Third-rail politics: Analysis at the intersection of gender, health and race.
Yesterday I talked to a group of college students about what I do for a living, why I do it and how. I always appreciate such an opportunity, particularly when there are young people of color in the room and I might help convince them to pursue journalism. There are so few of us, and the need is great—journalists of color have been stuck at around just 12 percent of newsroom workers for the past two decades. People who aren’t white make up about 39 percent of the US population.
I was especially glad to do so on the day that news of Dori Maynard’s passing hit many of us hard. Not only could I tell the students a bit about her legacy, but having Dori on my mind also helped focus the points I wanted to make about why it’s crucial that news organizations reflect the audiences they want to reach. That accurate reporting and storytelling depends on it is something to which many in the industry pay lip service, but that far fewer seem committed to addressing. Getting outlets to understand how vital integrated, representative newsrooms are was Dori Maynard’s life work.
Because I live in Oakland, Dori’s hometown and home base for her nationwide efforts, I had the chance to spend time with her on a few occasions. Each time I did, I knew that I was in the presence of someone great—kind and funny, too, and eager to connect with younger journalists. I also felt sure that I had only ever worked for metro daily papers such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Miami Herald because she and people like her had demanded that I be allowed in and that I be taken seriously once there.
I was also aware of the weight that Dori’s family name carried. Her father, Robert C. Maynard, had been editor and publisher of The Oakland Tribune, and owed a controlling interest in the paper that held the distinction of being the country’s first black-owned major metro daily until it was sold in the early ’90s. Her father was also a co-founder of the Institute for Journalism Education, which helped “integrate newsrooms nationwide by recruiting, training and placing African-Americans, Asians and Latinos in reporting, editing and management jobs,” according to Wayne Dawkins’ book Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim in the Mainstream.
That what little diversity we have in media today is the result of organizing and pipeline development rather than benevolent action on the part of newsrooms is an important point, and one I emphasized yesterday when talking with students. When mainstream metropolitan dailies started hiring people of color—specifically black reporters—in the late ’60s, it was because they finally recognized that news events demanded it. As uprisings took over American cities, many of these newspapers were simply unable to tell an accurate story. Black Power sentiments had, in many places, overtaken the integrationist ideals of the earlier civil-rights movement, and some of the most important sources simply would not speak—or at least would not speak freely—with white reporters. As Dori herself wrote about this history:
“It was white journalists who reported on the civil rights movement (except for those reporters from the black press), while it was mainly black reporters who covered this other era—Black Power, black consciousness, and the black revolution. In fact, this became the only time that mainstream media put an important story entirely in the hands of black reporters. That was a decision borne from necessity. With cries of ‘white reporter out,’ black journalists were the only ones who were able to get the story.”
It’s fair to argue that we’re at a similar moment now, with today’s net-neutrality win ensuring that the many online voices breaking and interpreting news and demanding more of mainstream news accounts will continue to flourish. This is critical, but it doesn’t take the place of trained reporters rooted in a place and committed to local coverage, or else with the budgets to travel and see what’s actually happening. Dori Maynard tried to ensure that such news gathering was done by as an inclusive group as possible. She made great strides. There’s still much work to do.
Read Next: Dani McClain on the brutal targeting of trans women
This week, writer and MSNBC host Janet Mock noted on her blog that at least six trans women have been killed in the United States since the start of 2015. The magnitude of the violence is astounding, as is its pace: By this time last year, no homicides of trans women had been reported.
Of the women killed these past seven weeks, five were trans women of color. On her blog, Mock offered her take on why violence against this community is pervasive and why there’s so much confusion around how to best confront it: “Trans women are targeted because we exist at vulnerable intersections of race, gender and class. My sisters are vulnerable because no one movement has ever centered the bodies, lives and experiences of these women, except for the severely underfunded, largely volunteer-staffed work of organizations run by and for our communities.… Trans women of color dangerously fall in between the cracks of racial justice, feminist and LGbt [sic] movements.”
A new collaboration between the national, California-based Transgender Law Center (TLC) and the grassroots LGBTQ organization Southerners on New Ground (SONG) has the potential to help bridge these movement gaps, and in a region that needs the added support. Nearly a third of LGBTQ people in the United States live in the South, and of the six trans women killed this year, three lived in Southern states—Texas, Louisiana and Virginia. SONG focuses on anti-criminalization and safety within the South’s LGBTQ communities, what its co-director Caitlin Breedlove calls “life and death issues.” I spoke with Breedlove last week to learn more about the partnership, TLC@SONG, which will place two new TLC hires with a legal and policy focus alongside SONG staffers in Atlanta. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
DMcC: What’s an example of something that’s come up for a SONG member that might be handled differently once the partnership with TLC is launched?
CB: There is nothing comparable to the kind of basic Know Your Rights information that TLC provides to trans and gender non-conforming people in California. So we’re going to start providing resources through all of our networks.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, a black trans man was stopped and harassed severely by police because he was afraid when he was first asked for his license. He hesitated because he knew the gender on his ID didn’t match how he was being perceived. In his hesitation, [police] assumed bad intent, made him get out of the car, humiliated him. And that’s exactly the kind of case where the police have no right to be doing that to people because they are black and trans. If and when we have legal and policy capacity, we can give our members a choice to say, “Would you like to actually fight this to the full extent of law?”
