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Friday, July 15, 2016

From Eulia Love to Redel Jones, LAPD’s Murderous Reign

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1979, they handcuffed Eulia Love while she was dying on her front lawn.  In 2015, they handcuffed Redel Jones and let her die on a public street as a throwaway woman with no rights a white man was bound to respect.

On Tuesday, hundreds of demonstrators from Black Lives Matter, the Youth Justice Coalition and other organizations packed the Los Angeles Police Commission meeting to protest the officer-involved killing of Jones, a young African American woman murdered in cold blood last year after allegedly advancing on officers with a knife in a Baldwin Hills alley.  According to the LAPD, the confrontation with Jones occurred after a suspect “who fit her description” committed a robbery.  Eliciting widespread outrage, the Commission egregiously ruled that the killing of Jones was “within policy” because officers were in “fear of their lives”.  Contradicting the police’s grotesque default narrative of the violent black predator, one eyewitness to the killing stated that Jones was moving away from the officers.  The Commission did not disclose why it was necessary to use deadly force to subdue a woman wielding a knife.

Jones’ murder last spring marked the flowering of the #Sayhername campaign, the national call for justice in resistance to the terrorist victimization of black women under state violence.  Her murder, and the community response thereafter, is hauntingly similar to that of Eulia Love, a 39 year-old African American woman who was murdered at her South Los Angeles home by LAPD officers on January 3, 1979.  Love was alleged to have rushed the officers with a knife during a dispute precipitated by an earlier confrontation she’d had with a utility worker. The officers who killed her fired approximately twelve rapid fire shots at a range of eight and twelve feet.  Her murder elicited mass community protests and was initially ruled to be within policy by the LAPD’s “Shooting Review Board”.  This determination was later challenged by the Police Commission, which concluded that Love’s shooting “failed to meet departmental standards”.  In the aftermath of the killings, the notorious Chief Daryl Gates claimed that the white officer who shot Love was “just as much a victim of this tragedy as (she was).” Gates, the nemesis of the African American community, was a sneering law and order fascist who presided over a police department nationally renowned as the standard for state sanctioned racial terrorism and suppression. Under Gates, the department’s “pioneering” forays into militarization were institutionalized, as use of battering rams, SWAT teams and riot gear became the norm for police departments across the nation.
Love’s murder represented a turning point in the deep history of black LAPD murder victims. Weeks after her death, her killing initially generated little more than an obscure paragraph in the L.A. Times.  But in order to fully honor and SayHerName it’s important to acknowledge her wholeness.  Before she was killed, she was a mother of three daughters and a recent widow struggling to survive on a limited income. She lived in a single family home in a neighborhood abutting what is now the 105 freeway; one that had weathered the turbulence of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and the downward economic spiral of South Los Angeles.  Her anxiety over paying an overdue gas bill was almost certainly exacerbated by these factors, and the appearance of a male Gas Company representative in her backyard to shut off service.  According to an Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW) report filed by the representative, Love hit him with a shovel to keep him from shutting off her service. The rep then called the police, who drew their guns shortly after arriving, tragically, while Love’s young daughters were in the house.
In the case of white assailants, it’s standard for law enforcement to use extensive de-escalation techniques—including negotiating with suspects, bargaining for time, retreating, using tasers and other non-lethal strategies.  As evidenced in mass shootings like those in Aurora, Colorado, Charleston, South Carolina and the 2015 Colorado Springs abortion clinic shooting (as well as with the recent Oregon National Wildlife Refuge standoff involving domestic terrorist Ammon Bundy), it’s pro forma for even the most violent white assailants to be captured alive despite brandishing military style weapons.
The 1980 Police Commission report on the Love case concluded that LAPD officers Edward Hopson (who was black) and Lloyd O’Callaghan (who was white) talked to Love for a scant two-three minutes (rather than the seven minutes erroneously reported by the LAPD Shooting Review). Contrary to the Shooting Review report, the Police Commission concluded that the officers had not been prompted to use deadly force due to concern for the wellbeing of Love’s daughters; nor had they come to arrest Love for the alleged assault of the Gas Company worker.  Rather, they perceived Love as an a priori threat, one that was disproportionate to the situation. 
Departmental policy stated that “officers should not draw their weapons based on a mere feeling of apprehension”.  Although Love was wielding a knife, she was retreating from Hopson and O’Callaghan when they opened fire on her.  The report further states that techniques for disarming an individual with a knife include kicks and baton hits. Moreover, “In choosing a technique, the relative size of an individual and his or her mental state” are also primary considerations.  In both the Jones and Love cases, none of these factors apparently informed the police’s decision to use deadly force.  Because Hopson and O’Callaghan emerged from the police vehicle with their guns drawn, escalation of Love’s already agitated emotional state was virtually a foregone conclusion.  In the final moments of the confrontation, Love allegedly hurled the knife at the officers.  However, “By advancing on Ms. Love as she attempted to retreat, they put themselves in a situation of increased danger”.  Use of deadly force became a self-fulfilling prophecy which robbed Love of her live and shattered those of her young children.
In his testimony to the Police Commission, Redel Jones’ husband Marcus Vaughn spoke eloquently about how she was a caring mother and compassionate woman who always sought to help others.  While “crazy” armed white women elicit sympathy, psychoanalysis and humanizing back stories (ala the white Texas woman who recently shot and killed her two daughters after years of police service calls to their home with no arrests), the narrative of the psycho black woman with a weapon is always a cut and dried case of criminality.
After Hopson and O’Callaghan pumped twelve bullets into Eulia Love’s body they rolled her over and handcuffed her on the grass of her own front yard.

