Excerpt: How Black Women’s Bodies Are Violated As Soon As They Enter School was originally published 8/16/2017 on The Guardian website’s series on American police.
In the final part of our series on policing in America, writer Andrea J Ritchie documents how girls of color as young as five are exposed to routine humiliation by police officers
Pulled over at a traffic stop and beaten by the side of the road. Placed in a banned chokehold by a New York City police officer. Violently taken into police custody, never to come out alive. Shot first, questions asked later.
The stories and images that immediately leap to mind in connection with these scenes are those of black men – Rodney King, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile.
But these are also the stories of black women.
Women like Sandra Antor, pulled over and brutalized on Interstate 95 in 1996 by a South Carolina state trooper in an incident captured on video five years after images of Rodney King’s beating sparked a national uprising.
Women like Rosann Miller, placed in a chokehold in 2014 by a New York City police officer when she was seven months pregnant, just weeks after police choked Eric Garner to death on camera using one.
Women like Alesia Thomas, repeatedly kicked and beaten by a Los Angeles police officer in 2012 while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. Like Freddie Gray’s, the injuries she sustained in police custody proved fatal.
Women like Mya Hall, a black trans woman shot dead by police after making a wrong turn on to a National Security Agency property outside of Baltimore, just weeks before Freddie Gray’s case rocked the city and the nation.
Yet black women’s experiences of profiling and often deadly force remain largely invisible intoday’s conversations about the epidemic of racial profiling, police violence and mass incarceration in the US.
A five-year-old in handcuffs
I had been documenting police violence against adult women of color for almost a decade when I learned about the case of Jaisha Aikins, in 2005. Jaisha, a five-year-old black girl, was handcuffed and arrested at her St Petersburg, Florida, school for essentially throwing a temper tantrum – as every five-year-old has done at some point.
The school’s administrators and some media commentators justified putting a five-year-old in handcuffs on the grounds that she “punched” the school’s vice-principal, as if the little girl had hauled back and clocked her, rather than flailing at her with tiny hands while in the throes of a tantrum, with the force of a child.
It was clear from video taken of the incident that the vice-principal was not hurt and that Jaisha eventually calmed down. In fact, Jaisha was sitting calmly in a chair when police arrived in response to the vice-principal’s call to arrest an unruly student.
Even after discovering the student was a kindergartener, three white armed officers nevertheless proceeded to pull the little girl’s hands behind her back to put them in handcuffs as she cried and begged them not to. Jaisha was taken to the police station in a patrol car, but released to her mother’s custody when prosecutors refused to file charges against her.
Jaisha’s story illustrates just how deeply entrenched controlling narratives of black women and girls are – no matter how young and small they are. The video of the incident was one of the first depicting police violence against a black girl to be widely broadcast and generate outrage across the country.
In her groundbreaking book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris tells the stories of several other black girls as young as six and seven arrested in school in similar incidents over subsequent years, some as recently as 2013. In some cases, the little girls were held in police cars and stations for extended periods of time after arrest.
Policing of girls extends beyond instances where officers are summoned by school administrators. Police are increasingly stationed inside schools, leading to increased police contact with girls, and increased police violence as officers enforce school rules.
For instance, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reported several cases where young women of color were slammed against the wall, thrown to the floor and arrested by officers stationed in their schools for leaving class a few minutes late (“roaming the hallways”), asking for return of a confiscated cell phone (“threatening an officer”), or cursing in the hallway (“disorderly conduct”).
What happens behind school doors often mirrors what happens on the streets in the context of broken windows and gang policing in the community.
In 2010, I represented three young black women pulled off a New York City subway train by officers who believed they had gotten on without paying – a classic broken-windows offense that was the No 1 arrest charge in New York City in 2015. In fact, as part of an after-school program, they had entered as a group with the stationmaster’s permission. The officers also acted on the assumption that the young women were involved in a purportedly gang-related fight on a completely different platform.
One officer yelled at one 17-year-old girl to “get the fuck off the train, bitch!” Even though she was complying, he grabbed her by the neck and slammed her down on to a bench, choking her.
As her twin approached, alarmed, she too was thrown down and hit her head and face on the floor as an officer began striking her. Officers slammed the third young woman, the twins’ friend, to the ground and pepper-sprayed her in the face before handcuffing her. Afterward, they left her in a cell for 30 minutes with no means of removing the burning spray from her eyes, despite her desperate pleas for relief.
Throughout the violent encounter, the officers referred to the young women as “bitch” and “Shaniquah”, making explicit the racially gendered perceptions driving their violent behavior within the broader framework of broken-windows and gang policing.
Teenagers shocked by Tasers
The presence of law enforcement officers in schools has driven increased student referrals to police and arrests in schools, often “for actions that would not otherwise be viewed as criminal … such as refusing to present identification, using profanity with a school administrator, or ‘misbehaving’”.
One study found that the rate at which students are referred for lower-level offenses more than doubles when a school has regular contact with a “school resource officer”.
The result is a “net-widening” effect expanding surveillance of youth of color and infusing policing and prison culture into schools across the country, with predictable effects.
Kathleen Nolan, a former New York public school teacher, describes “considerable subjectivity in determining whether a behavior was actually a violation of the law”, and notes that everyday items – box cutters used for after-school jobs, razors used to style hair, Mace or pepper spray carried by young women for protection – were met with “zero tolerance” in a school populated by youth of color.