DMcC: So TLC staffers will provide legal services to people in your network throughout the South? Will you also be crafting policy and working to get it passed?
CB: The depth of need is so profound that if we open a direct-service law-center clinic, we won’t be to meet all of the needs. One of the biggest things that we still have to consider is how do we fight back with impact litigation and how do we set precedent?
In the South, we don’t really have a shot at [passing] statewide policy, but can we win different municipal protections for trans people that could provide a different level of community safety? If we could, we could teach other people to win in different places. As we know from the right wing, sometimes when you win something in enough cities or towns, you can win statewide.
DMcC: What types of policy wins do you plan to go after?
CB: There are huge opportunities to think about things like driver’s licenses, making it easy for trans people to change their driver’s license or municipal ID. Think about healthcare, places where trans people are being deprived of their human rights because of systems that don’t make room for them and are hostile to them. Our incredible colleagues in New York, like Reina Gossett who works at Sylvia Rivera Law Project, worked for years on New York Medicaid expansion to include trans people. Kris Hayashi [TLC’s director] and I said to each other the other day, “Well, we need to speak with Reina.”
Daily violence, deep job discrimination, healthcare are all things that we don’t have to do any study [on] to know how completely horrible the conditions are around these three things for trans people.
DMcC: What do you plan to do to help interrupt the pattern of killings targeting trans women?
CB: We’re going to try to understand strategies that are working from local groups on the ground. There has to be a set of combined strategies because there’s no silver bullet, and that has to be informed by people whose voices have been shut out of organizing processes, which particularly is going to be trans people.
There’s a deep need to develop trans people of color to be organizers, and the way to train them is through organizing. So we’re going to be involving a particular emphasis on leadership development for trans women and campaigns that are anti–police brutality, anti-profiling, et cetera.
There are many trans leaders young and old in the South who have been doing that basic work of taking care of each other, organizing themselves in communities, creating services for each other, and just being a support network. While we’re focused on all of the trans people of color who have died and are suffering violence, we also need to look at how trans people autonomously have been protecting and defending themselves. The worst kind of assumption would be that there’s no trans leadership in the South. We know that’s not true.
DMcC: You’ve said that SONG’s work is focused squarely on “life and death issues.” What does that mean?
CB: We’ve never opposed gay marriage. The question we always ask is, “If so much of our [movement’s] money had not gone into gay marriage, how many people would be alive right now who we’ve lost in the past ten to fifteen years?” That is the difference between life and death issues and quality of life issues. That’s why we will fight as hard as we possibly can about life and death issues, because every single person we’ve lost was too many. Does gay marriage matter to our people or not? That’s not a real debate in my opinion, of course it matters.
But just like a Not One More [immigrants rights campaign challenging deportations] organizer said when asked about Ferguson: “We have to fight like we mean Not One More Mike Brown.” So how do we fight like we mean Not One More Lamar Edwards [a 20-year-old black gay man killed in January in Louisville, Kentucky]? Not One More Ty Underwood [a 24-year-old black trans woman killed in January in North Tyler, Texas], all of these people we’ve lost in the past six weeks? That’s a question SONG is eager to help answer and can’t answer alone, for sure.
Pregnant women and those who have just had babies in New York state prisons are shackled—despite a 2009 state law that prohibits the use of restraints during labor, delivery and recovery. Women who are not pregnant use newspaper and magazines while on their periods because they are not provided an adequate number of pads. Others face weeks- or months-long delays to see medical providers, and so sexually transmitted infections worsen or cancerous cells spread past the point of being treatable. Others are rushed through appointments and deemed “problem patients” if they ask too many questions, or else forced to discuss the intimate details of a health issue through the door of a solitary confinement cell. Incarceration violates women’s reproductive rights—to say nothing of their dignity and humanity—at every turn. These are among the findings of a report on the state of reproductive health care for women in New York state prisons released this week.
The Correctional Association of New York, an organization that’s monitored conditions in the state’s prisons since 1846 and which produced the report “Reproductive Injustice,” calls it the most extensive study of reproductive health care in a state prison system to date. It’s the product of five years’ worth of investigation into New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which provides reproductive healthcare to 4,000 women per year, according to the report. Women make up just 4 percent of DOCCS’s prison population, but because of the upward national trend in incarcerating women—the women’s prison population increased in the US by nearly 900 percent between 1977 and 2013—the study offers a look at the inhumane conditions faced by a growing number of women, the majority of whom are poor and of color.
The report attempts to tell us who women incarcerated in New York are. Seventy percent are mothers. Just over half have a serious or chronic illness. Ninety percent have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, and 80 percent were severely abused as children. Three-fourths of the women have survived violence at the hands of their intimate partners. These harrowing statistics help us understand why one of the report’s recommendations is that the state prison system train its medical staff in how to provide trauma-informed care, meaning that staff should learn how abuse continues to affect the women they’re caring for and tailor their approach accordingly. For example, a number of women interviewed said they preferred to be examined by a woman gynecologist, but were given little or no choice in the matter. This despite quotes like this, from the report: “I’ve been raped numerous times, so any type of contact down there makes me feel messed up, but I know I need to be checked.” Among other findings:
—54 percent of survey respondents said they did not get enough sanitary napkins each month, while 68 percent said they did not get enough toilet paper.