After Redel Jones was murdered she lay in a morgue for two weeks without her family being notified, Vaughn told the Police Commission. 

“Her blood is on you, my children’s tears are on you.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Straight Privilege Kills: Criminalizing Queer Youth of Color

GSA Washington Prep HS

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As the world continues to condemn and mourn the terrorist murders of queer folk of color in Orlando what messages are being sent to queer youth of color about their dignity, worth and agency?  The Orlando shooter has been characterized as self-hating and closeted, his rampage allegedly driven by internalized homophobia. While the massacre has rightfully become a mobilizing force for queer communities, it has also been exploited as a convenient symbol of pc solidarity for straight hypocrites on all sides of the religious spectrum. In the week since the tragedy, Christian fundamentalists have repeatedly marginalized the unrelenting violence that queer, trans and gender non-conforming people in the U.S. face.  Notorious homophobe-transphobes like Christian fascist Ted Cruz self-righteously slam “radical Islam” for demonizing LGBTQ folk, yet traffick in their own anti-gay venom.  Cruz (aka “at least we don’t throw our gays off of buildings like the radical Islamists”) and his ilk are the most visible purveyors of heterosexist violence.  Yet, after mainstream outrage about Orlando recedes, how many who’ve railed against the intersection of domestic terrorism and homophobic violence will actually step up on systemic discrimination against LGBTQ youth of color?

State violence against queer youth of color is reflected in the disproportionate rates of harsh school discipline and incarceration that they experience. According to Aisha Moodie-Mills and Jerome Hunt of  the Center for American Progress, of the “approximately 300,000 gay and transgender youth who are arrested and/or detained each year (more) than 60 percent are black or Latino.”  Further, “Many gay and transgender youth leave their homes of their own accord to escape the conflict and emotional or physical abuse that can ensue—26 percent report leaving their homes at some point—but more often, they are pushed out and into the juvenile justice system by their own families.” 
Because there are so few supportive resources for queer black youth, a significant number wind up homeless and on the streets.  In L.A. County, the homeless capital of the nation, queer youth comprise forty percent of the homeless youth population—a majority of which are African American.  These gaps in social welfare mean that homeless and foster care youth are more likely to become incarcerated.  In a weekly young women’s leadership class that I co-teach with my colleague Josh Parr of The Beat Within at Camp Scott and Scudder juvenile camp in Santa Clarita, virtually all of our students identify as lesbian, bi, trans and gender non-conforming.  Many speak of navigating the intolerance of ultra-religious families, dealing with physical and sexual abuse and harsh discipline as they cycled through multiple schools.   

