Third-rail politics: Analysis at the intersection of gender, health and race.
Are we entering a political moment when it’s okay to use the phrases “young people” and “boys and men of color” interchangeably? If President Obama’s speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s awards dinner on Saturday is any indication, then yes.
After recapping some successes of his presidency—from the Affordable Care Act to declines in child poverty and the prison population—Obama heaped a healthy dose of praise on outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder and moved on to My Brother’s Keeper, the White House’s racial justice initiative. Obama emphasized the need “to address the unique challenges that make it hard for all our young people to survive.” In announcing a new “community challenge” connected to MBK, he talked about getting local leaders—mayors, county officials and tribal leaders—to “publicly commit to implementing strategies to ensure that all young people can succeed.”
But My Brother’s Keeper, which the White House launched in February in partnership with foundations and corporations, is squarely focused on addressing the challenges that boys and young men face. The president’s more inclusive language Saturday night indicates that he is well aware of the critiques that call his exclusion of young women and girls a glaring mistake, given that young black and Latina women fall far behind their white counterparts in attaining degrees and earning enough to support a family.
“We’re not forgetting about the girls, by the way,” Obama said Saturday, and he reminded the crowd that he’s dad to Malia and Sasha. “I’ve got a vested interest in making sure our daughters have the same opportunities as boys do.” But by way of explaining how he’ll do that, he pointed to the White House Council on Women and Girls. A nod in that direction has been the consistent defense White House officials have used since the critiques began.
Kimberlé Crenshaw has spearheaded much of the organizing to expand MBK through her group, the African American Policy Forum, and met with White House officials this summer. Crenshaw said she sees the references to the Council on Women and Girls as a cynical bait-and-switch, comparable to empty claims that Jim Crow establishments were separate but equal. “It’s a second-tier, less robustly supported kind of initiative,” she told me in advance of the president’s speech. “The ability to catch up and fund these programs equally would mean that they’d have to put more money in for women and girls.”
To date, My Brother’s Keeper is supported by a pledge of $200 million from the philanthropic community and an additional $100 million from corporations including AT&T, UBS and JPMorgan Chase. No similar infusion of cash has been announced for the Council on Women and Girls, which has been around since 2009.
When I spoke to her this summer for my report on the debate surrounding MBK, Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity director Joanne Smith had similar concerns about the capacity of the Council on Women and Girls, which hosted a research symposium she attended earlier this year. “The hats that Valerie [Jarrett] and Tina [Tchen] wear are admirable, but they’re multiple hats,” Smith said of the Council’s leadership. “The attention that women and girls need will require staffing, will require infrastructure.”
And infrastructure means money. But despite the lack of financial support, a kind of movement focused on the needs of girls and women of color is building steam. In July, AAPF hosted a town-hall meeting in Los Angeles where a dozen women and girls of color testified about their experiences in foster care, juvenile detention and the sex trade.
There will be similar events in New York City in the coming weeks, Crenshaw said. Of finding and partnering with the organizations that serve these girls, Crenshaw said there’s a common denominator: “We find that most of them are starved, both in terms of having champions for the work but also in terms of having resources.”
Leadership from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Organization for Women will come together Monday to talk about the relationship between gender and police brutality, and new research is circulating, including a report from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and National Women’s Law Center highlighting staggering stats like this one: while black girls make up just 17 percent of female students, they’re a third of all girls referred to law enforcement and about 43 percent of girls who are arrested because of some school-related offense. The types of offenses, often minor and subjective, show how the nation’s classrooms push out girls of color alongside the boys.
Conversations and research like this are what’s needed to break through the commonly held misperception that girls of color are doing just fine, MBK’s critics have argued.
“What’s important is to actually paint the picture for the community of what has not been seen,” Crenshaw said. “What makes people think that this [MBK] is a common sense approach is because they don’t have a sensibility about what’s actually happening.”
On Friday, the Obama administration rolled out the latest stage in its multifaceted effort to address campus sexual assault. A PSA titled “It’s On Us” features celebrities, including Questlove, Jon Hamm and Kerry Washington, urging those who witness violence or mounting aggression to step in. A pledge accompanies the PSA, with signers promising to “identify situations in which sexual assault may occur” and “intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.” The message, geared toward men, is simple: if you see something, say something.