—44 percent of respondents who saw a male gynecologist said it made them feel uncomfortable talking about their needs.
—13 percent of women who were pregnant and entered the system during the legal time frame to get an abortion said someone talked to them about their reproductive options.
—85 percent of women who gave birth between 2009, when the law was passed, and 2013, were shackled at least once, in violation of the law.
The challenges faced by the women interviewed are the same challenges faced by women incarcerated nationwide, said Tamar Kraft-Stolar, who directs the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association and wrote the report. “This fundamental conflict between reproductive justice and mass incarceration is not something that’s unique to New York,” she said. “We’re hoping that this report contributes to the national conversation that’s happening right now about over-incarceration.”
This broader critique of incarceration is clear throughout the study, which at one point boldly states, “The best solution to the problems outlined in this report is to keep women, especially pregnant women and women with small children, out of prison in the first place.” Instead, the state should look to community-based alternatives to incarceration, the Correctional Association argues, perhaps through policy initiatives similar to what voters in California approved just months ago. In California, shoplifting, drug possession, and four other felony crimes have been reclassified as misdemeanors, meaning less jail time for women convicted of them.
In the meantime, the report is part of an ongoing effort to bring about reforms and improve conditions in New York’s prisons. The Correctional Association is part of a statewide coalition for women’s prisoners that includes more than 100 organizations advocating for policy change. Recent victories include that 2009 anti-shackling law, which the campaign wants to not only see enforced but also expanded to outlaw the use of shackles on women throughout all stages of their pregnancies.
“What was deeply disturbing was the magnitude of violations of reproductive rights that women are going through,” Kraft-Stolar said of producing the report. “It’s really racism and gender oppression that drive society’s tolerance of this extraordinary level of human suffering that happens behind prison walls.”
In a video from a Baltimore middle school released last week, a girl is summoned down a flight of stairs by a school police officer. After what appears, from the video, to be no more than a few seconds, she descends the steps but walks quickly past the cop, apparently ignoring a demand that she stop. The officer pins her against a wall, and soon the girl’s sister and later a third black girl—their cousin—rush in to intervene, crowding in and trying to get the officer to loosen her grip. The officer, a woman, runs after the cousin and hits her at least twice with a baton, bloodying that girl’s head so badly she will later need stitches. The officer, unprovoked and apparently angered by their refusal to accept her authority, then sprays the other two girls in the eyes with pepper spray.
Following the events on the video, the three girls were rushed to the hospital for treatment and then taken by police to Baltimore’s juvenile justice center, where they were charged with assaulting the officer. Those charges were dropped once the prosecutor viewed the video, but the girls were all suspended. The officer was reassigned to administrative duty.
According to a report released Wednesday, incidents such as these in which black girls are subject to harsh, apparently unwarranted school discipline and end up in the juvenile justice system are much more likely than the existing research and public conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline suggest. Concern and interventions focus largely on boys of color, particularly black boys. But according to the report, titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” black girls are also disciplined at disproportionately high rates compared to white girls and, as a result, are excluded from opportunities to learn. Black boys are suspended more than three times as often as white boys, and often that statistic is held up as sole proof of a problem. But if black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls, which data analysis in this new report finds, then why and what can be done to reduce that disparity?
The report, authored by the African American Policy Forum in collaboration with Columbia Law School, looked at 2011–12 school year data collected by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and found:
—Twelve percent of all black girls in school were suspended, while two percent of white girls were subjected to that form of discipline.
—In New York City’s public schools, black students made up 28 percent of the student body and white students were 14 percent. But black girls were 90 percent of all girls expelled, and no white girls were expelled that school year.
—In Boston’s public schools, black students made up 35 percent of the student body and white students were 14 percent. Black girls were 63 percent of all girls expelled, and no white girls were expelled that school year.
The report goes beyond simply reporting the problem and recommends solutions, such as training teachers how to work with students traumatized by violence and sexual assault and recognizing that girls have needs that can differ from boys’ and so demand specially tailored solutions. “This cannot be a trickle-down affair,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar and one of the report’s authors, said Wednesday on a call to announce its release.
As for the problems girls face at school, some of these were explored in depth in a New York Times article late last year that examined the same Office of Civil Rights data for insight into race, gender and school discipline. According to that story, intraracial disparities exist as well. “Researchers say that within minority groups, darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones,” Tanzina Vega reported. Vega focused on a district in Georgia where a 12-year-old black girl was accused of criminal trespassing after writing graffiti in a school bathroom. The girl’s friend, who was also involved and is white, faced no such charges because her family was able to pay $100 in restitution.
But the difference in how white and black girls are disciplined often isn’t just about who has the money to buy their way out of harsh punishment and who doesn’t. Making a decision about whether and how to discipline a student is subjective, so biases around race and gender creep into calls educators have to make every day. According to the African American Policy Forum report, the girls interviewed in focus groups believed their teachers and school counselors often perceived them as “loud and rowdy, ghetto,” and so relied on harsh discipline practices as a way to counteract and try to root out those behaviors.
