The violent policing of Black motherhood: How and why cops target mothers of color

"She had told the officers she was pregnant when they first took out the Taser"

Published August 1, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie (Beacon Press)
Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie (Beacon Press)

Excerpted from "Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color" by Andrea J. Ritchie (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

Malaika Brooks, 33 years old and seven months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to school in Seattle one November morning in 2004 when she was pulled over for speeding. She gave the officers her driver’s license. They gave her a ticket. She refused to sign it, believing that doing so would amount to admitting guilt. The officers threatened to arrest her in front of her son and ordered her out of her car. When she refused, they tasered her pregnant body three times within a minute, hitting her in the thigh, arm, and neck, causing permanent burn marks. She fell out of the car. Officers then dragged her face-down on the street, handcuffed her, and charged her with refusing to sign the ticket and resisting arrest. She had told the officers she was pregnant when they first took out the Taser. Their only response was to avoid shocking her directly in the stomach.

I first learned about Malaika in 2006 while working with Tonya McClary of the American Friends Service Committee on "In the Shadows of the War on Terror: Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse in the United States," a “shadow” report to the UN Committee Against Torture on the U.S. government’s failure to comply with the UN Convention Against Torture. As we were building the case that police use of Tasers — electroshock devices that deliver 50,000 volts of electricity, causing what many describe as excruciating pain along with temporary immobilization — violated international law, I came across the story of Malaika’s traffic stop, which had turned into torture. Although I had already read about many horrific instances of Taser use, Malaika’s story and the officers’ callous infliction of pain over a minor infraction, with complete indifference to the fact that she was pregnant, immediately reminded me of historic accounts of brutal “plantation justice” administered to pregnant enslaved women.

Today, I can’t help but think of the parallels between Malaika’s and Sandra Bland’s traffic stops. Like Sandra, when Malaika asked legitimate questions about whether she was required to do what the officer told her to, she was immediately deemed “defiant” and was threatened with electric shock to secure immediate compliance. In Sandra’s case, Officer Encinia threatened to “light her up” with a Taser if she didn’t get out of the car; in Malaika’s case, despite her visible pregnancy, the officers followed through on the threat. In both cases the officers later tried to argue that both Black women — both seated in their cars, unarmed — posed a threat to their safety. In both cases, Black women were punished for failure to engage in the level of obedience and obeisance expected of them, despite the minor nature of the offenses they were stopped for. In both cases, it is hard to imagine officers treating a white woman in the same way under the same circumstances.

At her trial, Malaika described the incident as “probably the worst thing that ever happened to me.” She testified, “As police officers, they could have hurt me seriously. They could have hurt my unborn fetus. . . . All because of a traffic ticket. Is this what it’s come down to?” Thankfully, her baby girl was born healthy several months later. Ultimately, Malaika was convicted of refusing to sign the ticket, a misdemeanor, but charges of resisting arrest were dismissed. She sued the officers who shocked her, and in the end, the case settled in her favor. Malaika’s story is a powerful illustration of the perils of Tasers. They are promoted as a life-saving alternative to deadly force, but in reality they are a “go-to” weapon employed by officers in wildly inappropriate circumstances — like breaking up children fighting in a school hallway and on an elderly woman who refused to let an officer in her home — all too often with deadly results. Their use against pregnant women, children, elderly people, and people in mental health crises or under the influence of alcohol or drugs has prompted activists to call for complete bans, strict regulation limiting their use to situations in which the only alternative is lethal force, or, at minimum, limitations of their use against populations most likely to suffer harm, including pregnant women.

At its core, Malaika’s story also shows how police enact and enforce deep devaluation of Black motherhood. As Malaika so clearly articulated, a signature on a traffic ticket was deemed more important than her health and safety, and more important than the life and well-being of the future Black child she was carrying. A matrix of narratives rooted in slavery inform this reality: the stereotype of Black women as promiscuous, which defined them as bad mothers; the devaluation of Black motherhood used to justify ripping Black children from their mothers’ arms to sell them away for profit; and the devaluation of Black children once they no longer represented property and members of an unpaid workforce. As law professor Dorothy Roberts, who has written extensively on the criminalization of Black mothers, emphasizes, “From the moment they set foot in this country as slaves, Black women have fallen outside the American ideal of womanhood,” including idealized motherhood. Additionally, pregnancy and motherhood served as a tool of punishment for Black women. Unlike white pregnant women, perceived to exemplify the highest standard of womanhood, Black pregnant women were entitled to no protections except those required to protect slave owners’ “property” in the form of future Black children. After the abolition of slavery, the value of Black women’s future children vanished, as exemplified by the 1908 lynching of Mary Turner when she was eight months pregnant, during which the lynch mob cut her belly open and dashed the skull of the unborn child on the ground. Applying fifty thousand volts of electricity to the body of a pregnant woman who won’t sign a paper charging her with a traffic infraction only becomes “understandable” within a framework informed by narratives like these.

