This journal article is appearing in a series commissioned by Community Foundations of Canada to accompany the national Vital Signs gender equality reports. The series is being released throughout Fall 2020, and can be accessed here.
Content Warning: This blog post will have references to discrimination and gender-based violence such as but not limited to technology-facilitated violence, domestic violence, hate crimes, racism, and sexual violence.
On January 16, 2020, a young African Nova Scotian mother named Santina Rao was shopping with her two young children at a Halifax Walmart. Rao placed some items on her stroller as she moved through the store; she was approached by store security and police who accused her of shoplifting. Rao initially complied with their demands to search her belongings and to show I.D, but as she asserted her innocence she became understandably upset in response to their accusations, identifying what was happening as racial profiling. In front of her children, multiple male officers tackled Rao to the ground, leaving her with a concussion, a broken wrist, and multiple facial lacerations and bruises.
The Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT), who investigate complaints of police misconduct and misuse of force, cleared the police officers of any wrongdoing. In their report, although Rao’s own account of what happened is completely absent, the investigators cite the tone and volume of her voice to justify the violence used against her. The report reads:
[Rao was] on her phone for some time while in the toy section. The tone of her conversation quickly alternated between normal and yelling.
APOl and APO2 [Walmart Asset Protection Officers] decided that HSC [Halifax Shopping Centre] security and the police should be called for assistance because they determined the AP [Affected Person – Santina Rao] would be arrested for shoplifting. Having observed her demeanor while on her phone together with the presence of children, they were concerned about how she would react to being arrested.
In these lines we see a host of stereotypes levelled against Black women. Rao’s loud voice is seen as a sign of her unruliness and potential danger. Patricia Hill Collins identifies this as the image of the “Sapphire” – the angry Black woman – used to dehumanize Black women. She deserves it and brought it on herself, the report implies. Her loud voice is proof that she is a threat and needs to be controlled by violence.
Added to this stereotype of the out-of-control Black woman is the image of her as a bad mother. Arresting her, according to the report, is actually an act that protects her children. The police are not doing violence to her; they are saving her. State force used against Black women becomes an act of benevolence.
The violence done to Santina Rao was initiated by Walmart. Black women are frequently followed in stores and seen as suspicious. Black hair products have a long history of being locked up behind the counters of drug stores under the assumption that Black women steal. In 2009, another African Nova Scotian woman named Andrella David was accused of stealing from her local Sobeys. The cashier informed her video showed her stealing in the past, and added that she must be stealing because it was “cheque day.” Along with the stereotype of Black people as criminals was added the stereotype of Black women being “welfare queens.” This practice of surveilling and accusing Black people in stores is known as “Shopping While Black.”
When we speak about policing, we most often imagine street interactions with police officers. Racial profiling, known in Nova Scotia as street checks and in Ontario as carding, is well documented – in Nova Scotia, Black men were shown to be checked 6 times more than white people. Because Black men are more likely to be victimized in these stops, we often think of policing as largely impacting men. The #SayHerName campaign began in the United States in response to the death of Sandra Bland and seeks to draw attention to invisibilized state and police violence against Black women.
The Human Rights Campaign recently declared violence against Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming people to be an “epidemic:” Black Trans women continue to be killed for existing at the intersection of racism, transmisogyny, misogynoir, transphobia and homophobia.
Black women also experience policing in specifically gendered ways. Policing is part of an ideology of punishment and social control and discipline. As Robyn Maynard discusses in her bestselling book Policing Black Lives, Black women also face policing through other state agents such as social workers. Social workers are empowered to make unannounced visits to the home, to look through cupboards and fridges, to ask for details of finances, and to intrude into the sexual lives of mothers.
For Indigenous mothers, the seizing of children forms a continuum with the residential school system, re-sited into removals by child welfare and the incarceration of Indigenous women who now make up over 42% of women in the federal prison population. Black mothers, like Indigenous mothers, are already branded as unfit and come under the policing gaze of largely white workers.
Black and Indigenous women are also policed at other sites of so-called care. Nurses in hospitals call social workers to remove newborn babies from their mothers (a practice known as “birth alerts”), often targeting women who have grown up in the child welfare system. Women and their children are policed intergenerationally. Black girls are labelled as disobedient and angry, records that follow them for life. Black girls are hypersexualized, viewed as older than their age, and disciplined and suspended more harshly. For both Black and Indigenous women, girls, and Trans women under colonization, sexuality and reproduction themselves are criminalized. Black bodies are surveilled at the most intimate levels.
In conversations about defunding the police, we speak about shifting resources spent on policing to community services. Rather than investing in punishment, we call for investing in housing, in treatment, and in the health and well-being of communities.
Decriminalizing drug use and providing safe injection sites, ending the policing of populations living with homelessness, providing free transit, and resourcing mental health are all things we can easily do to end our reliance on policing as a solution to social problems.
But we must also confront the ideology of policing, which is also present in schools that criminalize Black children; in systems of “carceral care” such as health care and psychiatric professionals who medicalize Black people as pathological and high risk; in the labelling of Black women in the office as “unprofessional” and suspending them from the workplace; and in our communities where Black women are followed, judged and deemed out of place for existing in public spaces.
Were we to get rid of police forces tomorrow, these stereotypes and images of Black women would still persist. We would simply find new ways to discipline Black women, something we already see with the ways technology is used to criminalize Black communities. Facial recognition technologies overwhelmingly misidentify Black women. The solutions to the violence waged against Black women will not be found in simply moving around some budget items, giving the police body cameras, or other cosmetic reforms. Racism is baked into our systems: cutting a few slices out of the cake will not significantly alter that.
Black women know that policing does not end violence against us or keep our communities safe, which is why Black women who have experienced violence have created models of transformative justice. Transformative justice turns away from state interventions that cause more harm and towards community accountability and resilience. Divesting from punishment means putting resources into healing, wellness, and quality of life in our communities.
I often say that a Black woman given $10,000 can do more than institutions working with millions. Black women run breakfast programs out of their houses, help neighbourhood kids with their homework, mother community children, and prepare boxes for incarcerated community members.
Grants that only designate funding for organizations, use inaccessible language, or that demand formal financial records are not built for Black women working in community. Mutual aid funding initiatives create models for communities to gather and distribute funds directly to people in need.
Changing the way we think about resourcing communities is also part of this moment – if we want to change harmful systems of power, we must think differently about how we support each other to live.
Working with Black communities to identify the grassroots women who are known to do the work and getting resources directly to them allows Black women to do the transformative labour day to day that sows the seeds of justice. If we want to end our reliance on policing, we must invest in Black women first.
El Jones is a spoken word poet, an educator, journalist, and a community activist living in African Nova Scotia. In 2016, El was a recipient of the Burnley “Rocky” Jones human rights award for her community work and work in prison justice. El writes a weekly column for the Halifax Examiner, and was an Atlantic Journalism Award winner in 2018.