Indeed, a 2005 report issued by the Advancement Project concluded: “Across the board, the data shows that black and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to be arrested in school . . . [despite the lack of] evidence that black and Latino students misbehave more than their white peers.”
Black students are “punished more severely for less seriously and more subjectively defined infractions” such as “disturbing school” or “disorderly conduct”.
A 2011 Texas study found that, after controlling for 80 other variables, race remained a reliable predictor of discipline for subjective violations like disruption. In South Carolina, black students are nearly four times as likely to be charged with “disturbing school” as white students.
Today, black girls make up approximately 33% of girls referred to law enforcement or arrested on school grounds but only 16% of the female student population. Yet the discourse around the policing of youth and the “school-to-prison pipeline” continues to focus nearly exclusively on boys and young men.
Alarmingly, among the violent policing tactics that have migrated from the streets to schools is indiscriminate use of stun guns, or Tasers, which are used to subdue people by firing barbs into them that deliver a jolt of electricity.
While researching a 2006 report on the US government’s failure to comply with the UN Convention Against Torture, I discovered a 2004 case in which a Miami-Dade police officer used a Taser against a 12-year-old girl, shocking her with 50,000 volts of electricity – for skipping school.
Between late 2003 and early 2005, at least 24 Central Florida students, some as young as 12, were shocked with Tasers by police officers in public schools. A typical scenario involved officers wading in through a crowd to break up a fight and using Tasers to “get them to move”.
As of 2005, 32% of police departments interviewed by the weapon’s manufacturer, Taser International, had used Tasers in schools. An August 2016 Huffington Post investigation uncovered at least 84 incidents of Taser use against students since 2011.
Beyond the discriminatory arrests and excessive force, police sexual harassment and violence also takes place inside the schoolhouse gate. Inappropriate commentary about young women’s bodies and appearance by police officers stationed in or near schools is commonplace.
At one New York City school, “school safety agents … would degrade students with comments like ‘That girl has no ass’”. I witness similar harassment on a daily basis as young women travel back and forth on my Brooklyn street to attend one of three schools on my block. Daily pat-downs and mandatory passage through metal detectors before entering schools are also experienced by young women as violative and degrading, especially when conducted by male officers.
Jacquia Bolds, a Syracuse, New York, high school student, testified to a UN committee in 2008: “It is more uncomfortable for girls because sometimes they check you around your most private areas.” The New York Civil Liberties Union reports that in New York City schools in the 2000s:
After being pushed against the wall for frisking, many girls were ordered to squat for intrusive searches with handheld metal detectors. After forcing one child to squat, a male officer repeatedly traced his handheld metal detector up her inner thigh until it beeped on the button of her jeans. ‘Is there something in your pants?’ he asked repeatedly. The frightened girl repeated that there was not, but the officer kept at it, making her fear a cavity search, until he finally let her go.
The girl’s fears were not baseless: “routine” frisks and scans can quickly escalate to strip searches. Girls whose underwire bras set off metal detectors have been forced to lift up their shirts or unbuckle or unzip their pants to prove that they are not concealing weapons, or cell phones.
One 14-year-old Chinese girl who was interviewed in New York City stated: “The security guard accused me of having a knife … They took me to a room and made me take off my shirt and pants to check my bra. They didn’t call my parents or let me talk to a teacher I know. I didn’t have a knife, just like I told them.”
Maksuda, a 17-year-old South Asian high school student, stated: “School safety agents pick on those they perceive to be religious, particularly those who wear scarves and hijab.”
A Muslim youth, 16-year-old Fariha, explains in a video made by the grassroots group Girls for Gender Equity: “For some of us it’s about: ‘You’re not covered up enough’; for us it’s like, ‘You’re covered up too much.’”
The searches these girls were subjected to appear to have been motivated at least in part by controlling narratives framing Asian women as knife-wielding assassins, Latinas and black girls as drug “mules”, and Muslim women as potential terrorists. They also often produce racially gendered humiliation, as officers rifling through young women’s belongings find tampons, birth control pills and condoms.
Manny Yusuf, a 14-year-old Bangladeshi youth leader at Drum, testified about being stopped and frisked on her way home from school. She believed she was singled out from a group of friends because she had the darkest skin. On another occasion, an officer called her over to his car to ask her for her number. She asked city council members: “How do you think it feels to be stopped and searched by an officer when all you are doing is going home from school?”
Another 14-year-old girl described being stopped with a cousin and two friends and frisked because officers thought they had weed on them – which is not sufficient legal justification for a frisk, and certainly not for a male officer to frisk a 14-year-old girl.
Ultimately, young women of color experience every form and context of police violence discussed in this book, and their stories – and examples of their leadership – are found throughout. And there are unique settings (such as schools), offenses (such as “status” offenses), and paradigms (such as broken windows policing) that are particularly used as tools to police young women and girls of color.
It is our responsibility to create spaces in which girls’ and young women’s experiences of policing can be seen and heard, and to support their leadership and their demands to get police out of schools, stop the use of status offenses and low-level offenses to criminalize young women of color, end broken windows policing, and promote conditions under which young women of color can be safe and thrive.