But activists and organizers who have long worked to combat sexual assault have responded that it’s really not so simple at all. In fact, argues Melissa McEwan at the blog Shakesville, the administration’s focus on bystander intervention misplaces responsibility and amounts to a subtle shift from victim-blaming to bystander-blaming. She argues:
In neither the PSA nor the pledge is anyone asked to not rape. “It’s on us” to stop sexual assault—and yet sexual assault is being discussed as though it’s just something that happens to people, like a natural disaster. This rape prevention campaign doesn’t even include rapists in its messaging about personal accountability for preventing rape. Instead, it’s directed at everyone but rapists. Now, not just victims are tasked with the responsibility to prevent rape; but everyone is. Everyone except rapists.
The administration’s latest push also ignores the real consequences some bystanders face when they attempt to step in, a perspective fleshed out last year in a series of tweets from Lauren Chief Elk, co-founder of the Save Wiyabi mapping project, an advocacy group that addresses violence against Native American women. In some cases, she argues, the Good Samaritan ends up criminalized or targeted by peers.
I’ve seen bystanders get their phone bills subpoenaed, put on house arrest, been monitored & followed, threatened, harassed, put on trial…
— Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) November 20, 2013
Especially on campus, if you intervene on a situation that involves an athlete, people are N.O.T. going to be happy with you.
— Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) November 20, 2013
The renewed conversation around the shortcomings of bystander intervention is playing out alongside the media blitz surrounding Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University undergraduate who’s carrying a mattress around campus as a statement of protest. Sulkowicz is among the students who filed a federal Title IX complaint against the university last spring, alleging that it has bungled sexual assault cases. She says the university administration has failed to seriously investigate her claim that she was raped by a fellow student, and that living out her senior year on the same campus as her rapist is—like the weight of the mattress—an undue burden she has to shoulder.
The administration’s focus on bystander intervention introduces another kind of undue burden—that of individuals having to figure out what it means to be a bystander and how to intervene. What, among the many things we may witness, demands our involvement? Given the systemic failings occurring on college campuses nationwide, what can be done beyond engaging in discrete interventions? Know Your IX co-director Dana Bolger writing at Feministing offered her take:
It’s On You to recognize and dismantle institutions that tolerate and perpetuate violence. If you go to a school that doesn’t expel perpetrators, It’s On You to hold your school accountable for its abuses. It’s On You not to invite rapists to your parties, and not to attend theirs. (Some sororities maintain lists of men who have raped their members and cut off ties with the fraternities to which the perpetrators belong…)
The Obama administration’s latest effort is important, in that it tries to drive home the message that we’re all responsible for interrupting a culture that encourages sexual assault. But it’s worth listening to activists’ voices for clues on how to take that message even further, so that responsibility is ultimately placed where it belongs—on perpetrators and the university administrations charged with holding them accountable.
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On Tuesday, San Francisco became the first US city to go on record in opposition to bans on sex-selective abortion, when its board of supervisors approved a measure urging the state legislature not to pass such a law. The measure also “calls upon other cities, states and the federal government to likewise reject these discriminatory measures.”
Critics say sex-selective abortion bans, which have passed in eight states and been introduced in twenty-one states and Congress in recent years, are a solution in search of a problem—that they rely on unfounded assumptions that Asian-American families have a preference for boys and so will disproportionately choose to terminate pregnancies that will result in the birth of a girl. In reality, these bans—like those on laws dictating the amount of time a woman must wait before she can obtain an abortion, and other sneaky attempts to chip away at access—are yet another effort to undo Roe.
San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu introduced the proposal and said Tuesday that his efforts were supported by a coalition of two dozen organizations from around the country, including the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. Shivana Jorawar directs the reproductive justice program at NAPAWF and hailed the proposal’s approval as a victory.
“For women in my community, it gives us an opportunity to talk about this issue on our own terms and to say that we are the ones who know what’s best for us and our own families,” Jorawar said via e-mail. “It helps us have a conversation that exposes these deceptive abortion bans to lawmakers across the country and shows them that when this crosses their desk, they need to see it for what it really is and vote ‘no.’”
This summer, Jorawar’s organization was involved in the release of a report on these bans, which found:
Immigrant communities in the United States are not disproportionately terminating pregnancies based on expected gender. According to the report, “The key empirical support for sex-selective abortion bans in the United States comes from a study of census data that is now almost 15 years old… In analyzing more recent data from the 2007 to 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), we found that the sex ratios at birth of foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans are not male-biased when all their births are taken into account. In fact, foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans have proportionally more girls than white Americans.” The report argues that sex-selective abortion bans don’t take into account other ways families can select the sex of a child, such as preconception and preimplantation techniques.
