Why Police Murder and Mass Incarceration Are Reproductive Justice Issues

I have been a little absent of late, mostly due to life getting extremely busy, but also because with the recent grand jury non-indictments of both of the police officers that murdered Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I have been out on the streets meeting fellow angry activists and starting to organize to fight back against police violence and murder, most of which disproportionately affects the black community.

Most of the discussion surrounding the decision not to indict Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo has, rightly, centered around the state of police violence against black and brown men and women in the United States, as well as systemic racism. This past week, however, we have seen a new vein emerge into the mainstream discussion of police violence, and that is one of how police brutality and mass incarceration are also issues of reproductive justice. In a press conference on December 3rd, the widow of Eric Garner, Esaw Garner, declares, in regards to Pantaleo “He’s still feeding his kids, when my husband is six feet under and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now.”

The concept of reproductive justice, originally coined by Sistersong, a women of color-led organization, is defined as follows:

The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments — is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions is important for women of color.

In a nation where the police or self-appointed vigilantes murder a black man at least every 28 hours, black families live in constant fear that their sons, fathers, husbands, partners, and brothers will be the latest victim of police brutality. It is essential that we, as reproductive justice activists are present to make the argument that it is not enough to have the right to have children or terminate a pregnancy, but that true reproductive justice means being able to parent without fear your child will be murdered for playing with a toy gun in a public park or for going to the store to buy skittles.

Hannah Giorgis writes about the terror she feels constantly for her brothers:

That kind of fear is immobilizing; it is unproductive and unending. It wakes you up at night, claws its way out of the pits of your stomach and into every memory of the precious child you love. It is a fear Black women know intimately, a fear that slips easily into our dreams because it is grounded in realities we want to turn away from during daylight hours…And yet, I do not hear this aspect of Black parenting — this wholly rational fear that babies will be snatched from our arms and this world before their own limbs are fully grown — addressed by white advocates in gender equality and reproductive justice. Is it not an assault on Black people’s reproductive rights to brutally and systematically deny us the opportunity to raise children who will grow to adulthood?

It is exactly this fear that Giorgis articulates that is the definition of terrorism. Black women and families experience parenthood in a fundamentally different way than white families because of the constant and ever-present threat of police violence.

Black youth and young adults have come forward over the past few years and detailed, “The Talk” that parents or guardians have given them, essentially guidelines for behaving in public, as to avoid a possibly fatal encounter with the police. Former NBA player Etan Thomas, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, wrote that he would soon, ” have to ruin my son’s rose colored glasses view of the world we live in.” This “talk,” he wrote, would focus on verbalizing any movements you might make in front of a police officer, as well as making sure to stop in a crowded, well-lit place. The parallels between the instructions given to young men of color and women in general as means to avoid violence or from being raped are clear ones, but police violence and mass incarceration are rarely framed as feminist issues.

Tamura Lomax, at The Feminist Wire, wrote about pushing police brutality into the sphere of a broader understanding of feminism, echoing Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech: “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?”

There is a rich history of black women leading the struggle to bring issues of racial equality to feminist circles, with Sojourner Truth as one of the first documented, followed by Ida B. Wells’ fight to bring make anti-lynching campaigns a feminist issue. More recently, we see the civil rights and black power movements help touch off the fight for women’s liberation under the leadership of women like Ella Baker and Angela Davis. In an era in which intersectionality and overlapping oppressions are concepts that are flowing more and more freely from the mouths of feminists engaged in women’s liberation struggles, we must push for mass incarceration and police murder to be included in our fight for reproductive justice.

Black families not only have state-sanctioned police violence to fear, but in the era of mass incarceration and the continued war on drugs, black families also live under constant threat of their family members being put in prison. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic blacks made up just under 40% of the prison population in 2009, yet made up only 13.6% of the general population in the 2010 census.

Furthermore, one out of every six prisoners in California (with similar statistics in states with Three-Strikes Laws) are serving life-sentences, often for non-violent offenses. A vast majority, 57.1%, of these prisoners, sentenced to a year or more in state or federal prisons, are also of peak childbearing ages, age 20-39. Furthermore, 52% of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates reported being the parent to a minor child in 2007.

The reality of these statistics is that the constant and very real threat of police violence and mass incarceration severely restrict the basic human right to choose to raise a family and to raise that family without the threat of state violence or separation in the black community.

It is high time that the mainstream feminist movement take a moment to listen to the cries that have echoed for too long from black mothers and families all across the country. We must unite our message to incorporate the call for the ability to raise a child safely to adulthood into the call for reproductive and bodily autonomy, for they are one in the same.

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