statements of support for Moore, highlighting the systemic nature of police sexual violence, including officers’ pattern of predation on survivors of domestic violence. She is just one among many black women who have been talking about sexual assault by police officers, for a long, long time.
In fact, as noted in Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, which features an entire chapter on the topic, black women have been talking about sexual extortion and rape by slave patrols, and later police officers enforcing Black Codes, Jim Crow, and vice laws, throughout U.S. history. As documented by historian Danielle McGuire, black women in the civil rights movement consistently called attention to sexual violence by police. In 1964, the National Council of Negro Women and Delta Sigma Theta sorority formed an interracial coalition on the issue after 24 women’s groups conducted an investigation into incidents of sexual violence by police across the South. Yet their efforts garnered neither media coverage nor widespread support from mainstream civil rights groups.
In the early 1970s, black women, including Rosa Parks and Angela Y. Davis, led a successful multiracial campaign to free Joan Little, a black woman sexually assaulted by a North Carolina Sheriff who killed the officer in self-defense. While they pointed out that sexual violence against black women by law enforcement agents was a widespread and historic problem, the issue faded from the headlines once the case was over.
I have personally been talking, testifying, and agitating about sexual violence by police officers since the late 1990s. I am certainly not alone—in addition to Kaba, a number of formations of black women, including the Center for Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, Sista II Sista in Brooklyn, and INCITE!, have been reporting and calling for action around police sexual violence. Black trans women at BreakOUT in New Orleans and the Solutions Not Punishment Coalition in Atlanta have documented some of the highest rates of sexual violence by police officers.
Black women in Oklahoma City, supported by organizations like Black Women’s Blueprint, the African American Policy Forum, Women’s All Points Bulletin, and the Transforming Justice Coalition came out in support of survivors of rape and sexual assault by former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, demanding more national coverage after The Root’s own former editor Kirsten West Savali broke the story in the wake of Ferguson.
The issue is clearly not that no one is talking about sexual violence by police—black women have been talking about it for decades, and demanding action. The #MeToo moment is no exception: Tiffany Haddish shared a #MeToo story of rape by a police officer in training when she was 17, and many more can be found under the hashtag #CopsToo, coined by Women’s All Points Bulletin.
The issue is that people are not listening to the Black women who have been talking about it. As Kaba cautions, when you “discover” an issue, it is important to find out who is already working on it. Chances are there is already a group of people whose work you can support, amplify and join. Each time reporters and policymakers fail to reach out to black women who have been talking about and doing the work to end sexual violence by police, they set us backward on the path to effectively addressing the problem, advancing incomplete analyses and solutions that don’t take into account the lessons we’ve learned over decades of organizing and advocacy. Each time we start the conversation over from scratch with every news cycle, erasing what has come before, we lose the opportunity to move the ball forward past shock and outrage–something we can ill afford at a time when we are facing escalating violence on every front.
We actually know quite a bit about the problem beyond the numbers recently reported by the Root and CNN, based on research by academics, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and community-based organizations, and based on individual stories of survivors who have come forward about rapes by Border Patrol, ICE agents, police and school safety officers, often to be discounted, dismissed, disparaged, and, most often, simply ignored.
We know that an officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct every five days, and that the majority of cases involve “motorists, crime victims, informants, students and young people in job-shadowing programs.” And while available data doesn’t capture the race of the victim, the evidence we have indicates that black women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming people, along with Indigenous, immigrant, and other people of color, make up the majority of people targeted for sexual violence by law enforcement agents.
We also know why police sexual violence is consistently ignored by mainstream media and movements focused on police violence and sexual assault. For one, police officers intentionally target people they don’t think will be believed, people who are at the margins of black communities: people who use drugs, trade sex, people who are precariously housed, disabled, LGBTQ—people who aren’t seen as ideal poster children for mainstream movements. Secondly, acknowledging sexual violence by police officers as a systemic problem profoundly destabilizes the notion of police as protectors, an uncomfortable reality for movements deeply invested in law enforcement as the answer to sexual violence. Third, confronting sexual violence by police officers against black women would also require us to confront sexual violence in black communities more broadly– whether at the hands of R. Kelly or member of our families.
Ultimately, the false sense that “nobody” is talking about sexual violence by police is rooted in the overall invisibility of black women’s organizing to mainstream media. It’s not just black women’s experiences of police violence that must be invisible no more, but also our ongoing resistance to it. As experts quoted in the recent coverage of the issue point out, sexual violence by police officers is not a question of bad apples, but a problem with the barrel. And it is one we can’t effectively tackle if we don’t listen to the black women who have been talking about it for decades, who are experts in solutions that strike at the root of the problem and bring us closer to prevention, healing and justice for survivors.
Andrea J. Ritchie is a black lesbian immigrant and police misconduct attorney whose work has focused on profiling, policing, criminalization and mass incarceration of women & LGBTQ people of color for over two decades. She is the author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color and co-author of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Violence Against Black Women.