Nationwide, queer youth of color are more likely to be targeted by school staff and faculty for gender non-conformity.  They are more likely to be suspended, expelled and pushed out of school because of biased notions about how they should behave relative to their perceived gender and sexual orientation. In over-policed schools in which “acceptable” feminine behavior constitutes being more ladylike, docile and compliant, black girls are targeted more harshly than Latina and white girls, while black boys are hampered by racist stereotypes about black hypermasculinity.  In her work on the criminalization of black girls in schools, educator Monique Morris argues that the burden of conforming to heteronormative behaviors has especially dire consequences for black girls.  According to Morris: “There is an important point of departure between the conditions affecting Black females and males with respect to the role of discipline and educational attainment in the ‘pipeline’ between schools and carceral institutions…the behaviors for which Black females routinely experience disciplinary response are related to their nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity, for example, by their dress, their profanity, or having tantrums in the classroom.”  Bucking white hetero-norms, black girls are often penalized for not being sufficiently “ladylike” or deferential to authority, a dynamic that is especially traumatic when they’re victimized by physical and sexual abuse. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, these insidious expectations and gender norms played a big role in the bullying-related suicides of boys of color like Carl Walker Hoover and Jahem Herrera.  Hoover’s 2010 suicide—as well as that of Herrera, a Latino boy who was also harassed at school because he was suspected of being gay— both went under the national radar.  Conversely, bullying-related suicides involving white gay youth are more widely publicized and seized on as national calls to action.  These cases were highlighted in magazines and on cable TV and network news.  Town halls were convened, experts were tapped, and bullying prevention became the mantra in public schools.  Yet the mainstream view that youth of color aren’t deserving victims prevents them from getting the mental health intervention and social reinforcement that they need.

The dearth of culturally responsive curricula and instruction that addresses the social history of queer communities also leads to prison pipelining. Despite the passage of California’s SB48, a bill requiring textbooks and high school history courses to include the contributions of gays and lesbians, school districts across this “liberal” blue state have made few investments in training and professional development for school staff and faculty. The bill was passed with much fanfare on the promise that it would provide greater visibility for LGBTQ communities of color and the struggle for social justice.  Yet, in most high school curricula, cultural inclusion of prominent gays and lesbians of color rarely goes beyond tokenized/sanitized portrayals of Langston Hughes or James Baldwin.

In the shadow of Orlando, pushing for transformative schools and culturally responsive education is still a matter of life and death, both for queer and straight youth of color.  In families, classrooms and schoolyards, homophobia, transphobia and the toxic, criminalizing straight privilege that they represent, continue to kill.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

#FreeJasmine Abdullah Richards: Political Prisoner, Freedom Fighter

By Sikivu Hutchinson
In 1900, human rights activist Ida B. Wells said, “Our nation’s national crime is lynching.”  Wells fought her entire life to stop the atrocity of lynching and bring white supremacist terrorism into public consciousness.  For this, she was maligned and marginalized, not only by the Jim Crow political establishment but by conservative African Americans leaders who initially weren’t convinced lynching was worthy of national mobilization and challenged Wells’ fierce leadership.
On June 1, Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizer Jasmine Abdullah Richards was convicted of attempted “felony lynching” for trying to prevent a Black woman from being detained by the police during a BLM peace march in Pasadena, California.  Jasmine is set to be sentenced for her “crime” on June 7th by Judge Elaine Lu.  Like the persecution of Wells, Jasmine’s conviction brutally exemplifies how state violence is used to preserve the imperial immunity of law enforcement.   
As Color of Change notes, this conviction is “a perverse misapplication of a 1933 California law intended to stop lynch mobs from forcibly removing detainees from police custody and engaging in public murders of Black people.” Under California penal code, “lynching” is defined as “the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer” and can carry a prison sentence of up to four years. Enacted in 1933, after the lynching of two white men in San Jose, the law was viewed as a “consolation” for the federal government’s persistent refusal to enact a national lynching law to protect black lives. 
Under California law, a person who is involved in a group altercation in which they are taken into, and then removed from police custody, can even be charged with “lynching” themselves. Over the past decade, the law has consistently been used to suppress radical-progressive protestors, immigration activists and black liberation organizers. In February 2015, activist Maile Hampton was arrested and charged with felony lynching after a confrontation with a police officer. The charges against Hampton were subsequently dropped.
Charging activists of color with felony lynching is a gross miscarriage of justice that effectively stifles peaceful public assembly and protest among the disenfranchised communities of color the law was designed to protect.  As Jasmine’s attorney Nana Gyamfi contends, the law is intended to “stop people from organizing and challenging the system.  There’s a political message that’s being sent by both the prosecutor and the police and the jury.”
That said, it’s not shocking that such outrageous ironies—to paraphrase Black Lives Matter L.A. activist and organizer Dr. Melina Abdullah, Jasmine’s mentor—are legally enshrined in a state and county whose top prosecutors—notably Kamala Harris and Jackie Lacey, the first African American women to hold the attorney general and L.A. district attorney positions respectively—refuse to go after killer cops.