Where these bans have gone into effect, there’s been no change in sex ratios. According to the report, “Two states passed laws banning sex-selective abortion over 15 years ago: Illinois in 1984 and Pennsylvania in 1989… Our empirical analysis of sex ratios at birth five years before and after sex selective abortion bans were enacted in Illinois and Pennsylvania indicates that the bans were not associated with changes in sex ratios at birth.”
Legislators who support these bans often talk about rampant gender preference within Asian immigrant communities and practices in these communities’ countries of origin. But some European countries rank higher in terms of abnormal sex ratios. According to the report, “Thirteen countries have sex ratios at birth that are skewed in favor of males above the standard range. Six of these countries with higher than normal sex ratios at birth are in Europe… The countries with the highest male-biased sex ratios in the world are Liechtenstein and Armenia. Both countries have higher sex ratios than India and China.”
So if this is a really a conversation better suited for the international reproductive health community, why is San Francisco weighing in? A Republican legislator introduced a ban on sex-selective abortion in California’s assembly earlier this year that never made it out of committee. Despite the lack of political urgency in the city or state, Chiu’s proposal was approved without much debate Tuesday. More than one supporter argued during public comment that the enforcement of such bans rely on “racial profiling in the doctor’s office,” where a health provider might become suspicious of the motives behind a patient’s decision. The proposal did cause some controversy on the San Francisco Chronicle’s op-ed pages. That’s where columnist Debra J. Saunders advanced the kind of rhetoric used by the bans’ proponents, who expect that some observers will view these laws as fighting anti-girl bias and thus inherently feminist.
Jorawar says she expects to see a new wave of bans introduced in state legislatures after the midterm elections and points out that conservative strategist Ralph Reed has been reported as urging anti-choice candidates to talk about the prevalence of sex-selective abortion.
“This is not going away any time soon,” she said via email. Perhaps the organizing behind the introduction and approval of the San Francisco proposal sets a precedent for how to push back.
In 2002 I moved back to my hometown, Cincinnati, for a few years. I was drawn in part by activism there in the wake of the police shooting of a 19-year-old black teenager named Timothy Thomas and subsequent riots. The outrage and sense that real change was possible were strong, as I imagine they’ve been in Ferguson, Missouri, since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown there last month.
Cincinnati has been in the news lately for exactly this reason, drawing comparisons to Ferguson at The Washington Post, The New Republic and elsewhere. The upshot seems to be that Cincinnati emerged from the upheaval of April 2001 with improved police-community relations and that Ferguson’s residents can look there for guidance on how to move forward. Among the evidence that’s been offered to support this claim: in the six years leading up Cincinnati’s pivotal shooting, fifteen men—all of whom were black—died at the hands of police. In the ten years since, eight men have been killed by police, six of whom were black.
Those involved in Cincinnati’s reforms point to two developments that have led to the drop in police killings and what they say is an increase residents’ trust of police: (1) The Department of Justice investigation and subsequent “consent decree,” that is, a settlement between the city’s police department and the federal agency; and (2) the Collaborative Agreement, a document—negotiated and agreed to by city government, local activists and the police union—that led to reforms such as improving police training, setting up a civilian complaint board and equipping police with tasers with the expectation that they would then be less likely to use lethal force. It’s the blueprint that figures in heavily with what Cincinnati organizers have offered Ferguson in recent weeks.
The people of Ferguson have already secured Justice Department involvement. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his agency’s intention to examine whether there’s a pattern and practice of racially discriminatory policing and civil rights violations in Ferguson. Already, there’s debate about how meaningful the federal government’s involvement can be. During a recent segment of Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, guest Phillip Atiba Goff put the onus squarely on city officials, arguing that a consent decree is “really a lever for progressive law enforcement that wants to do the right thing.” In other words, if city leadership is resistant, it’s a safe bet that no substantive change will result.
It’s an interesting argument, given that my memories of then-Chief Thomas Streicher in Cincinnati are not of a forward-thinking reformer. And he wasn’t, according to those who covered his tenure. The experience may have changed him. Streicher is on the record a decade later praising aspects of federal involvement in Cincinnati:
Thomas Streicher, the former Cincinnati police chief, said his city’s consent decree transformed the way the department analyzed police shootings. Police began to look not only at whether they were justified in shooting, but whether officers could have used less-deadly tactics. “Instead of creating a condition where police have to use force, create a condition that eradicates the need to use force,” Streicher said.