Last fall, I interviewed educator and scholar Monique Morris for a story I was reporting about how teachers can address behavior problems without turning to suspensions or otherwise pushing students out of the classroom. Morris, who’s working on a book on the criminalization of black girls in schools, has conducted interviews and run focus groups across the San Francisco Bay Area and in Boston, New Orleans and Chicago with students who have struggled in or been ousted from the traditional school system. She said sometimes teachers and administrators think they’re doing something innocuous by teaching girls to be ladylike or to meet some other standard of femininity—by sending a girl wearing short shorts home or requiring that she stay in the office, for example—when in reality they’re doing harm.
“They try to police girls’ sexuality in ways that really just marginalize them from the school environment,” Morris said. “In an attempt to try to show love and maybe even engage with the young women, they end up pushing them away and criminalizing their behavior in ways that are unnecessary.” Instead, these are moments when educators should focus on boys’ inappropriate behavior rather than solely blaming that behavior on the way a girl dresses, she said.
As for solutions, Morris said the girls she’s interviewed are longing for dependable, caring relationships with teachers who believe in their promise.“The girls who have the best relationships with teachers are the ones who do the best in school,” she said.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women’s Law Center have organized a congressional briefing on improving educational outcomes for black girls, including how to reform zero-tolerance discipline policies to avoid school pushout. The event is February 11 in Washington, DC, and open to the public.
This week’s New York Times Magazine features a fascinating article about two teenagers’ worlds colliding on a city bus in Oakland, California. In the fall of 2013, the skirt of an 18-year-old gender-nonconforming person named Sasha Fleischman was set on fire while Sasha napped during a bus ride home from school. Richard Thomas, a 16-year-old boy whose life differed from Sasha’s in a number of ways, had just left his own high school and was on the same bus. Egged on by two friends, Richard, who is black, set Sasha, who is white, on fire. Richard, whose East Oakland neighborhood is plagued by poverty, faced the possibility of life in prison, while Sasha, who is from Oakland’s wealthier foothills, was treated for second- and third-degree burns in the wake of the incident. Richard, who at one point begged to be let into an intervention program for chronically absent students, is now in the midst of a seven-year sentence and could be transferred to an adult prison after turning 18. Sasha, who decided at 16 that identifying as one gender didn’t feel quite right, is now a student at MIT.
The article is captivating storytelling that explores gender expression, how baffled parents struggle to make sense of their children’s choices, and how we decide what constitutes a hate crime. This could have been yet another article that depicts black teenagers as brutal and amoral and encourages readers to identify with victims hell-bent on the harshest punishment possible, but it’s not. Instead, pretty much everyone involved bucks some stereotype.
Some examples of how the story confounds readers expectations: Richard comes across as a confused kid swayed by peer pressure. He tells police when he’s brought in for questioning, “I wouldn’t say that I hate gay people, but I’m very homophobic.” (Perhaps he was being precise in his use of the word, admitting a fear rather than hatred?) He later wrote Sasha a letter that reads in part, “I had a nightmare last night and I woke up sweating and apologizing. I really hope you get back to the way you were. I went to court yesterday and there [sic] still making me seem like a monster, but I’m not.” Sasha’s parents didn’t want Richard tried as an adult and, according to the article, “consistently cautioned against leaping to conclusions about Richard’s motivation.” The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center asked the district attorney not to charge Richard as an adult.
But there’s one stereotype the story does risk enforcing. By focusing on Sasha Fleischman to tell a 4,500-word story about crimes against gender-nonconforming people, a reader could believe that victims in such situations are overwhelmingly white, preyed upon by black or Latino boys and men. In fact, that’s not the case. According to an Anti-Violence Project report, LGBTQ and HIV-affected people of color were 1.7 times more likely than white people similarly classified to be injured and two times more likely to require medical attention as a result of hate violence in 2013. They were 1.4 times more likely to experience violence in the street or a public area. Of the hate-motivated homicides of LGBT people that year, two-thirds of the victims were transgender women of color.
Trying to make sense of these stats, a writer at Jacobin reflected on the names read during an annual Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil, names of people killed because of their gender expression in the preceding year. She explained:
Why am I not on the list? I’m white, which exempts me from many forms of violence and discrimination. I’m employed full-time in a safe profession, so I can afford housing. I have trans-inclusive health insurance, which allows me to pay the medical expenses associated with my transition. I pass, which means that most people can’t tell that I’m transgender by sight. In a group of people who feel perpetually unsafe, I’m as safe as I can possibly be.
Sasha identifies as agender, not transgender. And neither whiteness nor access to housing or other markings of financial security kept Sasha safe on the bus that day. But these stats and the struggles of gender-nonconforming people of color to have crimes targeting them recognized and stopped are worth remembering. They offer important context to the already intricate story of Sasha, Richard and their families.