People of conscience who oppose the racist criminalization and victimization of activists like Richards should press the California State Legislature to repeal this draconian application of California penal code and stand in solidarity with Jasmine in her court sentencing today in Pasadena.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Woke Feminist Men: Engaging Black Men and Boys on Sexual Violence Activism

WLP MDR session boys presenting 2015
By Sikivu Hutchinson

In American classrooms, where black children are never granted the luxury of being thinkers, brainy dreamers and nerdy eccentrics, invulnerability becomes their default mode and safe space; protective armor from the criminalizing gaze of school police, administrators and teachers.  Inundated with racist pop culture images of violent black masculinity and hyper-sexualized black femininity, black boys in particular often struggle to define manhood in ways that aren’t based on hardness and controlling black girls and women. Black male feminist allies like Kevin PowellByron Hurt and Mark Anthony Neal have long championed linking anti-violence work on sexual assault, intimate partner violence and misogynoir with civil rights and social justice activism.  Powell calls for a progressive men’s movement to deprogram men and boys.  Yet, making sexual violence relevant to young men of color is hampered by legacies of anti-feminist “gender warfare”, epitomized by scorched earth attacks against forerunning womanist/feminists like Alice Walker, Michele Wallace and bell hooks. As a result, it is a persistent challenge to connect young black men to this work in their schools, communities and everyday lives.

How, then, do black feminist educators work with boys of color to redefine masculinity and engage a new generation of “woke” feminist young men?

When students in my all-black Young Male Scholars’ (YMS) high school program are asked to identify mainstream media examples of men of color being vulnerable, or expressing emotion that isn’t violent, objectifying and/or “turnt up”; most are at a loss.  Throughout the course of the school year, YMS students collaborate with Women’s Leadership Project students on sexual violence prevention peer education—co-coordinated with youth activists Issachar Curbeon and Brandon Bell from health justice organizations Black Women for Wellness and Wisdom from the Field— that unpacks sexist hetero-norms and attitudes about gender roles, gender identity and male bonding around violence. Critiquing the way rape culture influences public policy and media is key as many black youth don’t see themselves meaningfully represented outside of violent dehumanizing imagery. In addition, black boys are programmed to view racist victimization as the primary issue confronting black communities, unaware of their own privilege and the ways black women and girls are subject to systematized sexual, domestic and intimate partner violence.
YMS WLP rise up
WLP and YMS youth educators, 2016
The influence of this erasure runs deep.  According to a 2005 Justice Department study, “black victims reported sexual assault at much lower rates than white victims, [and] while 44 percent of white victims report sexual assault, only 17 percent of black victims did”. Black women and girls continue to be the most vulnerable and most targeted populations when it comes to sexual violence and sex trafficking.  Moreover, public agency interventions that address the sex trafficking of minors are often not culturally responsive. Time and again white folk who believe they are on the “frontlines” of "rescuing" trafficking victims are ignorant of the context of black girls navigating poverty, misogynoir, sexual abuse and school push-out.  Sexual violence victimization is a key factor affecting the mental health and wellness of black girls K-12 schools.  And for youth of all genders and sexualities, prevention resources and education are virtually nonexistent.  Compounding matters, black girl survivors are often explicitly or implicitly told to just get over it and soldier on. In ultra-religious black communities they may be encouraged to seek therapy through patriarchal hetero-normative faith based institutions that view women’s sexuality as “the problem” and not American as apple pie rape culture.