Others there agree that federal intervention provided a much-needed stick and shook local leaders from their own inertia:
People who were involved with the Cincinnati agreement insist that Department of Justice monitoring is crucial. Federal oversight kept opposing sides at the table in the early days of negotiations. “A lot of it was forced, initially,” said Robin Engel, who heads the Institute of Crime Science at the University of Cincinnati and helped police implement reforms.
Cincinnati has seen changes in how police approach the community. A civilian complaint board was established in 2002 to independently investigate allegations of misconduct. Cameras have been placed in squad cards. The foot pursuit policy has changed, requiring officers to consider whether chasing a suspect makes sense given the seriousness of the offense. Officers who shoot civilians are immediately named publicly.
That’s not to say that all is rosy in my hometown, and listing improvements isn’t meant to imply that Ferguson should adopt some one-size-fits-all approach to addressing racial bias in policing. There isn’t one. But as we continue to pay attention to the demands made and victories secured by Missouri activists and the commitments national organizers are making to building on the movement there, it’s worth reflecting on lessons learned a decade ago in another Midwestern city.
If any good has come from the release of the video showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée, it’s that our social media feeds are filled with friends’, family members’ and acquaintances’ unfiltered opinions on domestic violence.
Among those piping up are the holier-than-thou folks who withhold their empathy and outrage because Janay Rice has stayed in the relationship. Then there are the people indignant that we don’t know what she did to provoke her assailant. There are the football fans expressing relief that Ray Rice didn’t play for their team, and so the season can move on without interruption. (Side Eye of the Year Award goes to this camp.) And there are the patient few taking time to explain in Facebook threads and real world conversations why these perspectives—and any that blames the victim or distracts from the reality of that brutal and nauseating knockout—fail to acknowledge the humanity of Janay Rice, survivors of intimate partner violence and women as a whole. A topic typically shrouded in shame and hushed tones has moved to the center of public debate, and it’s an opportunity to get an honest take on where our communities stand and to respond as needed.
It is a shame, as others have eloquently pointed out, that this conversation has come at the expense of Janay Rice’s privacy. It’s worth considering whether we become complicit in the act by viewing the video that TMZ released, especially when there are plenty of survivors who consent to sharing their stories in the hope that their disclosures can bring about real change. Just last month, the daily paper in Charleston, South Carolina, published an extensive investigation into that state’s domestic violence crisis. Regardless of where you live, it’s a must-read. According to the first article in the series:
More than three times as many women have died here at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
It’s a staggering toll that for more than 15 years has placed South Carolina among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men. The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.
Thankfully, the abuse so widely discussed this week wasn’t fatal. But reading the series offers answers to questions bubbling up around the Rice debacle, including why the conversation has focused on Ray Rice’s employment rather than criminal charges, and why women in similar situations sometimes stay. Among the factors that lead to the state’s distinction as one of the worst for women hoping to survive their romantic relationships:
Lack of will on the part of legislators to pass laws that protect women. According to the series, “A man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense.”
The challenges prosecutors face in getting cases to stick. According to the series, “A number of factors contribute to this problem, from overcrowded court dockets and under-trained police to victims too scared to testify against the men who beat them.”
Trusted pastors in this deeply religious state who advise that staying and working things out is God’s will. According to the series, religious leaders can unwittingly put women in greater danger: “In churches that did acknowledge abuse… pastors often compounded the problem by counseling abusers and victims together—and then sending them home with the sting of their shared grievances still fresh. Back behind closed doors, the abuser would take out his frustrations on his partner all over again.”
Woven throughout the reporting are videos of first-person accounts from women who have survived domestic violence, either as the person abused or as a witness to fatal abuse. These are the stories we should be watching for insight into the crisis, not the video released this week. The series also proposes solutions, including a suggestion that South Carolina law enforcement agencies adopt a system of evaluating when and how an abuser’s tactics escalate toward the homicidal. This so-called danger assessment tool was developed by a Johns Hopkins researcher featured in a recent New Yorker article that should also be required reading for the many observers claiming sudden expertise on domestic violence.
On Tuesday, Janay Rice asked the media to look away so that her family can heal in peace. We can honor her request without dropping the important (and sometimes maddening) conversation that’s kicked off as a result of this week’s news. Sadly, there’s no shortage of similar stories to learn from. What we do with those stories and our willingness to move beyond voyeurism to action are the real measure of how serious we are about the problem.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in August, the All Above All tour bus parked in a busy plaza in the heart of downtown Oakland, California. Around it, activists and advocates milled about handing out literature, collecting petition signatures and attempting to build the ranks of people fighting to secure access to abortion for low-income women.
The bus, which began its national tour in Los Angeles this month, and the coalition behind it are part of the latest effort to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which for nearly four decades has banned the use of federal funds for abortion and limited the options available women who depend on Medicaid for their healthcare coverage.
The ban’s real intent—reversing Roe v. Wade to the greatest extent possible—has been clear from the beginning. After the budget amendment’s passage in 1976, Republican Representative Henry Hyde said, “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the…Medicaid bill.”
Advocates for poor women and women of color have been trying to repeal the Hyde Amendment ever since, arguing that a person’s income level shouldn’t dictate her decision whether to become a parent. Currently, about 9 million women of reproductive age are Medicaid beneficiaries, and advocates use that number to quantify how many are denied access to abortion. Using a bus tour with stops in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, and a social media campaign, the fifty-plus organizations that make up the coalition want to push a conversation about Hyde into mainstream conversations about abortion rights and eventually into the halls of Congress.
Legislative pushes for repeal have failed in the past, since even Democrats who are otherwise in favor of abortion rights have been unwilling to challenge anti-choice framing that’s put “taxpayer-funded abortion” out of bounds. That’s why a central goal this campaign is to mobilize elected officials who lead on issues of choice but who rarely talk about the need to repeal Hyde, Kalpana Krishnamurthy, policy director at a supporting organization called Forward Together, told me.
“The Hyde Amendment has never been a rigorous part of the pro-choice agenda,” Krishnamurthy said. “We want to make sure that our friends and allies know that it’s a new day and it’s time to take this on.”
It’s a new day in part because of the Affordable Care Act and the opportunity it has created through Medicaid expansion for more women and families to access healthcare. (In addition to advocating for Hyde’s repeal, campaign participants are also calling on states to repeal bans on abortion coverage in the healthcare exchanges set up under the ACA.) But the time also feels right because a new generation is bumping up against the challenge of not having employer-based insurance coverage, and so finding itself susceptible to restrictions on abortion coverage. That’s why the bus, with its neon-green lettering and exhortations to “be bold” and “be brave,” strives to have a youthful appeal. At the stop in Oakland, people who gathered were encouraged to take photos of themselves expressing support and share them on social media using one of the campaign’s hashtags. The formal part of the program—during which Representative Barbara Lee told the crowd, “It’s the street heat that’s going to matter” on repealing Hyde—opened with the reading of stories about individuals’ struggles to raise the money for their abortions.
“The tactics matter, and the tactics speak to a new generation,” Krishnamurthy said. Another of those tactics involves gathering petition signatures for local initiatives along the way and bringing those supporters into a conversation about Hyde. So in California, advocates also circulated a petition in support of a paid sick leave bill.
California, one of seventeen states that use their own funds to cover abortion for people on Medicaid, is the right place to draw the connection to the myriad pressures facing poor families. Women there still struggle to pay for childcare, travel or a place to stay when they make the decision to have an abortion.
“The funds for the actual abortion is a start,” Poonam Dreyfus-Pai told me. She serves on the board of ACCESS, an Oakland-based hotline that provides Californians with reproductive health information.
It’s time for legislators to start talking about the exclusion that low-income families have faced for decades, Dreyfus-Pai said. “Roe does not mean as much with Hyde in place.”
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The radio host asked over the phone whether I was in Ferguson. “No,” I told him. “I’m watching the news unfold just like your listeners.”
By the time the first caller asked his question—why I and others were ignoring the role an “anti-social culture of thuggery or gangster rap” plays in teaching young people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin to have no fear of consequences—the mistake in my assumption was clear. It seemed as if I was watching the news from Ferguson from a vantage point a universe away from that inhabited by host Jim Bohannon and, possibly, many of those who listened in on more than 500 stations nationwide Tuesday night.
I expected a reasonable discussion in which Bohannon, a veteran broadcaster, would take a position to the right of one I had taken in this space on the topic of Ferguson. What I got instead was some perspective on the challenges of having such a conversation across race and political divides at moments like this, when facts are so hard to come by.