In the 1980s the image of the “welfare queen” and “welfare mother” was added to the perceptions of Black women rooted in slavery, joining in a toxic combination in which Black motherhood and Black children represent a deviant and fraudulent burden on the state that must be punished through heightened surveillance, sterilization, regulation, and punishment by public officials. The Black “welfare mother” is posited to give birth solely to increase the size of her check, only to neglect and abuse her children while spending money on extravagances for herself, all the while engaging in criminalized acts such as welfare fraud. Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Arab, and Middle Eastern women’s pregnancy and motherhood are similarly devalued under a variety of logics. Immigrant women, and particularly Latinxs, are posited to give birth for the sole purpose of creating “anchor babies” to establish immigration status,  rendering their reproduction a threat. Simultaneously, the separation of immigrant women from their children through deportation and exclusion is justified and enacted by denying their value as mothers. Additionally, Asian women are demonized as uncaring mothers who would kill or abandon their own children under “barbaric” sex selection practices, while Arab and Middle Eastern women are framed as reproducing an army of suicide bombers and terrorists.  In the context of the war on drugs, immigration enforcement, and the “war on terror,” these images have created an open season on mothers of color. It is within these larger contexts that Malaika’s traffic stop, and the incidents that follow, unfolded.

Police brutality against pregnant women

Malaika’s experience was far from unusual. Instead, it is representative of a gender-specific form of race-based police brutality. As author Victoria Law points out, “Both the criminalization of pregnancy and the arrests of pregnant women constitute their own forms of police violence, but . . . are often overlooked by many of the larger organizing movements against police violence that have been sweeping the country since the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Yet they are no less torturous and brutal than the violence being protested on the streets nationwide.”

Amnesty International’s 2008 report on Taser use in the United States catalogued several instances of Taser use on pregnant women, and pointed to the paucity of data on the risks.  A number of cases have come to light more recently demonstrating the persistence of the problem. In June 2012, Tiffany Rent, a Black woman who was eight months pregnant, had just been issued a citation outside a pharmacy on Chicago’s South Side for parking in a spot designated for people with disabilities. She tore up the citation and cursed at the officers before getting back in her car. Having already issued the citation, the officers could have just walked away. If she failed to appear in court or answer the citation, she would bear the consequences. Instead, the officers chose to write her another ticket, this time for littering. When she began to drive away, they claimed that she was attempting to escape. They proceeded to shock Tiffany with a Taser, drag her out of her car, force her to the ground, and handcuff her in front of her two young children. Her sister later said, “How could you be so cruel to a human being? A pregnant human being?” Chicago Police Superintendent Gerry McCarthy was unapologetic, defending the officers’ use of force with an offhand “You can’t always tell if someone is pregnant.”  Rent gave birth to a baby boy the following month, and received a $55,000 settlement from the city the following year. “I don’t think that it should have went this far,” she said. “It just makes me afraid of the Chicago Police Department because there’s other women that may have went through this or that’s going through this.”

Some departments have developed policies regulating incidents such as these — although most have loopholes allowing use of Tasers against pregnant women under some circumstances. However, my research revealed that a significant number — 38 percent of 36 of the fifty largest police departments — have no policy whatsoever specifically governing use of force, including Tasers, against pregnant women.

Yet police violence against pregnant women extends beyond the use of Tasers — and has been characterized as an “epidemic.”  One blog cataloguing a series of brutal incidents of physical force against pregnant women concluded that if “pregnant Black women can be routinely attacked—something we can’t even imagine happening to White women — and their growing babies treated as fair game, there is no sanctuary to be found.”

There was certainly no sanctuary to be found for Nicola Robinson. Her crime? Laughing at a Chicago police officer who had failed to catch a person he was chasing on a spring day in 2015. Her punishment? The officer punched her hard in the right side of her stomach as she stood in front of her own home, despite the fact that, at eight months, she was very visibly pregnant. The role of her race and gender in the officer’s actions were plain as day when he shouted, “You black bitch, you better be glad I didn’t hit you hard enough to make you lose your fucking baby.”  Immediately following the incident Nicola went into premature labor and was hospitalized. She was later released and gave birth to a healthy child. While her case may seem like an outlier, 15 years earlier another Chicago cop hit another pregnant Black woman while his partner told her “we don’t like Black pregnant women.”

Each of these cases began as an interaction in the context of enforcement of a minor offense, or no offense whatsoever. All the women were either obviously pregnant, or told the officers they were. Yet, consistent with controlling narratives tolerating nothing but subservience from Black women and the devaluing of Black mothers and their fetuses, officers took swift and brutal action, causing harm to women who posed no threat to them.

Physical violence by police has produced miscarriages. In Harvey, Illinois, in 2011, Kwamesha Sharp lost her pregnancy when a police officer, Richard M. Jones, slammed her to the ground and pressed his knee into her abdomen for an extended period of time, saying he didn’t care that she was pregnant.  She later said, “It felt like I lost myself. Never knew what my child would have been.” Four years later, the same officer extorted sex from another pregnant woman after a traffic stop. The officer was not held accountable for either incident, although the City of Harvey settled Kwamesha’s civil claim for $500,000.