The Los Angeles-based Media Done Responsibly (MDR) organization has been a leader in educating youth to push back against the prevalence of sexist media violence. The organization promotes media literacy and advocacy by training youth of color to become aware about and challenge toxic media images/lyrics that they consume. MDR founder Shaunelle Curry works in schools and universities across Los Angeles County using a culturally responsive arts curriculum. MDR engages youth in media advocacy which targets the multinational corporations that promote and profit from sexist, misogynist images of women of color.  In addition, the organization trains young men of color to be facilitators at its partner schools and to commit to
Sexual Assault forum: MDR, WLP, Black Women for Wellness
Sexual Assault forum: MDR, WLP, Black Women for Wellness, 2016
challenging rape culture and the normalization of sexual assault and sexual harassment. For example, working with young men, Curry and MDR do “a ‘Woman of Honor’ lesson plan in which students have to name a woman who’s been influential in their life that they love." According to Curry,  "We then hand out objectifying, misogynistic lyrics. We have them read them out loud and insert the name of the woman they honor and hear their name in this misogynistic language.  Some can’t do it.  This gives us a place to start the discussion.  Many of them just listen to the beat not the lyrics.  We also look
WLP MDR, 2015
WLP/MDR Media Advocacy, 2015
at why this is the predominant way black and Latino women are represented in media culture.  In this respect, they begin to deconstruct how women are just there for male pleasure and desire; while understanding how this impacts the cycle of violence, abuse and degradation of women.”

Recognizing young men and boys as violence victims/survivors is also a crucial piece.  Gender violence prevention educator Clifton Trotter, formerly of the anti-violence prevention organization Peace Over Violence, has worked directly with young black men on its Engaging Men project (in partnership with the L.A.-based Brotherhood Crusade).  He spoke recently with YMS and Women's Leadership Project students about the initiative, which leads young men through a ten-week violence prevention education program that focuses on hypermasculinity, violence in dating relationships, sexual violence and black fatherhood.  After the training, youth participants develop confessionals, reflections, personal narratives and poetry into a dynamic performance piece that can be used in classrooms and community outreach.
Engaging Men, Peace Over Violence 2016
Engaging Men, Peace Over Violence 2016
Trotter notes that male entitlement is one of the biggest challenges to developing young men as allies when it comes to addressing the normalization of violence against women. He says, “This is especially true for young men and boys who haven’t been exposed to this paradigm shift because there is already a defensive posture. It’s important to convey to our young men that it’s not an indictment and [that this issue] is bigger than you.”
Recently Kandee Lewis, executive director of the Positive Results Corporation, which focuses on teen violence prevention, organized a multi-generational male conference in Los Angeles that explored male trauma and healing. Lewis maintains that “Most young men are confused because of the images they are exposed to and the trauma from the
PRC conference on Redefining Manhood, Love and Violence Prevention
PRC conference on Redefining Manhood, Love and Violence Prevention, 2016

violence they may have seen or experienced at home.  In relationships too often young men feel they have to prove how much of a man they are, and that includes the way they speak to women and behave around women.” All of the male conference presenters spoke from their experiences with domestic and sexual violence.  Far too often, homophobic and transphobic norms dovetail with racist stereotypes to shame, marginalize and victim-blame black male sexual violence survivors into silence. Reflecting on the impact of the conference, two young men who attended said, “Young men need to know that it’s ok to be different, to subscribe to non-violence…to not succumb to peer pressure, and to not feel obligated to” be complicit in behavior that dehumanizes girls and women.  In an age of mass black resistance, this continues to be one of the most radical propositions.
Media Done Responsibly will host a fundraiser and awards ceremony honoring artist-advocates for diversity on June 2nd.  Click for more information

Sikivu Hutchinson is founder of the Women's Leadership Project, a contributing editor for TFW and author of the novel White Nights, Black Paradise. twitter @sikivuhutch

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Black Rage, Black Silence & Sexual Violence

By Sikivu Hutchinson

There’s a powerful sequence in black feminist lesbian filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ 2006 documentary No! on sexual assault in the African American community, that intercuts between Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and another male minister in the pulpit rallying a charged black audience against rape victim Desiree Washington.  In 1991, Washington was a Miss Black America contestant who accused boxer Mike Tyson of raping her in his hotel room.  Tyson served three years in prison for the rape.  In the film, both “men of god” dismiss Washington’s charges as frivolous and call on the Lord to protect Iron Mike.  “Ladies,” Farrakhan thunders, “You know full well the evil you do!”

The film’s image of black women as Jezebel temptresses exposed by righteous patriarchs seeking to redeem the name of a “good man” is a blistering and still timely example of the complicity of organized religion in black women’s sexual victimization.

As youth and adults across the nation observe Denim Day, the Peace Over Violence organization’s annual campaign for sexual assault awareness month, what often drops out of public discourse is how racist, sexist and hetero-normative gender norms demonize black women and girls as improper sexual assault victims.