The findings of recent polls on public perception of events in Ferguson run by Pew Research Center and The New York Times in partnership with CBS News reveal vastly different understandings of what’s happening depending on the race of the person polled. According the Pew report, four in five black Americans believe that the shooting of Brown by Darren Wilson “raises important issues about race,” compared to 37 percent of white people polled. Sixty-five percent of black people polled said the police had gone too far in responding to protesters in the wake of the shooting, compared to a third of white people. On Tuesday night, the host’s arguments and his selective reading of the coverage offered some context to the numbers. Among his arguments and framing of the issues were the following:
The primary problem in Ferguson is violent protesters.
The first question Bohannon asked was what police might do to quell the crowds, which seemed to me an odd place to start the conversation. Of the 163 arrests that have reportedly been made in Ferguson since Wilson killed Brown, 128 of those arrests have resulted in charges for failure to disperse. Just four have been for assaulting officers.
Audio from a correspondent in Ferguson that Bohannon played at the start of the segment confirmed that protesters are overwhelmingly peaceful. Yet the host still wanted to frame the conversation as one about violent anarchy raging in the Midwestern suburb. It’s a perspective similar to those described in a recent report from St. Louis in which white residents interviewed characterized the Ferguson protests as the result of “misplaced anger” and “bullshit.” They appear to be primarily concerned about how protesters’ actions (not Wilson’s) make their city and region look to the rest of the world.
The starting point for any conversation on what’s happening in Ferguson should be that a young man was killed and his lifeless body left in the street for hours. The starting point should be that his family, the community and the nation are still waiting for answers as to why.
The police shouldn’t be criticized for their use of force—including their militarized response—given that it’s hard to tell peaceful protesters from those who are violent.
See above for the breakdown of who among the crowds is doing what.
Melissa Harris-Perry made an important related point in her on-air exchange Saturday with MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee: it’s also worth considering that the people of Ferguson can’t tell police officers who take seriously their mission to serve and protect apart from those whose training or biases leave them unable to use appropriate force during encounters with members of the community. NPR’s interview with retired twenty-three-year veteran DC police officer, Ronald Hampton, offers his take on what appropriate force looks like:
If I go to arrest someone and they are resisting, the policy is that I am authorized to use force necessary to make the arrest that is equal to force being applied. I might be wrestling around them, but all I need to do is get the cuffs on them and get them to the police. Anything beyond that violates the policy.
But Wilson’s actions were justified because Brown was charging him.
Bohannon had decided to echo a version of events that has come to dominate conservative blogosphere: that Brown was running toward Wilson in the moments before the officer killed him. If you watch the video at the link, be sure to hang in until the 2:10 mark, when the woman claiming to be Officer Wilson’s friend offers the well-worn crazed-and-“drug-fueled Negro” angle, saying, “He [Wilson] really thinks he [Brown] was on something, because he just kept coming.”
In Bohannon’s opinion, any eyewitness accounts (and there are at least three) that challenge the mystery woman’s version of events have no merit. He won’t consider them, he said, because one of those eyewitnesses—Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson—has been reported to have been with Brown at the unrelated alleged robbery that took place before the shooting. It’s difficult to see how or why eyewitnesses who say Brown was running away from Wilson when he was killed would be collaborating in a lie, but that’s what Bohannon seemed to think.
What is clear is that the details are in dispute. That’s why people have been protesting in Ferguson: They want a thorough and just investigation that results in a presentation of the facts. Nationally, there’s some skepticism that this is even possible. According to that Pew poll, more than three in four black respondents say they have no or not much confidence in the investigation into the shooting, compared to a third of white respondents.
Let’s hope for an investigation that surprises the skeptics. Let’s hope for an investigation that somehow transcends the stark divides between the parallel universes from which Americans seem to be observing Ferguson.
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If you have followed the aftermath of the August 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, then you have most likely seen the image of his stepfather holding a makeshift cardboard sign that reads, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!” You have likely seen the photo of Brown’s mother staring into the camera, her husband encircling her neck with his arm, her eyes swollen to slits after what must have been hours of crying and asking questions that went unanswered.
The grief-stricken face of the parent is everywhere in moments like this, these too frequent moments when a young person loses his or her life to the senseless, ceaseless fear and hatred that black bodies arouse. It seems to matter little what that body is doing at the time it’s mowed down. Approaching a stranger’s porch to ask for help, listening to music with friends, walking home from the corner store—no activity is safe from the knee jerk responses set off by racial hatred or implicit bias. Whatever the preceding action, a human being is dead and his or her parents are left to convince the public and the courts that their offspring had a right to expect another day on earth.
