Excerpt: The Violent Policing of Black Motherhood was originally published 8/1/2017 on Salon.com.
“She had told the officers she was pregnant when they first took out the Taser”
Malaika Brooks, 33 years old and seven months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to school in Seattle one November morning in 2004 when she was pulled over for speeding. She gave the officers her driver’s license. They gave her a ticket. She refused to sign it, believing that doing so would amount to admitting guilt. The officers threatened to arrest her in front of her son and ordered her out of her car. When she refused, they tasered her pregnant body three times within a minute, hitting her in the thigh, arm, and neck, causing permanent burn marks. She fell out of the car. Officers then dragged her face-down on the street, handcuffed her, and charged her with refusing to sign the ticket and resisting arrest. She had told the officers she was pregnant when they first took out the Taser. Their only response was to avoid shocking her directly in the stomach.
I first learned about Malaika in 2006 while working with Tonya McClary of the American Friends Service Committee on “In the Shadows of the War on Terror: Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse in the United States,” a “shadow” report to the UN Committee Against Torture on the U.S. government’s failure to comply with the UN Convention Against Torture. As we were building the case that police use of Tasers — electroshock devices that deliver 50,000 volts of electricity, causing what many describe as excruciating pain along with temporary immobilization — violated international law, I came across the story of Malaika’s traffic stop, which had turned into torture. Although I had already read about many horrific instances of Taser use, Malaika’s story and the officers’ callous infliction of pain over a minor infraction, with complete indifference to the fact that she was pregnant, immediately reminded me of historic accounts of brutal “plantation justice” administered to pregnant enslaved women.
Today, I can’t help but think of the parallels between Malaika’s and Sandra Bland’s traffic stops. Like Sandra, when Malaika asked legitimate questions about whether she was required to do what the officer told her to, she was immediately deemed “defiant” and was threatened with electric shock to secure immediate compliance. In Sandra’s case, Officer Encinia threatened to “light her up” with a Taser if she didn’t get out of the car; in Malaika’s case, despite her visible pregnancy, the officers followed through on the threat. In both cases the officers later tried to argue that both Black women — both seated in their cars, unarmed — posed a threat to their safety. In both cases, Black women were punished for failure to engage in the level of obedience and obeisance expected of them, despite the minor nature of the offenses they were stopped for. In both cases, it is hard to imagine officers treating a white woman in the same way under the same circumstances.
At her trial, Malaika described the incident as “probably the worst thing that ever happened to me.” She testified, “As police officers, they could have hurt me seriously. They could have hurt my unborn fetus. . . . All because of a traffic ticket. Is this what it’s come down to?” Thankfully, her baby girl was born healthy several months later. Ultimately, Malaika was convicted of refusing to sign the ticket, a misdemeanor, but charges of resisting arrest were dismissed. She sued the officers who shocked her, and in the end, the case settled in her favor. Malaika’s story is a powerful illustration of the perils of Tasers. They are promoted as a life-saving alternative to deadly force, but in reality they are a “go-to” weapon employed by officers in wildly inappropriate circumstances — like breaking up children fighting in a school hallway and on an elderly woman who refused to let an officer in her home — all too often with deadly results. Their use against pregnant women, children, elderly people, and people in mental health crises or under the influence of alcohol or drugs has prompted activists to call for complete bans, strict regulation limiting their use to situations in which the only alternative is lethal force, or, at minimum, limitations of their use against populations most likely to suffer harm, including pregnant women.
At its core, Malaika’s story also shows how police enact and enforce deep devaluation of Black motherhood. As Malaika so clearly articulated, a signature on a traffic ticket was deemed more important than her health and safety, and more important than the life and well-being of the future Black child she was carrying. A matrix of narratives rooted in slavery inform this reality: the stereotype of Black women as promiscuous, which defined them as bad mothers; the devaluation of Black motherhood used to justify ripping Black children from their mothers’ arms to sell them away for profit; and the devaluation of Black children once they no longer represented property and members of an unpaid workforce. As law professor Dorothy Roberts, who has written extensively on the criminalization of Black mothers, emphasizes, “From the moment they set foot in this country as slaves, Black women have fallen outside the American ideal of womanhood,” including idealized motherhood. Additionally, pregnancy and motherhood served as a tool of punishment for Black women. Unlike white pregnant women, perceived to exemplify the highest standard of womanhood, Black pregnant women were entitled to no protections except those required to protect slave owners’ “property” in the form of future Black children. After the abolition of slavery, the value of Black women’s future children vanished, as exemplified by the 1908 lynching of Mary Turner when she was eight months pregnant, during which the lynch mob cut her belly open and dashed the skull of the unborn child on the ground. Applying fifty thousand volts of electricity to the body of a pregnant woman who won’t sign a paper charging her with a traffic infraction only becomes “understandable” within a framework informed by narratives like these.