When black female sexual assault victims make headlines it’s either because their abusers are “white” like Daniel Holtzclaw or wealthy and powerful like Bill Cosby.  The “ordinary” black female victim, and the abuser who lives in her house, sits next to her in the classroom, stalks her online, rents out her body or spews pious hypocritical shit about virtue from black church pulpits while preying on women after hours, are seldom seen, heard or acknowledged by our communities.   

Whereas each week brings a tide of white female victims/survivors accusing, and, sometimes, triumphing over their abusers, black women and girls remain invisible, both as victims, survivors and heroines fighting back against sexual assault.  According to noted psychologist Gail Wyatt, “African-American women are raped at a higher rate than white women, and are less likely to report it.”  Given the slave era legacy of institutionalized rape and sexual assault of black women, her assertion is not revelatory but still has the power to stop one cold.  Amidst the overriding narrative of black man-as- ├╝ber-victim-of-racial terrorism and state violence, why would the stories, the pain, the rage of ordinary black women sexual assault survivors be believed?

This question was amplified for me during a discussion about the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline at a community organizing meeting I attended recently.  Brainstorming about solutions to criminalizing school environments, there was little consideration among the group of how the experiences of girls of color with sexual abuse lead to their push-out and incarceration.    The discussion illustrated how gaps in intersectional organizing can be disenabling.  For, even as it has become more acceptable to talk about state violence against black women and girls in school communities, it is still difficult to broaden the narrative to consider how this relates to sexual violence committed by men of color.

In its 2015 report on the sexual abuse to prison pipeline, the organization Human Rights for Girls criticizes the arrest and incarceration of girls of color for non-violent offenses that largely stem from “childhood sexual abuse, (in which) a child that is being abused is trying to protect herself.” Black girls are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for non-violent offenses committed as a result of the trauma of persistent sexual abuse.  Prior to Los Angeles County’s introduction of a policy discouraging the arrest of minors for prostitution (which is in actuality sex trafficking), the majority of those arrested for child prostitution in the County were black girls. This move was partly inspired by the Human Rights for Girls’ “No Such Thing as a child prostitute” campaign, which seeks to decriminalize underage trafficking victims who, if they are girls of color—straight, queer and trans—are often prosecuted and jailed for prostitution rather than treated as sexual assault survivors.

When we talk about the sex trafficking and prostitution of black girls in my high school classes there is often harsh judgment.   “I don’t care if she’s a 'ho',” one girl says, “It’s her business what she does”.  Among this group of girls, some of whom are abuse survivors themselves, there is little sympathy for young victims of sexual assault.  Turning their own trauma inward into self-blame, some believe that black girls in particular “know what they’re doing”.  They are not fragile, indecisive and malleable like white girls, they say.  They are in control, in charge, savvy entrepreneurs in league with the much older men who rape and sell their bodies again and again.

The myth of the strong, indomitable black woman is still a barrier to black girls being able to see themselves as victims, be it of intimate partner violence or sexual assault.  And because the movement to eradicate sexual violence in communities of color—spearheaded by organizations like the Black Women’s Blueprint, Black Women for Wellness, the Black Women’s Health Imperative and Sister Song—often has so little visibility, black girls internalize the toxic narratives that white supremacy, black misogyny and organized religion have normalized.  It is a bitter lesson that Desiree Washington, and other black women survivors, struggling in communities that don’t recognize their trauma and rage as legitimate, know all too well.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Whose Bodies? Black Lives Matter and the Reproductive Justice Imperative

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From The Humanist

Abortion as Black genocideThe most dangerous place for a black child is the womb.  Over the past several years, these toxic canards, often cloaked in civil rights rhetoric, have been used to smear abortion and demonize black women’s bodies. In 2009, when conservative organizations began targeting communities of color with anti-abortion billboard propaganda, black and Latina women’s organizations fought back with their own billboards and media campaigns.  These unrelenting assaults on the reproductive rights and self-determination of black women are epitomized by the wave of anti-abortion and anti-contraception state laws that have rocked the nation. One of the most egregious recent examples is a Missouri bill dubbed the “All Lives Matter Act”, which would define a fertilized egg as a person with rights.  This blatant appropriation of the Black Lives Matter mantle is just another example of the right wing’s efforts to undermine black liberation struggle by distorting the language of human rights.

