Yet while many of the most heavily covered stories of police violence involve black male victims, black women also have been long-standing victims of police violence, and they should also be centered in the fight against racism. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the only black woman in the Senate, tweeted, “We cannot forget about black women in our quest for justice.”
Harris also tapped into activism against gendered police brutality by tweeting #SayHerName — a hashtag launched by the African American Policy Forum in 2015 as a way to commemorate the black women and girls killed at the hands of white law enforcement. The movement against gendered police brutality has a much longer history, however. And a critical early effort demonstrates why we cannot lose sight of the particular threat of police violence against black women.
Almost a century ago, racialized police brutality in Washington, D.C., was surging. It included the shootings of 40 black men between the late 1920s and 1930s, as well as white officers subjecting at least 29 black women and girls, ranging in age from 15 to 68, to harassment, abuse and physical violence.
No one was spared: not model citizens nor those who labored in the underground economy. Officers harassed teenage girls and mentally ill women. In several cases, the same officers who attacked black men barged into black women’s homes, policed them on the street, punched them in the face, knocked out their teeth and hurled racial epithets at them.
To give one example, in 1936, sisters Martha and Ruth Lloyd, students at Dunbar High School, were exiting a bus at the corner of Tennessee Avenue and 14th Street NE. The sisters noticed that a riot was unfolding on the street and tried to escape the violence. But Officer John Sirola, dressed in plainclothes, grabbed Martha Lloyd and pinned her to the ground. Both sisters were arrested, and in the car, Sirola beat Martha Lloyd with his blackjack because she “sassed” him.
This was not Sirola’s first use of force against a black citizen. Five years earlier, he and another officer had barged into the home of Henry Lincoln Johnson, a Pullman porter and veteran of World War I. They beat Johnson with a blackjack and broke his skull. While both officers were suspended from duty, Sirola was acquitted of any wrongdoing, and he went on to wield the same weapon on a 17-year-old black girl.
The uptick in police brutality in the ’20s and ’30s can be traced to many factors. White police officers instinctively associated black women with criminality, arresting them at much higher rates than white women for disorderly conduct, intoxication, enticing prostitution and during Prohibition, bootlegging.
The Great Depression plunged African Americans even deeper into poverty. Some black Washingtonians put food on the table by resorting to petty theft, while others staged militant mass marches. Both activities put white police officers on alert. This context created more face-to-face interactions between white officers and black women, and these encounters sometimes became violent.
The economic crisis also threatened white men’s dominance, and some white police officers seemed to relish the opportunity to assert racial and sexual dominance over black women. Barging into a black woman’s home while she was asleep and alone, running a gun across her stomach and beating her was a display of power. Because of sexist assumptions, it was an exercise of power not only over black women themselves but over the men in their lives who could not protect them.
These officers didn’t need to fear discipline because the city’s police chief, Maj. Ernest W. Brown, declined to punish officers for excessive use of force, and he was joined by the white judges who sat on the Police Court and the white officers who served on the Trial Boards.
This power structure was entirely white — the police department employed 38 black policemen and only a single black policewoman — even though more than 70,000 black women resided in Washington, a byproduct of the lack of self-government for district residents.
Black activists fought back, taking advantage of the national spotlight on Washington. The Washington chapter of the National Negro Congress called on citizens to “Make Washington Safe for Negro Womanhood.” Activists convinced Rep. Herman P. Kopplemann (D-Conn.) to issue a resolution to investigate police brutality in the House of Representatives and pressed the city’s Board of Commissioners to conduct an inquiry into the D.C. police.
When these efforts failed to deliver results, activists held a protest parade in which they tried to carry empty coffins to symbolize the black victims, but officers forbade it. Instead, black and white marchers clutched signs emblazoned with the message, “Stop Legal Lynching” and chanted for Brown’s dismissal. In 1937, on D.C.’s radio station, WOL, activists read the names of victims of police violence, male and female. They even held their own police brutality trials to mete out justice when the local law looked askance.
The national black press covered these campaigns, making citizens across the country aware of the crisis of police brutality in Washington.
Yet only with the rape and killing of a white female clerk from Iowa did Congress call hearings on the city’s police department, faulting them for failing to solve the case. But scrutiny of Washington’s violence problem didn’t deliver justice. Instead, Rep. F. Edward Hérbert (D-La.), who sat on the Committee on the District of Columbia, openly endorsed police violence in the nation’s capital as a way to prevent black criminality.
Ironically, the hearings convinced white Washingtonians that Brown was ineffective and he stepped down. Brown’s replacement, Edward J. Kelly, had been present at brutality marches, and once he took office, local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Negro Congress pushed him to use his power wisely. “Law abiding colored citizens must be made to know that policemen are the hired protectors of them,” the letter read, “and not their law protected lynchers.”
Kelly listened. One month after he took office, he pledged reform at the Metropolitan Baptist Church, with 1,600 black Washingtonians in attendance. Kelly tripled the number of black police officers, including three black policewomen, and extended the hours of Police Court. The Municipal and Police courts merged, making Armond W. Scott the very first black judge to preside over Police Court.
These reforms worked, and the number of cases of police brutality diminished dramatically. The rise in black officers created fewer face-to-face encounters between black women and white officers, while the addition of a black judge in Police Court enabled black Washingtonians to experience less bias in the justice system. In 1943, Kelly was invited to speak at a University of Chicago roundtable about white violence in policing, and the scholar E. Franklin Frazier, a critic of police brutality, praised Kelly’s record in Washington.
But these improvements didn’t end gendered police brutality. Many white police officers continue to associate black women with criminality and over-police them. As of 2017, black women were twice as likely to serve time in prison as white women, according to the Sentencing Project.
Time in prisons and jails poses a risk for black women: In 2015, a state trooper arrested Sandra Bland for failing to signal a lane change, and three days later, she was dead in her jail cell. And cases of police rape and sexual assault are an ongoing problem. Even today, the ACLU reports that in 35 states, police officers can use consent as a defense against sexual assault of arrestees while in custody.
Yet one lesson of black Washingtonians in the 1930s is that change can come if activists call attention and politicize the over-policing and violence against black women, recognizing how gendered violence upholds white supremacy. Activism since Taylor’s killing captured the national spotlight, inspiring the Louisville police department to ban no-knock warrants, and probably contributing to the firing of one of the officers months after her death, but only weeks after it entered the spotlight. Communities can only be safe if they are safe for black women.