Excerpted From: Charelle Lett, Black Women Victims of Police Brutality and the Silencing of Their Stories, 30 UCLA Journal of Gender & Law 131 (Summer, 2023) (247 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CharelleLettBlack women in the United States have endured centuries of race- and gender-based violence, unable to find refuge in neither their communities nor the law. This paper will discuss police violence through the lens of Black feminist theory by first giving a historical review of state-sanctioned violence in Black communities; then, examining violence done to Black women through a Black feminist framework; followed by an exploration into why Black women's experiences of police violence are largely overlooked and what can be done to bridge the gap between advocacy for Black men and women victims of police violence.

I. Brief History of State Sanctioned Violence Against Black People in the United States

Black people have experienced violence at the hands of white Americans for centuries. This violence predates American independence and transcends present day. It is this country's history and cannot be fully expressed in these few pages. What follows is the foundation needed to understand the significance of violence against Black women and what makes it so heinous. This section reviews slave patrols, lynching, and the criminalization of Black activism.

A. Slave Patrols as the Foundation of Modern Policing

Modern day policing has a long and dark history in the United States and has always been racially motivated. Modern policing can be traced back to slave patrols which were first formed in 1704 in South Carolina and lasted for over 150 years. The purpose of these patrols was to (1) “chase down, apprehend, and return” runaway slaves to their owners; (2) “provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts”; and (3) “to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers” who were not considered persons subject to the law. Patrollers were compelled to beat and torture captured slaves by local authorities, and, in some areas, could be fined for not doing so. After the Civil War, attributes of slave patrols including systemic surveillance and the enforcement of curfews were carried over into police departments nationwide. We continue to see the influence of slave patrols today when Black protesters are met with tear gas and rubber bullets during mourning marches for people killed by police.

The current system of policing was built on a foundation designed to prevent Black liberation and is still operating from a framework of white supremacy. Slave patrols have a direct correlation with the over-policing of Black communities. Modern policing being a derivative of slave patrols shows that Black communities have always been the target of police action. Slave patrols fed off Black fear and promoted white power, in large part because of slave owners' fear of a rebellion. They sought to control the way Black people interacted with each other and subdue any ideas that a better life was possible. Policing has continued to be a major issue in Black communities, and as a direct result of the constant patrolling of Black neighborhoods, Black people make up nearly 40 percent of the prison population but only around 13 percent of the national population. Black people are also more likely to have fatal encounters with police than white people.

One theme that remains present generation after generation is the threat of white violence in response to Black protest. Slaves ran away and revolted in protest of the torture they routinely experienced at the hands of their masters. Black people have continued to protest the violence done to them for generations and police have continued to respond in a similar manner to slave patrols did. For example, in 1943, a Black soldier was shot by police officers for stepping in when the officer attempted to arrest a Black woman for disorderly conduct. Shortly after, a riot began and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia requested the assistance of the U.S. Army to put a stop to the riot. There were two days of civil unrest that led to six deaths and 500 arrests. Countless riots that have ensued since then because police chose violence against unarmed Black people, and this state sanctioned violence has been routinely met with Black protest.

B. The Lynching Period and Law Enforcement's Involvement

White Violence against Black people has been unwavering since the days of slavery. However, there was a brief period after the Civil War when Black people were able to exercise their rights as American citizens and receive some protections in law called Southern Reconstruction. Unfortunately this era was short lived, and immediately following this period, the Federal Government restored white supremacist control to the South by adopting a “laissez-faire” policy that resulted in disfranchisement, as well as the social, educational, and employment discrimination of Black Americans. This policy allowed for violence against Black Americans who pursued full access of their constitutional rights to go unpunished and pushed Black Americans back into second class citizens, subject to extrajudicial white violence. Between 1882 and 1968, approximately 4742 people were lynched; of the victims, 73 percent were Black. Victims were typically hung or burned to death by White mobs in front of hundreds of spectators who would often take pieces of the dead person's body as souvenirs to memorialize the event.

These heinous crimes were often justified by the presumption that the person being lynched had committed a crime against a white person. No finding of guilt was necessary for lynch mobs to kill, just an accusation. Politicians and other public officials not only condoned “lynch law,” but they often openly supported these mobs and used this to gain political power. The first anti-lynching bill was introduced in 1918 by Congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri and failed in the U.S. Senate. Anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress two hundred times before finally being passed in 2018, in large part due to opposition from Southern senators. Evidence of this opposition can be found a recently as 2018, when Republican Senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith said she would sit with a supporter in the front row of a public hanging. Additionally, mob participants were almost never punished. White judges, prosecutors, jurors, and witnesses often sympathized with lynchers, and if they were punished for the crime, they were often pardoned. In his study of one hundred lynchings, Arthur Raper estimated that at least half of these lynchings were carried out with the help of law enforcement.