To bolster its claims that abortion is genocide, images of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger are stamped with Nazi swastikas. Historically revisionist assessments of Planned Parenthood conveniently omit the connection many early 20th  century progressive Black activists made between family planning, birth control, abortion, and black liberation.  Tellingly, prominent Nazis like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mary McLeod Bethune and Ida B. Wells supported Sanger’s controversial work with the Birth Control Federation of America.

In February, in an effort to address this tactic, Black Lives Matter activists publicly aligned with reproductive justice activists.  Historically, reproductive justice has always been about more than just unrestricted access to abortion and birth control.  Under slavery and Jim Crow, black women had little to no control over their reproductive destinies. In addition to having the least wealth of any group in the U.S., black women are also more likely to get abortions—precisely because of wealth and health care disparities. Thus, for black women, reproductive justice is a precondition for mental health, wellness, bodily autonomy and community enfranchisement.  Spearheaded nationally by the Atlanta-based African American women’s organization Sister Song, the concept of reproductive justice draws upon the notion of intersectionality, which situates women’s right to self-determination within a broader economic justice and human rights framework.  As Sister Song notes:

Reproductive Justice is a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families and communities because reproductive justice seamlessly integrates those individual and group human rights particularly important to marginalized communities. We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access. 

Discussing the relationship between Black Lives Matter activism and reproductive justice, BLM co-founder Alicia Garza maintained:

I think from our perspective, reproductive justice is very much situated within the Black Lives Matter movement. And the way we that talk about that is that essentially, it’s not just about the right for women to be able to determine when and how and where they want to start families, but it is also very much about our right to be able to raise families, to be able to raise children to become adults…. And that is being hindered by state violence in many different forms. One form being violence by law enforcement or other state forces, and the other form of crisis through poverty and lack of access to resources and lack of access to health communities that are safe and sustainable. So we certainly understand that BLM and reproductive justice go hand in hand. 

This is an important juncture in the BLM movement because it further broadens its scope, making an explicit connection between anti-abortion legislation, reactionary misogynist, anti-black “messaging” and economic justice activism. BLM’s embrace also comes at critical moment in the national mobilization over women’s rights. As the Supreme Court weighs HB2, a Texas law requiring that doctors who perform abortions at local health clinics have hospital admitting privileges, the threat to health care for poor and working class women has deepened. If the court upholds this dangerous law Texas would be left with as few as nine abortion clinics and other states would have the right to enforce similar laws.  The insidious implications of this shift should be a catalyst for further intersectional organizing—bringing together humanist, feminist and progressive voices against the forces of religious and political fascism.      

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

10 Fierce Atheists: Unapologetically Black Women Beyond Belief

By Sikivu Hutchinson

There’s a pivotal scene in freethinker Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun in which matriarch Lena Younger tries to put the fear of God in her rebellious, politically conscious daughter Beneatha.  Beneatha, an Afrocentric atheist, has been mouthing off about God’s non-existence and irrelevance, proclaiming “Mama…it’s all a matter of ideas and God is just one idea I don’t accept…I get so tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort.”  Lena responds by slapping Beneatha and making her repeat, “In my mother’s house there is still God.”

Lena’s violent rebuke of Beneatha is a caveat to all the uppity Black female atheists who’ve been rendered invisible—both by a white secular culture that only sees atheism through the Islamophobic lens of Richard Dawkins, and a black religious culture that uses heteronormative Christian respectability politics to silence and police women.  Decades after the literary slap heard around Black America, to be female, beyond belief and Black (to recast Hansberry’s iconic phrase) is still the ultimate betrayal of the race.  

Nonetheless, over the past several years, Black women have assumed leadership roles in the secular, humanist and atheist movements. But they continue to be eclipsed by white male gatekeepers whose narrow, often reactionary, view of secular practice and ideology has come to define organized atheism.   The challenge is compounded by the prevalence of Jesus-idolatry in mainstream African American culture (if you’re a rapper/singer/actor/politician who doesn’t publicly thank god/Father god/Jesus/Him for your success you practically get your race credentials revoked) as well as the relative dearth of scholarship on Black women’s secular practice.  How, then, do black women go beyond belief, while working within their communities as activists, educators and writers? And how do they connect their humanistic views and atheism to blackness, queerness, feminism, social justice and pushing back on white supremacy?  For Women’s History month here are ten fierce, unapologetically Black women atheists who are doing just that:

Deanna Adams is the author of the blog "Musings on a Limb," where she expresses her views as an African-American, atheist, professional mom on subjects related to the intersectionality of racism and skepticism.
“I believe the Black church has done great harm to Black women, especially with its misogynistic gender roles that demean us intellectually while using us as workhorses to further the aims of the church/pastor. My goal is to encourage other Black women to break the bondage of the psychological abuse known as religion so we can actively take on the dismantling of the white supremacist patriarchy, which remains because of our learned docility.”

