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Like Breonna Taylor, Black women are often killed in private — even when it’s by police

Police and prison violence against Black women can be seen as an extension of intimate partner violence

- March 21, 2022

Just over two years ago, Breonna Taylor was killed by police violence, her life cut short like that of countless other Black women. Her family and community, like many, may never see anyone punished or held accountable, much less anything approaching justice for her death.

If there can be justice for her, it may come in part from the critical reflection, conversation and memorialization in which many are engaged on the anniversary of her death.

Black women are often killed in private, not public, spaces

Black women’s deaths are less likely to spark critical reflection and political mobilization than those of White women or Black men. Since Ida B. Wells published a photo of the lynching of Ray Porter in her 1893 pamphlet “Lynch Law,” visual depictions of Black death have enabled Black Americans to insist that the dominant public discuss the problem of disproportionate Black death. Words have never been enough.

Those who wish to protest Black femicide are often confounded by a lack of visual evidence or witnesses. Lawyer and feminist abolitionist activist Andrea Ritchie told NPR that police brutality against Black women “takes place in the home … and is often unseen as a result.” In this way, Taylor’s death echoes those of many other Black women killed by police, including Eleanor Bumpurs, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Atatiana Jefferson, Kathryn Johnston, Charleena Lyles and Pearlie Golden. Much of the violence takes place inside spaces that lack cellphone and police cameras, whether those are in homes or in welfare offices, patrol cars or even in precinct offices when women attempt to report intimate partner violence. Police are supposed to turn their cameras off during IPV reports, for survivor and family privacy, so these interactions are generally not recorded.

As Ritchie explains, this pattern of invisibility contrasts with that of police violence against Black men, which is recorded during such phenomena as stop and frisk, public use of excess force or bystander-recorded shootings.

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Police violence can be understood as a continuation of intimate partner violence

Further, Black women are often hurt and killed by police when they turn to them for help after having been physically or sexually assaulted by men — making their deaths a continuation of intimate partner violence. African American Studies professor and abolitionist activist Beth Richie and members of INCITE!, an organization that works to end violence against women of color, have broadened academic conceptions of what gender-based violence looks like. They argue that it includes police violence against women and the violence women experience in jails, prisons, welfare offices and immigration detention facilities. In other words, police violence against Black and other women of color can itself be gender-based violence.

Police violence as an extension of intimate partner violence can also take place when women are assaulted or punished for being associated with men in the drug trade. When police assault Black women, it’s often because drug enforcement actions overlap with Black women’s intimate relations. For instance, the no-knock warrant Louisville police used to break into Taylor’s apartment was issued because of her association with her ex-partner, who was allegedly involved in the drug trade; the police assumed her guilty by association. It should be noted that no-knock warrants are an extension of the U.S. history of brutal and often deadly regulation of Black intimate and family life.

But the problems women confront at the intersection of drug enforcement and intimate partner violence do not end there. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw points out that mainstream anti-violence organizations have no interest in the intimate partner violence and coercion that often brings women into the drug trade. Similarly, the police and the courts often ignore that background.

Additionally, the organization Survived and Punished, co-founded by abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba, argues that jails and prisons, not rape crisis centers and women’s shelters, represent the U.S. collective institutional response to gender-based violence for Black and other women of color — where many Black, Native, Latina and immigrant women will then be assaulted by guards and others in the prison system. Perhaps predictably, many women in prison have already survived violence. In 2000, a Bureau of Justice Statistics Survey reported that 44 percent of women under correctional supervision and 6 in 10 of women in state prisons had been physically or sexually abused in their lifetimes. In 2011, the ACLU estimated that almost 60 percent of those in U.S. women’s prisons have survived violence and that at some prisons this proportion is as high as 94 percent.

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Moving from privacy to publicity

Black women killed by police generally receive less media attention than Black men, given the private circumstances of their deaths. Generally, when Black women’s police killings do receive national media attention, it’s because those deaths are proximate to those of Black men. Either they were killed within days or weeks of Black men; are killed by the same police departments as high-profile cases involving Black men; or their cases came to light during a news cycle dominated by discussions of police violence against Black men, as was true for Taylor.

So how can the United States confront the problem of violence against Taylor and other Black women — disproportionately harmed and killed by police and intimate partners — when there are often no pictures, videos or witnesses? There can be no justice without the ability to comprehend the full scope of and critically discuss the problem. Those who wish to see justice may want to amplify the stories of those who have endured or know of such violence and the work of organizations such as Survived and Punished, #SayHerName and Incite. In doing so, they can help offset the disbelief that often greets women’s testimony of violence — and overcome the lack of visual evidence.

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Shatema Threadcraft is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies, philosophy and political science at Vanderbilt University and the author of “Intimate Justice: the Black Female Body and the Body Politic” (Oxford University Press, 2016).