In the 1980s the image of the “welfare queen” and “welfare mother” was added to the perceptions of Black women rooted in slavery, joining in a toxic combination in which Black motherhood and Black children represent a deviant and fraudulent burden on the state that must be punished through heightened surveillance, sterilization, regulation, and punishment by public officials. The Black “welfare mother” is posited to give birth solely to increase the size of her check, only to neglect and abuse her children while spending money on extravagances for herself, all the while engaging in criminalized acts such as welfare fraud. Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Arab, and Middle Eastern women’s pregnancy and motherhood are similarly devalued under a variety of logics. Immigrant women, and particularly Latinxs, are posited to give birth for the sole purpose of creating “anchor babies” to establish immigration status, rendering their reproduction a threat. Simultaneously, the separation of immigrant women from their children through deportation and exclusion is justified and enacted by denying their value as mothers. Additionally, Asian women are demonized as uncaring mothers who would kill or abandon their own children under “barbaric” sex selection practices, while Arab and Middle Eastern women are framed as reproducing an army of suicide bombers and terrorists. In the context of the war on drugs, immigration enforcement, and the “war on terror,” these images have created an open season on mothers of color. It is within these larger contexts that Malaika’s traffic stop, and the incidents that follow, unfolded.
Police brutality against pregnant women
Malaika’s experience was far from unusual. Instead, it is representative of a gender-specific form of race-based police brutality. As author Victoria Law points out, “Both the criminalization of pregnancy and the arrests of pregnant women constitute their own forms of police violence, but . . . are often overlooked by many of the larger organizing movements against police violence that have been sweeping the country since the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Yet they are no less torturous and brutal than the violence being protested on the streets nationwide.”
Amnesty International’s 2008 report on Taser use in the United States catalogued several instances of Taser use on pregnant women, and pointed to the paucity of data on the risks. A number of cases have come to light more recently demonstrating the persistence of the problem. In June 2012, Tiffany Rent, a Black woman who was eight months pregnant, had just been issued a citation outside a pharmacy on Chicago’s South Side for parking in a spot designated for people with disabilities. She tore up the citation and cursed at the officers before getting back in her car. Having already issued the citation, the officers could have just walked away. If she failed to appear in court or answer the citation, she would bear the consequences. Instead, the officers chose to write her another ticket, this time for littering. When she began to drive away, they claimed that she was attempting to escape. They proceeded to shock Tiffany with a Taser, drag her out of her car, force her to the ground, and handcuff her in front of her two young children. Her sister later said, “How could you be so cruel to a human being? A pregnant human being?” Chicago Police Superintendent Gerry McCarthy was unapologetic, defending the officers’ use of force with an offhand “You can’t always tell if someone is pregnant.” Rent gave birth to a baby boy the following month, and received a $55,000 settlement from the city the following year. “I don’t think that it should have went this far,” she said. “It just makes me afraid of the Chicago Police Department because there’s other women that may have went through this or that’s going through this.”
Some departments have developed policies regulating incidents such as these — although most have loopholes allowing use of Tasers against pregnant women under some circumstances. However, my research revealed that a significant number — 38 percent of 36 of the fifty largest police departments — have no policy whatsoever specifically governing use of force, including Tasers, against pregnant women.
Yet police violence against pregnant women extends beyond the use of Tasers — and has been characterized as an “epidemic.” One blog cataloguing a series of brutal incidents of physical force against pregnant women concluded that if “pregnant Black women can be routinely attacked—something we can’t even imagine happening to White women — and their growing babies treated as fair game, there is no sanctuary to be found.”
There was certainly no sanctuary to be found for Nicola Robinson. Her crime? Laughing at a Chicago police officer who had failed to catch a person he was chasing on a spring day in 2015. Her punishment? The officer punched her hard in the right side of her stomach as she stood in front of her own home, despite the fact that, at eight months, she was very visibly pregnant. The role of her race and gender in the officer’s actions were plain as day when he shouted, “You black bitch, you better be glad I didn’t hit you hard enough to make you lose your fucking baby.” Immediately following the incident Nicola went into premature labor and was hospitalized. She was later released and gave birth to a healthy child. While her case may seem like an outlier, 15 years earlier another Chicago cop hit another pregnant Black woman while his partner told her “we don’t like Black pregnant women.”