Even after the abolition of slavery and the end of slave patrols, Black people had no refuge from white violence in the law. The normalization of lynch mobs along with Black people being their victims, created a permanent stain on American society that made blackness inherently criminalized, and whiteness victimized. The prevalence of lynch mobs created a reality where killing Black people is routinely justified so long as they can be accused of committing a crime. The most famous of these instances is the case of Emmett Till. Emmett was a fourteen-year-old Black boy who was lynched for whistling at a white woman while visiting family in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Against all evidence, his killers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. Today, white police officers killing Black people on camera is routinely met with same leniency afforded to Emmett Till's killers. According to Statista Research Department, “In the United States between 2005 and 2020, of the 42 nonfederal police officers convicted following their arrest for murder due to an on-duty shooting, only five ended up being convicted of murder. The most common offense these officers were convicted of was the lesser charge of manslaughter, with 11 convictions.”

C. Historical Account of the Criminalization of Black Activism

Illegitimate lynch mobs hung their hats on criminal accusations while federal government agencies worked to criminalize Black people's everyday fight for survival. From slave patrollers hunting down runaway slaves to peaceful protestors being met with lethal force, American history is filled with evidence of the continuous criminalization of Black activism. This section explores three of the most prominent examples of this criminalization in American history: the Second Red Scare, the Civil Rights Movement, and the persecution of the Black Panther Party.

1. Second Red Scare

Beginning in the late 1940s, with the Second Red Scare, Black activists were put on trial for treason as American government entities convinced themselves that the Soviet Communist Party was running the Civil Rights Movement. As the Communist Party embraced the concerns of Black Americans, white Southerners began to fear that the demand for racial justice would alter life in the South. Because of the connection between communist theory and Black liberation theory, Southern “red-and-black baiters,” a term coined by Jeff Woods to describe people who believed that the communist party was in charge of the Civil Rights Movement, were suspicious of anyone who was a proponent of civil rights and Black equality.

This version of the Red Scare was initially unique to the South, it gained national validation through congressional hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, both chaired Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. HUAC was formed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1983 and its investigations primarily focused in exposing Communists in the federal government and Hollywood film industry. In the 1940s and 1950s, HUAC held multiple hearings in which they interrogated prominent Black Americans to gauge their loyalty to the United States, including baseball superstar Jackie Robinson. Similarly, McCarthy used his position as committee chair of U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations and Permanent Subdivision on Investigations to spearhead investigations of Communist Party members and sympathizers eventually extending beyond those employed by the government. He was notorious for his use of hearsay and intimidation to ruin the reputations and careers of anyone who disagreed with him.

This Red Scare prompted the FBI, directed by J. Edgar Hoover, to start the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) “to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States.” In a letter related to COINTELPRO, the FBI described Black activists as immoral, subversive, and criminal. Black activists such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Claudia Jones, and others who pursued antiracist, anti-imperialist agendas were heavily investigated and silenced by the United States government because of this Second Red Scare. Additionally, more radical activists were essentially erased from American teachings of Black history following these hearings, and a number of activists fled the country. The idea of Black liberation has always been radical in the United States, and overt acts to this end have always been punished; however, the Second Red Scare reinforced the antebellum idea that education is a weapon when wielded by Black people and the free exchange of ideas that challenge the status quo threaten societal norms in a way that cannot be tolerated.

2. Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s and is most known for achieving passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Another notable attribute of the Civil Rights Movement was its use of nonviolent direct action. On February 1, 1960, four Black Students attending North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University decided to seek service at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensborough, North Carolina and stay there even if asked to leave or refused service. This was the first nationally recognized sit-in, and before the year ended, 70,000 other students across the South had also sat in. Participants were met with physical assault by white patrons but stood their ground peacefully. Of the 70,000 that sat in, about 3600 were arrested. These sit-ins gave the movement its status as a mass phenomenon and led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

This trend of nonviolent resistance to societal norms being met with white violence was continuous throughout the movement. Freedom Riders from SNCC and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), another civil rights organization, were met by violent white mobs in Alabama that set their busses on fire and healthcare workers that refused to treat them for exercising their right to integrated interstate travel. In 1963, large scale demonstrations and boycotts aimed at desegregating Birmingham, Alabama, were met by police violence routinely. On May 3, 1963, Birmingham police turned police dogs and high-pressure water hoses on Black children marching in what is now called the Children's Crusade.