Diane Burkholder is a Black mixed-race queer atheist shit starter, currently living in Kansas City, MO. She is a founder of One Struggle KC, co-moderator of Kansas City Freethinkers of Color and co-moderator of Kansas City Mixed Roots. 

“I describe myself as an ‘atheist’ to normalize the term among Black and Brown people as many are taught that atheists are white men who ‘worship the devil’.  As a Black feminist who lives in the Bible belt, I use my voice to create space for other non-religious people who are often shut out of social justice conversations because they are not ‘in the church’. It's also critical that we dig deeper and unpack our internalized oppression. We cannot replace white supremacy with Black heterosexism- they are all tools of power and control. ALL Black people must be free, not just ‘conscious’ heterosexual Black men. Intersectionality or bust.”

Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield is an agnostic atheist, secular activist, secular leader, fabulously 40-something out lesbian. She heads the Black Non-Believers of Detroit group.
“I am a black woman, lesbian and atheist.  I fight for the underdog because no one fought for me.  My being an atheist is an integral part of my being and it'll be a cold day in hell before I sweep myself under the rug in order to assuage the masses.” 

Debbie Goddard is a queer, atheist, secular organizer, skeptical activist.  She is vice president of outreach and director of African Americans for Humanism at the Center for Inquiry.

“I see too many good people use religion to defend and shield their prejudice, bigotry, and inaction.  As a queer black atheist in America, I know that if things are going to change, then we need to question and challenge those religious attitudes.  And we need to take action now, today, in this world, instead of waiting for justice in some imagined afterlife.”

Laurie James, is an atheist “maverick” and accounting administrator

“I spent 30 years in the faith...after struggling with continuous doubt, I finally abandoned the faith. I thought god must be horribly incompetent, sadistical, or just doesn't exist. I concluded he doesn't exist.  For me, atheism means freedom; freedom to make my own decision, without the looming of a mythological god that can never be proven.”

Jimmie Luthuli is a public policy professional and a fighter for the rights of disenfranchised communities. She serves on the board of the Wanda Alston Foundation for LGBTQ homeless youth and is a member of Secular Sistahs of D.C.

“I identify as an atheist because supernatural creatures are not real.  More than that, the stories that surround their existence are all too often preposterous, frightening and oppressive.  Christianity was forced upon African captives who were kidnapped and enslaved in the Americas.”

Charone Nix has been a social justice /human rights activist for over 25 years. She is the co-host of the Lambda Radio Report on WRFG, Atlanta.
“As a disabled, queer, poor, feminist, atheist, it became clear to me that believing in a god was believing in invisible forces that work against my own interest.”

Liz Ross is a member of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the founder of the Coalition of Vegan Activists of Color.

“I came to identify as an atheist after exploring the question of why there is so much senseless suffering – including animal suffering – and challenging white supremacy, patriarchy and anti-LGBT sentiment embedded in religious doctrine and our culture.  The experience also played a pivotal role in liberating my mind from negative reflections of myself.  Secular-humanist thinking helped me get a better sense of the interconnecting systems that create inequities in the world and reinforced in me the need to get involved in creating social change.”  

Mandisa Thomas is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc.

“I am a Black atheist, and proud of it. Our existence is just as important to the Black community as any other, and there must be a reminder of the diversity that was always present. We can no longer treat atheism like the elephant in the room, even if we don't agree, there should be an understanding that we are here - and that we aren't going anywhere.”  

Ayana Williford is a 35 year-old social worker committed to social justice and empowering the black community.  She is a member of the Secular Sistahs.

“I identify as a Black female atheist by denouncing all forms of religious doctrine and advocating for other Black women to live freely.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Her new novel White Nights, Black Paradise focuses on Black women, Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre.