Take No Prisoners: The Policing of Black Girls

25 Jun

On June 16, two Black, female, Seattle teenagers were arrested and detained for jaywalking.

Marilyn Levias, the 19 year-old perpetrator, unwisely chose to resist arrest. When her friend, 17 year-old Andrea Rosenthal, intervened on her behalf, the arresting officer, Ian Walsh, punched Rosenthal in the face. She was charged with third degree assault; after apologizing later that day, she was still forced to endure a lecture from the officer about keeping her hands to herself.

Many folks in the blogosphere and news outlets have debated the rights and wrongs of this issue. Certain things are clear. It is never wise to resist arrest, even when being arrested for something ludicrous, like jaywalking. It is never okay to put hands on an officer who has taken an oath “to protect and serve,” even if he is more invested in protecting his power and serving his interest than taking care of your well-being.

No, Andrea and Marilyn did not make the wisest of choices. Prevailing wisdom says that lack of wisdom is a hallmark of late adolescence. And unlike Officer Walsh, these girls are not getting paid to protect the public trust. Their job is to be happy-go-lucky, carefree teenage girls. His job, I reiterate, is to protect and serve.

In our national conscience, however, Black girls are always servants, never served, always villains, never victims. Do you think two carefree, adolescent white women cruising the streets of Seattle would have been subject to this officer’s harassment? Could he have so easily sucker punched a blonde, blue-eyed, co-ed?

The ease with which this officer responded to these girls as enemies, instinctually punching Rosenthal as though she had surprised him in a sneak attack, can only be explained by the pervasive operation of a white supremacist discourse that sees Black bodies as threatening and dangerous, and therefore worthy of excessive force.

When I watch the video of this incident, the only person I see attempting to diffuse the situation is a young Black man, who grabs Rosenthal away from the officer and from her friend. He is the one who de-escalates the situation. It goes virtually unnoticed, since Black men are visible in cases like this only when they are being criminal.

We will continue to see unjust, unchecked, excessive forms of violence against Black and Brown folks in this country until we rethink our methods of policing. I am reminded of the summer after I graduated from college, when an officer threatened to club me in a Wal-Mart parking lot because my friend and I parked briefly in a no parking zone, with the permission of store security, to retrieve a package that she had inadvertently left behind.

For that officer and many others, these encounters cease quickly to be about rationality. They become a power-struggle, which the officer can win because he has a state-issued gun and billyclub. If you choose to ask questions or insist an explanation be provided, more often than not, you are met with a threat.

While I recognize police officers risk their lives, everyday, for little fanfare and even less pay, I think they, too, are victims of a policing ideology demanding they “kick butt first and take names later.” Force before thought equals needless carnage, pain and death. But that’s taking a rational approach.

So, while I do not excuse the behavior of these young women, I sympathize with them. They reacted to this officer as though he were an enemy, because for so many people of color, police officers are public enemy #1. And, if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then the enemy of my friend is my enemy. Andrea rolled hard for her girl. As do I.  I commend her sentiment even though I vigorously reject her approach, desiring she remain in the land of the living.

If this had been two young Black men we would have been outraged, and rightfully so. Police brutalize Black girls, too. RIP Aiyana Stanley-Jones.  Black girls, too, are worthy of our rage.

To see the original post and other good reads on race, visit Race-Talk.

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5 Responses to “Take No Prisoners: The Policing of Black Girls”

  1. Summerspeaker June 26, 2010 at 11:44 AM #

    I think you’re being too generous to the police. While it may not be wise to resist arrest, it’s absolutely morally justified in most cases. Consider the story of Alvaro Luna Hernandez, who disarmed an officer who was trying to assassinate him. Though they sometimes provide valuable protection against other violent thugs, cops are the enemy. They’re a repressive force. As Omali Yeshitela says, “The police become necessary in human society only at that junction in human society where it is split between those who have and those who ain’t got.”

    • crunktastic June 30, 2010 at 8:07 AM #

      You’re right Summerspeaker, I certainly could’ve taken it the officer more, and I’m absolutely enraged by what he did, and how he conducted himself. However, I wanted this post to be able to speak to all those folks who fancy themselves “objective” and insist upon seeing all sides of the issue. In my estimation, the officer failed miserably and perpetrated crimes against these young women based upon the worst stereotypes of Black womanhood that have historically existed. At the same time, if I were raising a young daughter, I have to ask myself if I would encourage her to resist police. Her very life might be at stake. The one time I vehemently resisted, my physical safety was certainly questioned. To me, however, justified we are to see the police as enemies and to resist, sometimes that is not a practical position to advocate.

  2. sweetilocks June 28, 2010 at 2:52 PM #

    I hadn’t seen the actual footage until I read this post. To say the cop overreacted unjustly is an understatement. I don’t believe he felt threatened at all and certainly used excessive force. It’s atrocious how cops use their badges to justify disgusting behavior (Anthony Abbate anyone?). What’s worse is it taints the community perspective of the shield for all other police officers who actually do serve and protect. It’s an unfortunate dichotomy and of course the black woman ends up with a black eye and a lecture, while the cop stands proud of his unlawful actions. Such is the American way it seems.

  3. Aisha June 29, 2010 at 4:48 PM #

    I’ve been talking to folks about this report, and what startles me in the video and the conversations surrounding it is that the girl is stripped of her girlhood. In the video, folks have to stop themselves to remember that these are teen girls. That black girls have no claim to innocence (sexual or otherwise) is enveloped in the very way we talk about them. The grown, trained police officer using brute, excessive force with a teen goes unnoticed. (From news site comments, it’s warranted.) I want to suggest that her girlhood makes a difference. We have witnessed a criminal justice system that increasingly treats children as adults. The implications have been the expansion of the prison industrial complex where juvenile detention centers have become profitable for the state and private industry, harsher sentences (because they should have known better) and relocation of juveniles to adult facilities (because they are “grown”). What about her protection? What about her safety?

    • crunktastic June 30, 2010 at 8:04 AM #

      Aisha,

      I’m totally with you. No one can see this girls as happy-go-lucky teenagers, out and about having, a good, innocent time. Therefore, the officer was also unable to see their youthful protest, as just that, youthful. They jumped from girlhood to womanhood and all the culpability of full adulthood at the moment that they became visible to the officer. Folks would have been enraged had this man assaulted two white teen girls in this way, precisely as you say because their girlhood would have been left in tact. In fact, white women tend to have the problem (and protections) of being perpetually infantilized. Our inability to see women and girls, particularly Black women and girls in a range of states of being and development is just one more indication of how much our actual humanity is not considered a given.

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