Read Next: Dani McClain on the way we talk about abortion rights
Last summer, The New York Times ran a story that claimed the term “pro-choice” had fallen out of favor among abortion rights advocates. Instead, the article explained, because younger people eschew political labels, movement leaders had taken to using different language—talking about “women’s health” beyond just abortion, talking about how “economic security” is impacted by access to reproductive health care—to discuss issues like access to abortion and contraception.
But there was a problem. The movement leaders and elected officials the reporter spoke to were all white women. In a story that posited that millennials—the most racially diverse generation the United States has seen—were upending how we talk about abortion, there was no analysis of whether race may play a role in changing political tastes. There was no mention, for example, of messaging black women developed to combat race-baiting, anti-choice billboards that cropped up nationwide a few years back, or of how young women of color in Albuquerque had successfully convinced voters to reject a proposed twenty-week abortion ban. These oversights amplified an idea that has long plagued the abortion rights movement—that the contributions and leadership of women of color are ignored or co-opted—and kicked off a vibrant conversation within the movement about whose work gets attention and why. The episode got some reproductive justice organizations—groups that could have offered the race and class analysis the Times article lacked—thinking about how to avoid being left out of the story next time. Part of the problem, they figured, was that the reporter had relied on a homogenous list of sources they just weren’t on.
So a group of reproductive justice organizations, including Forward Together, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, set to work on a guide for media reporting on abortion—released recently in advance of today’s forty-second anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling—that they hope will have ripple effects. If journalists start to understand what the reproductive justice movement is fighting for and why, then the public’s understanding of what’s truly at stake and who’s offering solutions will start to shift as well.
Kalpana Krishnamurthy, the primary researcher on the guide and policy director at Forward Together, said it’s a way for the movement to get out ahead of stories, so the groups she works with can get out of the habit of doing damage control after an incomplete or inaccurate story—any that relies on traditional experts to the exclusion of people disproportionately impacted by policies, for example—comes out. “This is a proactive way to say to media, ‘there’s a story here and we think you can do an amazing job of covering it and we’ve got some tips and tricks for you,’” she said.
It’s the kind of work GLAAD has been doing for years, producing its own style guide that’s helped eliminate phrases like “homosexual lifestyle” and other off-key or defamatory language from mainstream news reports. Some suggestions in the guide are easy to imagine using and it’s clear that their purpose is to neutralize the political charge some language carries. For example, writing that the Hyde Amendment “denies Medicaid coverage of abortion” rather than that it bans “taxpayer funding of abortion.” Other suggestions come off as clunky. I may find it concise to write that today marks the forty-second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. But according to the guide, that’s not exactly right. Instead, I should note that Roe v. Wade “granted the right to legal abortion before viability, though Congress and state legislators have been allowed to restrict access to the procedure, disproportionately affecting people of color or those who are living in rural areas.”
That’s a mouthful, and I may have lost you somewhere around “viability,” but according to the authors, the specifics are critical. By wrapping who’s left out or disproportionately affected into the very definition of a word or idea we take for granted, we change the story entirely. And changing old narratives around abortion by adding dimensions of race, class, geography, sexual orientation is at the core of the reproductive justice movement’s work. This isn’t just nitpicking or overcomplicating, the guide’s authors argue, it’s about accuracy and telling the whole truth.
Sure, I and other journalists may bristle at the idea of advocates telling us how to do our jobs. But the truth is, language matters and the words we choose are often a reflection of our own biases, experiences, what we hear from the people we surround ourselves with, whether we’re reporters or outside the media. On the night of the midterm elections, writers Imani Gandy and Andrea Grimes called out reporting that claimed Wendy Davis’s opponent in Texas’ gubernatorial race had carried “women,” when upon closer examination it was clear that black and Latina women had voted overwhelmingly for Davis. This is the kind of framing that lacks nuance and, as a result, is just wrong. Hopefully this guide and the reproductive justice movement’s broader effort to declare its place at the table helps more people get it right.
The new documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which chronicles the movement for women’s rights in the sixties and early seventies, is nothing if not timely. It’s touring the country just as the concept of the grassroots movement as the spark for social change is having a moment. Thanks to the incredible film Selma, which puts movement strategy and ferocious hope on equal footing with personality and electoral power, and in large part because of #BlackLivesMatter organizing, the American public is grappling with the question of how change happens. They’re wondering aloud what would make a person go back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge—as hundreds of civil rights activists do in Selma—after whip lashes and clubs rained down on them the last time they tried it. A person who typically doesn’t give mass movement a second thought—the type who was confused by the “community organizer” part of Obama’s résumé—may be infuriated or dismissive if #BlackBrunch shows up in their neighborhood cafe, but they’re talking about the tactic just the same. That counts for something.
Simply getting people talking was a goal then as now, and late in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry historian and feminist Ruth Rosen recounts a series of events that proved how dangerous even that can be. The women’s movement had become such a successful, persistent presence—shutting down all-male congressional hearings on birth control safety, for example—that J. Edgar Hoover feels it’s a destabilizing threat. The Bureau discriminates just like most employers, and so doesn’t hire women as agents. But it sends a team of informants to spy on consciousness-raising groups. Soon the infiltrators are bored. They report back that these women are just talking about their husbands’ refusal to help out around the house and how subsidized childcare really would be a nice thing. There’s nothing revolutionary happening at these meetings, the spies say; attending them is a waste of time. But Hoover is adamant that his informants stay the course, calling feminist organizers a national security threat.