If we learned nothing else from the Civil Rights Movement, we learned that public opinion affects change. It is the reason Black activists marched in suits. It is the reason they eagerly welcomed media coverage. It is the reason they chose Rosa Parks. It is the reason they remained committed to nonviolence. They needed public support to create the change they sought, and they earned it. However, this public support reignited the FBI's COINTELPRO program, headed by Director J. Edgar Hoover. Shortly after the 1963 March on Washington, Hoover resumed his surveillance and interrogation of Black movement leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and various members of the Black Panther Party.

3. Black Panther Party

The public support the Civil Rights Movement garnered was crucial to legislative change benefitting Black people, but many activists believed that continuously subjecting themselves to violence could not be the way to equality. The Black Panther Party (the Party), founded by Bobby Seal and Huey Newton was the best-known revolutionary nationalist organization in the United States from 1966 to the mid-1970s.

Revolutionary nationalism was at the heart of the Black Power movement and revolutionary nationalists held the belief that Black Americans could not achieve liberation within the existing political and economic system plaguing the United States. Therefore, the Party called for the fall of capitalism, imperialism, racism, and sexism through revolutionary tactics including multiracial alliances. The Party had a ten-point program designed to meet the needs of the Black community in Oakland, California, where it has its origins. A few of those points being: that black people have the privilege of being tried in courts by a jury of their peers (people from their Black communities); education that exposes the true nature of white supremacy within American society; and an end of police brutality to Black people and murders of Black people by police officers.

To end police brutality against Black people, Huey Newton and Bobby Seal organized the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Party set up a system of armed cars to patrol the Black community and monitor police stops to ensure that no constitutional rights were violated. At that time, carrying firearms openly was still legal in California, so police officers could not stop the Party from patrolling and protecting their neighborhoods. The patrols made community members feel safe from police violence, but ultimately led to a nationwide repression campaign against the Party.

In 1967, two major events stemming from the self-defense patrols put the Party on the national stage. The first was the disruption of the California State Legislature by twenty-nine armed Black Panthers in protest of a bill that would make carrying a loaded weapon within city limits a crime. The second was a shoot-out between the police and Black Panthers that lead to the death of a police officer and the arrest of Huey Newton for the murder of said police officer--both extreme measures by Party members to ensure Black safety made the Party a nationally recognized target. Director Hoover named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” In response to this outright battle cry, the FBI's COINTELPRO program targeted the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and in 1969, Chicago police raided Hampton's home, killing him and his head of defense, Mark Clark.

In a study conducted by Black Studies Scholar, Charles E. Jones, the Black Panther Party experienced political repression at all levels of government through both the law and behaviors of individual government officials. The study shows that Black Panthers were routinely arrested because of harassment and public order laws including assault, robbery, and weapon charges. In this context, “harassment” is defined as “when a simple law that was originally passed with no political purpose is used to repress.” Notably, of the 42 members arrested under this definition of harassment, roughly 36 percent had their charges dropped. The abusive use of these laws by local law enforcement caused the dissipation of organization funds and disrupted its normal activities. It also created adverse publicity for the Black Panther Party and painted them as a group of criminals. The study also shows that there were numerous covert operations by the FBI in an attempt to disrupt the Party's community programs. In one such instance, FBI agents sent anonymous, inflammatory letters to contributors of the Panthers' Free Breakfast Program, attempting to discourage property owners and churches from allowing the Panthers to hold the Free Breakfast Program in their facilities. The Black Panther party was a threat to the status quo with a willingness to act in any way necessary to dismantle societal norms that harmed Black people, and instead of creating laws to effect such change, government officials at all levels sought to silence the noise through violence disguised as law and politics.

D. Twenty-First Century Police Brutality and #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Today's racial justice activists face the same violence as their predecessors, so after surveying government conduct towards Black people through different eras of Black activism, it is no surprise that Black peoples' deep tradition of not trusting law enforcement continues well into the twenty-first century with no sign of resolution. A Pew poll conducted shortly after the 2014 shooting of Black teenager, Michael Brown, shows that 71 percent of white participants expressed a “great deal or fair amount” of confidence in local police to treat Black and white people equally, compared to 36 percent of Black participants. Additionally, 70 percent of Black participants said police forces across the country did a “poor job of holding officers accountable when misconduct occurred”; only 23 percent of white participants shared this opinion. These numbers are attributable to the long history of police defending white supremacy and being in direct opposition of Black liberation that continues today.