Often such events are covered as a story about race, police violence, white supremacy or laws that protect murderers from prosecution. But the killing of Michael Brown, like the killing of many young black people before him, is rarely framed as a feminist issue or as an issue of pressing importance to those who advocate for choice, self-determination and dignity as they relate to family life. With this most recent killing, I am wondering what it would take for more people in feminist and reproductive rights circles to begin to think of parents such as Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton and Angela Leisure (a mother whose ordeal I’m especially reminded of in the wake of this latest tragedy) as women they advocate for just as passionately and vigorously as they advocate for a young woman’s right to contraception or an overwhelmed mother of three’s right to an abortion.
This broader perspective has long been that of the reproductive justice movement, whose participants support “the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.” And some writers, mostly black women, are explaining why the death of Michael Brown terrifies and infuriates them as mothers. Earlier this week, Stacia Brown posted an entry titled “When Parenting Feels Like a Fool’s Errand” on her blog. She writes:
I think about how often I keep you near me and how many people take umbrage with that. She has to learn, they say, how to live in this world.
But how can you learn at 4 to do what still makes me flail and falter at 34? And how can I let you go when a girl a year younger than you was gunned down in our city last week and a boy who would’ve headed off to college for the first time on Monday was executed within steps of his Ferguson, MO home on Saturday?
I’ve no more access to the language for this than you do.
What I have is you and the God who gave you and the God who just may take you away.
After the first-degree murder charges facing the killer of Jordan Davis were dismissed earlier this year, Black Twitter and the #DangerousBlackKids hashtag provided a space where people could express the gap between how they see the children in their lives and how an unhinged aggressor might see them. Tamura Lomax at The Feminist Wire offered a response to the verdict that asked how such occurrences fit into a broader feminist understanding of justice. She wrote:
I am a black mother and a black wife. I fear for my beloveds’ safety everyday. Ain’t I feminist too? Ain’t the potential murder of my loved ones and how that may impact me and others in my community a feminist concern too?
Earlier in her piece, Lomax wrote: “Our black children, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, mothers and fathers are being assassinated. For those who still don’t get that this is, among other things, a feminist issue, you will never get it and are thus a part of the problem…” In the wake of Brown’s death, I’m wondering what it would take to prove Lomax wrong. What would it take for the organizations and commentators who beat the drum for policies related to reproductive health and rights to use their platforms to advocate for black parents who lose their children to violent attacks on those young people’s lives? Gun control advocates reached out to Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, to make her an ally and spokesperson on efforts to repeal Stand Your Ground laws. It’s worth looking for similar areas of intersection within feminist circles or, even better, creating new initiatives that put these bereaved parents’ demands front and center.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the death of Michael Brown and the search for justice in Black America.
Say you’re expecting your first child and struggling financially. You need cash assistance, so you apply through the state’s welfare program for low-income families. If you live in California, how far along you are in your pregnancy can determine whether you’re a candidate. Three months or fewer from your delivery date (or already parenting other kids) and you could be eligible immediately. But any earlier and you’re insufficiently in the family way to qualify for this family program. So you wait.
This wait can take an otherwise healthy pregnancy off course, advocates in California say, so they’re pushing for a law that would move the CalWORKs eligibility period up from the third to the second trimester. This week, they’ll find out whether legislators think state coffers can support the change, which wouldn’t extend the amount of time a family receives the benefit but would start the clock earlier. The additional cost is expected to be around $7 million.
A broad range of groups is supporting the bill, called the Healthy Babies Act, from California Latinas for Reproductive Justice to the California Catholic Conference. But the loudest voice in the effort to get it passed has come from the domestic violence prevention community. Service providers and activists committed to the issue say the law would especially help people facing violence from an intimate partner.
“I realized I was getting a lot of calls from women that were pregnant,” Mariya Taher, a social worker with WOMAN, Inc., told me. She helps cover the San Francisco organization’s twenty-four-hour domestic violence support line and is working with bill author Assemblyman Mark Stone’s office to pass the bill.
According to Taher, the bill addresses two pressing issues facing the women she works with: Pregnancy is often a time when abuse starts or escalates. A Centers for Disease Control review of studies finds a possible association between unintended pregnancy and abuse that supports Taher’s observations. A 2005 CDC report found that homicide was a leading cause of traumatic death among pregnant women and new mothers, particularly those who are young or black.