Hoover was right in a way. Once people start talking, they understand that what they’ve always thought of as source of personal humiliation—being repeatedly harassed by police without cause, for example, or having your boss chase you around his desk every chance he gets—is something more. It’s not the result of your own failings; it’s a social sickness. “Once you stop blaming yourself for all of this, it was like somebody had lifted a rock off of you,” activist and academic Carol Giardina says in the film. “And then here were women all around you who were ready to go out there and do something about it.”
The film takes as its focus the protests, campaigns, confrontations and provocations—as often outlandish as earnest—the movement instigated, and it mixes the history you know and expect, like the burning of bras at the Miss America pageant in ’68, with lesser-known stories, like the role women in the Young Lords played in exposing forced sterilization in Puerto Rico and New York City. This documentary doesn’t pretend there weren’t elbows thrown, disagreements over leadership styles, or divergent agendas. The film has no narrator, and so the women who made up the movement—those who learned to provide safe, if not legal, abortions as part of the Jane Collective, those who didn’t identify with the movement’s focus on white women’s concerns and so formed Black Sisters United, those who ran street patrols when a string of Boston murders targeting women hit the headlines—speak for themselves. There’s no objective voice to guide the story. Instead, director Mary Dore offers what feels like an unvarnished telling, trustworthy in part because these women were dealing with many of the same messes and contradictions we still struggle with today, particularly the fractures within movements.
In one scene, archival footage shows activist Marilyn Webb attempting to address a crowd at an anti-war demonstration and being shouted down by men—her New Left comrades, mind you—who demand that someone “fuck her down a dark alley” rather than allow her to continue talking. “I didn’t expect movement men to behave like that, and I was shocked,” she recalls. Now such threats happen mostly anonymously on the Internet, but their hate-filled nastiness is just as shocking. Black women in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968 because their male counterparts had a hard time seeing their own sexism. As activist and writer Fran Beal puts it looking back, “We’re talking about liberation and freedom half the night on the racial side, and then all of a sudden men are going to turn around and talk about putting you in your place? That was the contradiction in terms that we were no longer prepared to put up with.” The film also dissects the movement’s tendency to ostracize leaders who attracted too much attention, and women recount how they were thrown out of groups they helped start. “People had read about me, so I was like this mini-celebrity,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz remembers. “In Cell 16, they said that I was oppressing them…. ‘I feel oppressed just by the fact that you exist.’ OK. You want me to stop existing?’”
There are plenty of similarities between then and now, but the differences are even more interesting. I came away from the film thinking that the goals of that era’s women’s movement had been loftier. After all, organizers had nearly been successful in getting Congress to pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act, a bill that would have created sliding-scale early-education and after-school programs nationwide. Nixon vetoed it, positioning himself as the sole voice of reason standing between American women and a kind of Soviet obliteration of true motherhood. But Congresswoman Eleanor Norton Holmes is featured in the documentary, recalling what that historic fight for childcare felt like from an activist’s perspective. There’s also a vigorous conversation about marriage that feels eons away from the current largely uncritical approach to the institution. “If women are to be married, women should receive pensions,” activist Jacqui Ceballos, who was active in NOW, is seen telling a crowd in the film. Today we’re bombarded almost daily by sky-is-falling propaganda about the social ills associated with singledom and single parenthood, and few major feminist organizations mount serious counter-arguments.
“Unlike now, we didn’t want a piece of the pie,” activist and lawyer Alice Wolfson says in the film, summing up some of this gap between what was and what is. “We wanted to change the pie.”
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is screening in theaters nationwide now.
Read Next: Dani McClain on police brutality
On Tuesday, the day the new Congress was sworn in, House Republicans introduced a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. The measure seeks to undermine Roe v. Wade and depends on medically unsound claims about a fetus’s ability to feel pain at that time. It’s an early indication that the GOP-controlled Senate could allow the wave of abortion restrictions that has hit state legislatures in recent years—231 enacted by states since 2010—to find new footing in federal law.
Tuesday’s salvo is a depressing reminder of what the midterm elections may mean for abortion rights, but it’s also an opportunity to think about where the reproductive health, rights and justice movements have maintained or gained ground in recent years. State legislatures are the place to find these victories as well, according to a report released late last month by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Its roundup of proactive policy solutions is a helpful reminder of what’s possible as lawmakers return to state capitals early this year.
Some of the solutions have been around for a while. There is mention of states using their own funds to provide Medicaid coverage of abortion, thus bypassing the decades-old restriction imposed by the Hyde Amendment. States that provide family leave coverage beyond the federal standard are applauded. But innovations and new experiments are lifted up in the report as well.
Pregnant and parenting teens in New Mexico have a new shot at successfully completing high school, thanks to an excused absence policy adopted by the state’s schools in 2013. The new law reframes the long-vilified pregnant teen as a young person who is trying to raise a child while getting an education. The law acknowledges that doctor’s appointments, morning sickness, and caring for a sick child are legitimate reasons for missing school, not absences that should count against a teenage parent.