In tandem with police violence against the defense of Black rights, police violence in demonstrations for the defense of white supremacy is almost unheard of. In recent history, hundreds of white protesters stormed the Michigan state capitol in opposition the state's COVID-19 lockdown making threats and bearing the arms to back them up. Instead of unleashing the United States armed forces, President Trump supported protestors by tweeting “these are very good people.” Even without the apparent support of white supremacy, the trend of government entities defending and upholding white supremacy is evident in police responses to recent protests defending the rights of Black people in the U.S. This violence has historically been grossly undocumented, but with the help of modern technology and social media, incidents of police brutality are now available for the world to see at just the click of a button.

The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 as a Twitter hashtag in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin and has since become the heart of protests demanding the protection of Black people from police brutality. The slogan was coined by three Black women: Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. Before sparking a mass movement for racial justice, Patrice Cullors was an artist, teacher, and prison reform activist; Alicia Garza was the Special Projects Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in Oakland, California; and Opal Tometi was the Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. On the night that the verdict was announced in the Zimmerman case, Alicia Garza made a post saying, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” The next morning, her friend of ten years, Patrice Cullors reposted adding the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter.” Opal Tometi joined the trio a few days later inspired by her little brother to act. From there, Tometi helped the others create a digital campaign that demanded the world's attention by encouraging people to share their stories under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

The slogan became the battle cry of protestors in 2014 during the uprising against police brutality that followed the murder of Michael Brown and has been used in every protest against police brutality to follow. Like every movement for racial justice before it, Black Lives Matter soon attracted attention from the federal government. In 2017, the FBI's Counterterrorism Division created the label “Black Identity Extremists” (BIEs) to describe racial justice protestors criminalizing Black activism as they did before.

Following the public murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, on May 25, 2020, there were more than 7750 demonstrations linked to the Black Lives Matter Movement across all fifty states and Washington D.C. within three months. These demonstrations were overwhelmingly nonviolent, with less than 10 percent leading to violence or destruction of property by demonstrators. Yet approval for the movement hit its peak in the week following Floyd's death and has seen a sharp decline since. This is attributable, in part, to disproportionate media coverage of violent demonstrations and focus on looting and vandalism rather than police violence. In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter demonstrators were routinely met with brutalization from police that was rarely reported on mainstream media outlets. Authorities have used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons in over 54 percent of these demonstrations.

The nosedive in approval for Black Lives Matter is also attributable to blatant acts of repression from the federal government. For example, on June 1, 2020, former Attorney General Barr announced that all fifty-six regional offices of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) would be deployed in response to the protests that he referred to as “domestic terrorism.” The purpose of JTTF is to disrupt and prevent terrorist acts, acts that now include Black Lives Matter protests. In alignment with prior COINTELPRO propaganda, the United States Department of Justice described those involved in protests following the death of George Floyd as radical agitators promoting violence. Once again, Black activism is characterized as criminal and treasonous work to be punished instead of the call for justice that it is.

Police violence in response to Black resistance to police violence is all too common in American history, and the numbers that show its continuance come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. However, even those paying attention often forget to mention that Black women also experience police brutality and violence. When the omission is not due to forgetfulness, it is due to ignorance. The intersectionality of being both Black and a woman makes it impossible to be an active participant in Black liberation without tending to the needs of men first, while simultaneously making one's presence in any space centering women empowerment fruitless, as they typically cater to the needs of white women. The rest of this paper aims to (1) expose the state sanctioned violence Black women face in America, (2) explain why and how this violence gets overlooked, and (3) highlight leaders of the #SayHerName Movement along with their policy recommendations and demands.

[. . . ]

The current state of violence against Black women in the United States is reprehensible. Black women are entitled to basic respect and protection by virtue of existing. The stereotypes that inform any other opinion on the matter fail to acknowledge the fact that ownership of the identity is the only thing that can give it power. Black feminist theory empowers the Black woman to define herself individually by validating her lived experiences and making her truth the truth. Through the demands and policy recommendations made by AAPF, intersectionality theory can be implemented into already existing systems and transform public perception on the quality of care given to Black women.

The first step to this end has already been taken by AAPF, which has created a space in mainstream media that allows Black women to tell their stories without fear of opposition. They have created community among women who have experienced violence at the hands of police officers. They sparked a conversation centering Black women as the victims of oppression in a way that has not been done before. We have learned from past movements that publicity of the issue sparks change. Controversy sparks conversations that become innovative policies.

Black women should be seen and treated as full people beyond the stereotypes forced upon them. Strong women need help. Nurturing women need compassion. Passionate women need rest. Black women, like all other people should be loved and celebrated out loud. Their lived experiences should be accepted as truths. Their voices should be amplified.