Advocates also say women stay often because they can’t see how else they’d survive. Taher says about a fourth of callers to the WOMAN, Inc. help line are surviving financial abuse, meaning someone is controlling their income, ruining their credit, not allowing them to work or otherwise keeping them dependent. For some, accessing the CalWORKs safety net means the difference between continuing to put their health and potentially their pregnancy at risk and being able to leave.
It’s all an interesting counterpoint to the debate earlier this summer about whether intact, married families are safer than those led by single parents. In June, an op-ed published on The Washington Post’s site argued that married, biological fathers are less likely to abuse people in their families, making women and girls in such arrangements safer than others. Critics convincingly challenged that the stigma facing single parents often keeps women in bad situations, making them even more vulnerable to abuse. Taher of WOMAN, Inc. agrees with those critics and has argued that that’s yet another reason why Californians need the Healthy Babies Act.
The state’s senate appropriations committee is expected to vote on the bill August 14.
Read Next: Why is giving birth in Detroit so dangerous?
Alabama just became the latest bright spot in efforts to defend abortion rights against consistent attacks at the state level. On Monday, federal judge declared unconstitutional a 2013 law requiring that abortion providers obtain admitting privileges at area hospitals.
Proponents of the law had argued that it was intended to keep women safe, and that without the requirement, providers can’t ensure that a patient will be moved quickly to the hospital when the need arises. But the judge disagreed, echoing the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ and the American Medical Association’s arguments against the alleged medical basis for such laws. Complications requiring hospitalization occur in just .05 to .3 percent of early-term abortions, the type performed at the Alabama clinics in question. With the safety argument exposed as empty, the judge found that the law serves no purpose other than to outlaw abortion in huge swaths of the state.
According to the decision: “If this requirement would not, in the face of all the evidence in the record, constitute an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would.” In other words: if this isn’t a sneaky way to ban the procedure, I don’t know what is.
Had it gone into effect, the law would have put access to abortion out of reach for many Alabama women, particularly those in the southern part of the state. Clinics in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery—Alabama’s three most populous cities—would have been forced to close. In 2012, these clinics performed 40 percent of all legal abortions in the state. According to the decision, it would have been unlikely that providers there could have gotten staff privileges, either because they don’t live within a specific radius of the local hospital, the early-term abortions they provide are too safe to necessitate that they admit a patient for additional care (after all, you have to use the privilege in order to get and maintain it), or because the granting of such privileges is subjective, often made at the whims of hospital administrators.
The ruling comes on the heels of a federal court’s decision last week to continue to block a similar law in Mississippi. If that state’s admitting privileges law is eventually allowed to go into effect, Mississippi’s last abortion clinic will close.
“These laws have little to do with women’s health, and they’re 100 percent about politics,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, ACLU’s lead counsel on the Alabama case, told me. The ACLU argued the case along with Planned Parenthood.
Judge Myron Thompson appears to agree. His entire decision is worth a read, in part because it paints such a vivid picture of the political climate surrounding abortion in the state and the region. It recounts a history of violence against providers and clinics, including murders and firebombings throughout the last two decades. It details the high consequences doctors there face when their practices include providing abortions (one reason providers fly into Alabama from their homes elsewhere), and the lack of training available for medical students in the South. According to the decision: “Only 8 percent of OB/GYNs in the South perform any abortions at all, compared to 26 percent in the Northeast. In Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, no residency program offers abortion training to OB/GYN medical residents.” Clearly, access to abortion is already a challenge for families in the state. In 2001 a dozen clinics provided the procedure in Alabama. Today, there are only five.
Poor women pay the price. At the three clinics that would have closed, more than half of abortion patients live at or below 150 percent of the poverty line, according to the decision. Simply traveling elsewhere for the procedure isn’t so easy when transportation and lost wages make the endeavor just too expensive.
On a conference call for media earlier this summer, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project Director Jennifer Dalven pointed out that admitting privileges as a backdoor ban on abortion is especially worth watching in the South, where a contiguous five state block faced such laws. In addition to Alabama and Mississippi, similar requirements passed in Oklahoma and Louisiana earlier this year. A review of the Texas law is pending. Further north in Wisconsin, attorneys with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have challenged an admitting privileges law and a ruling in that case is expected soon. The Alabama decision sends a critical message, according to Kolbi-Molinas.
“It should be instructive to future courts as they look at these issues,” she said. “And hopefully [instructive] to legislators that politicians should stop trying to practice medicine and stop trying to play doctor.”
Read Next: George Zornick on how this bill could end state abortion restrictions