Legislators in Rhode Island and Washington want to make contraception more affordable and accessible by allowing women to fill a one-year prescription of birth control. A 365-day supply can bring down the cost of co-pay and has proven effective in reducing unwanted pregnancies. According to a University of California, San Francisco, study, when low-income women who rely on public coverage of contraception received a one-year supply of birth control pills rather than a one- or three-month supply, the pregnancy rate decreased by nearly a third and the abortion rate by 46 percent. A bill governing such prescriptions was introduced in Rhode Island last year and another has passed in Washington.
California has been a leader in acknowledging that medical professionals other than doctors can safely provide critical reproductive health services. In 2013, the state passed a law allowing trained nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants to provide first-trimester abortions. Because thirty-eight states have laws requiring that only physicians can be abortion providers, developments in California—and in Connecticut and Washington where non-physician clinicians can provide medication abortions—offer a model to other states.
State lawmakers have also voted to stop shackling women who give birth while incarcerated and convened maternal mortality review committees charged with examining why black women are four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. The Center for Reproductive Rights report offers insights from the policy advocates and grassroots activists who worked with their legislators to make these victories possible. It offers a glimmer of hope at a moment when, after the GOP came out swinging this week, the federal landscape on reproductive rights can feel bleak.
New York City’s police commissioner is laying blame for the Saturday shooting of two of the city’s police officers at the feet of protesters participating in #BlackLivesMatter actions. Patrick Lynch, the head of the police union, claimed there’s “blood on the hands” of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, Lynch has said, didn’t do enough to disavow and put an end to local protests.
None of this is surprising, unfortunately. The tragic killing of two officers by an emotionally and psychologically unstable shooter is being used to further the political goals of an establishment that’s been challenged through effective, largely nonviolent protest. Despite that movement’s focus on the criminal justice system as a whole, from policing to the role of district attorneys and the grand jury system, police leadership and rank and file are using this moment to claim victim status, ramping up rhetoric and participating in symbolic moves such as officers and union leaders turning their backs on de Blasio during a public appearance over the weekend.
What’s equally predictable and disappointing is the near-erasure of Shaneka Thompson from the story of Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s shooting spree. Thompson is the 29-year-old ex-girlfriend whose Maryland apartment Brinsley entered before shooting her in the stomach and leaving her to scream for help. “I can’t die like this. Please, please help me,” she is reported to have shouted as she banged on a neighbor’s door. According to news reports, Thompson is a health insurance specialist with the Veterans Administration and an Air Force reservist. Brinsley took her phone with him as he headed north to New York, using it to post self-incriminating rants to Instagram before killing Officers Ramos and Liu and, finally, himself.
Thompson is hospitalized and was, as of Sunday, in critical but stable condition. She is also the latest in a series of women who have been brutalized by men whose violence only became notable when they took on targets deemed more important, more relevant to a national or international debate already in play. On Monday Muna Mire, a former Nation intern, noted on Facebook similarities between Thompson and Noleen Hayson Pal, slain ex-wife of Man Haron Monis. Monis is the gunman behind the sixteen-hour standoff in an Australian café that earlier this month left three people (including him) dead. He had a history of violence against women and at the time of the café attack was out on bail on charges including dozens of counts of sexual assault. He had also been charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, with whom he had a custody dispute. He allegedly conspired with a girlfriend, who then set Pal on fire and stabbed her eighteen times. To frame that hostage crisis as one simply driven by religious fanaticism leaves out a key element: Monis seems to have been quite sick and is alleged to have used women’s bodies as a place to target that sickness.
Monis had been charged with these crimes recently, but he wasn’t due back in court until February. This past weekend, Baltimore police started tracking Shaneka Thompson’s phone, which Brinsley had in his possession, around 6:30 am, less than an hour after she was shot. According to The New York Times, they knew Brinsley’s whereabouts, but didn’t contact New York police until after noon. They faxed a wanted poster to a Brooklyn precinct just after 2 pm.
There may well be legitimate reasons why law enforcement could not have apprehended Brinsley earlier, even though they knew his whereabouts as he traveled north from Baltimore to New York. But in both this case and the Sydney incident, there seem to have been assumptions that public safety was not at risk despite the allegations and evidence of violence against women. Why does the threat level and stoking of public fear skyrocket when a madman is thought to be tied to an ideology that’s generally hated in the mainstream—anti-police sentiment or Islamic fundamentalism—but not when that madness has threatened a woman’s life or safety?
Salamishah Tillett raised a similar question during the trial of George Zimmerman, who had been accused of molesting a cousin as a child and of abusing a former fiancée before killing Trayvon Martin. As Tillett wrote, “Zimmerman’s attorneys successfully argued that those acts were inadmissible or irrelevant. But these accusations offer us other truths: that violence against girls and women is often an overlooked and unchecked indicator of future violence.”
It’s predictable that some opponents of police reform want to use Brinsley’s shooting spree to discredit and mischaracterize the #BlackLivesMatter movement and any politician who hasn’t tried to stamp it out. Let’s not go an equally predictable route and ignore that a woman bore the brunt of Brinsley’s instability first, before he went on to commit the type of crime that media and law enforcement consider worthy of their full attention.
Read Next: Dani McClain on why #BlackLivesMatter actions aren’t stopping
The movement challenging the criminal justice system's treatment of black people continues to build this week. On Monday morning, Bay Area organizers blockaded entrances to Oakland Police Department headquarters and brought traffic to a standstill on nearby Interstate 880. In Los Angeles, attorneys staged a die-in at a downtown courthouse on Tuesday. More than 100 protesters lay in the rain holding signs that read “Lawyers 4 black lives” and “No one is above the law.”
Actions such as these in California follow a weekend of nationwide protests that brought tens of thousands to marches and rallies in New York, D.C., Boston and elsewhere. For three weeks, since a Staten Island grand jury decided there was no need for the officer who killed Eric Garner to stand trial, people have been in the streets. And the policy experts and activists I've spoken to this week say the movement is only growing.
Matt Nelson, organizing director at the national racial justice organization ColorOfChange, has participated in actions in Ferguson, Oakland and Berkeley. He said the use of force by police, such as the plainclothes officer who pulled a gun on a crowd in Oakland and excessive use of teargas is building the movement by further politicizing protesters.
“There are so many people out protesting police violence who are then met with police violence,” Nelson said. “If they didn’t understand how a Mike Brown or an Eric Garner could happen, they understand after a night of protest how a police interaction can become very violent and even deadly.”
I met Sharena Thomas, co-founder of the People’s Community Medics, as she and her children left Saturday’s rally in Oakland. Thomas told me she was compelled to start her organization, which trains volunteers how to provide emergency first aid, after participating in a committee that independently investigated the shooting death of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police in 2009. She told me she’s frustrated by the way some media outlets portray today’s mobilizations. “They just think we’re just some angry people fighting over Mike Brown and not the whole crooked justice system,” Thomas said.
Organizers in the movement are taking the "whole crooked" system as their target. So how to force a change of that magnitude? Last week, ABC News asked Tory Russell, an organizer with Hands Up United in Ferguson, for his take on the Obama administration’s plan to put more than $260 million toward funding police body cameras and training. Russell responded: “A body camera… doesn’t change the minds and the hearts of the police officers. I think we need to just remove racial bias in the system.” Mervyn Marcano of FergusonAction.com, a coalition of organizations working on police violence in Ferguson and nationwide, highlighted the importance of challenging implicit bias, or the unconscious anti-black stereotypes and fears that officers (and Americans more broadly) hold. “If you think body cameras and civilian review are going to get at these questions, you’re missing the point about how these officers walk around in our communities,” he told me.
Movement leaders working in Ferguson developed at least one demand that that goes to the heart of what Marcano and Russell describe. It calls on the Department of Justice to periodically review police departments and withhold funding from those that don’t train their officers on bias. The full list of demands, which includes calls for Congressional hearings on discriminatory practices and passage of the End Racial Profiling Act, are being used outside of Ferguson. On Monday, protestors involved in the Oakland actions pointed to them as well.
These demands are visionary, but they don't — and perhaps can't — address the full range of problems that the movement is laying bare. As Patrisse Cullors, one of the three creators of the #BlackLivesMatter call to action, has explained:
I think there’s obviously policy changes — you know, Michelle Alexander calls it the new Jim Crow. We would see less funding towards law enforcement. We would see more funding in black communities towards shelter and food and education. But we have to do more than that. We have to shift culture. Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown because he thought he looked like a demon. Policy is not going to shift that. Jim Crow laws are gone, but we still have Jim Crow hate.
I asked john a. powell [sic], a leading thinker on implicit bias and a law professor at U.C. Berkeley how to take on that broader fight against the devaluation of black life. "Implicit bias comes from the environment, it's like the air we breathe," powell said. "If you want to fix implicit bias you change the pattern. If every person we see being arrested on television is black, that is lodged in our unconscious. Policies matter a great deal. What we see on television or what we read in books, that also affects us.”
Which supports Cullors' claim that even a piece of landmark legislation – a 21st century equivalent of the Civil Rights Act, which I suggested earlier this month – can't on its own solve our current constellation of problems. Frank Bardacke, a writer and teacher whose 50 years of activism include involvement in the anti-war, farm worker and Berkeley student movements, agreed that because anti-black sentiment isn’t legally enshrined, today’s mobilizations are raising a more complex set of questions: "The critique today is more fundamental and would demand more fundamental changes,” he said. “If you think of the Voting Rights Act, ending Jim Crow in the South was a very specific demand that the state could accommodate. What is the comparable demand today?”
Young organizers are thinking on this question. Marcano of FergusonAction.com told me that today's efforts are trying to finally make good on the promise of the civil rights movement and to fill in gaps left by earlier generations of organizers and activists.
“If you talk to the young folks on the street, they’re not marching for a particular concession. They’re out there because they’re frustrated and they know their lives are not valued by the political structure,” Marcano said. “We’re not, through our traditional organizations, organized to meet that conversation. There is a new and different way of lifting up all of these questions, and I think we actually have to do that if we want to do justice by the folks that are out in the street.”
Read Next: Dave Zirin on #BlackLivesMatter and the accidental activist.