Narratives devaluing Latinx mothers, framing them as drug users and sex workers, and their fetuses as immigration threats, produce similar outcomes. Destiny Rios was walking home one evening in July 2012 to her grandmother’s in San Antonio, Texas, when an officer stopped her, telling her he had been instructed to stop anyone in the neighborhood. Rios provided her ID and allowed the officer to search her purse. Although the officer told her she was free to leave when no prior criminal history or illicit drugs were found, when she walked away the officer grabbed her by the back of the neck, threw her to the ground, placed his knee and then his foot in her back, handcuffed her, and arrested her, allegedly for an outstanding warrant for prostitution. Along with three other officers, he repeatedly struck the 126-pound woman in the head, face, and body as she lay handcuffed and pinned to the asphalt screaming that she was pregnant. The officers initially denied her pleas for medical help, taking her to the jail instead as she complained of cramping, pain, bleeding, and leakage of amniotic fluid. She was later taken to the hospital, where she suffered a miscarriage. A suit was brought against the San Antonio Police Department. The police chief vehemently defended the use of force, insinuating, in response to the suit, that it was not the beating but Rios’s drug use the previous day that had caused the miscarriage. His response is not uncommon: miscarriages resulting from police brutality are often treated with indifference at best, and at worst are framed as deserved, appropriate, or the mother’s own fault.

Immigration enforcement has also led to loss of pregnancy. In one 2006 case, a Chinese woman miscarried her twins after she appeared for a routine interview with immigration officials that subsequently turned into a violent deportation attempt. According to the woman and her family, “the authorities decided to deport her when they learned she was pregnant, to prevent her from giving birth to another United States citizen.”  In another case, a woman in Nogales, Arizona, miscarried in 1997 after an immigration raid of her house during which agents terrorized her and her children.

Even when law enforcement officials do not use direct force against pregnant women, their actions, inaction, or denial of necessary medical attention often cause harm to pregnant women and their children. Officers of the Kansas City police stopped Sofi a Salva, a Sudanese immigrant, for a traffic infraction in 2007. Sofi a repeatedly told officers that she was trying to get to the hospital because she was three months pregnant, bleeding, and concerned that she might be miscarrying. The officers repeatedly ignored her requests for help, characterizing them as a “line of excuses.” They later told her she could take care of her medical condition “when we get done with you,” as they searched her car, purse, and groceries. They scolded her, saying that, while she may be bleeding, she had “a lot more problems” as a result of unpaid traffic tickets and outstanding city warrants. Sofi a miscarried after being held overnight in jail. The officers’ clear disregard for Sofia’s pregnancy, health, and well-being reflects the simultaneous devaluation of Black and immigrant motherhood.

In each of these cases, no officers were held accountable — while, as discussed in greater detail below, Black women and women of color are routinely held accountable for any adverse outcomes to their pregnancy, regardless of fault or intent.

The war on drugs and the criminalization of Black mothers and mothers of color

Just hours after giving birth in a public hospital serving a predominantly low-income Black community in Charleston, South Carolina, a Black mother is hauled away by police in handcuffs and shackles attached to a belt around her belly, still bleeding. She is charged with delivering drugs to a minor — the baby she just delivered — on the grounds that traces of drugs were found in the blood of the umbilical cord. She is held in the county jail without follow-up care, separated from her newborn until she goes to trial, and is convicted of child abuse for delivering drugs to a minor.

This was a scene that played out multiple times in 1989 at the now infamous Charleston public hospital whose practice of testing of umbilical cord blood for drugs without maternal consent well into the 1990s was ultimately successfully challenged in the US Supreme Court. Nearly all pregnant women and new mothers arrested under circumstances like these were Black. The exception was a white woman listed on medical documents as living with a “Negro” boyfriend.

Dorothy Roberts points out that these scenes strongly evoke images of the brutality and degradation Black mothers were subjected to under slavery, and they are informed by the slavery-era mythology conjured to justify this treatment: Black women as animalistic, promiscuous, uncaring, indulgent, incompetent, and infanticidal mothers.  Roberts further theorizes that, in this context: “Black reproduction . . . is treated as a form of degeneracy. . . . They damage their babies in the womb through their bad habits during pregnancy. Then they impart a deviant lifestyle to their children through their example.” Within this framework, the logics underlying singling out Black women for drug testing during pregnancy and delivery become clearer.

Delivery-room arrests represent a gender-specific front of the war on drugs that could easily be characterized as “giving birth while Black” — presumed to be a bad mother, giving birth in a public hospital, subject to the presumptions that you are entitled to no privacy the medical establishment or government is bound to respect, and being a familiar target for arresting officers. They were further fueled by now soundly debunked junk science raising monstrous specters of Black “crack mothers” and “crack babies” destined to become “superpredators.” Much has been written about the impacts of prosecutions of pregnant Black women and new mothers, the contortions of child abuse and drug laws used to charge and convict them, and courts’ and the public’s distorted perceptions of Black mothers and their right to parent. However, the role played by police in the arrests of pregnant and new mothers accused of drug use has largely escaped scrutiny by broader police accountability movements.

Far from simply executing the wishes of misguided health-care officials or ambitious prosecutors, law enforcement played a leadership role in the South Carolina program. The police department was involved in developing procedures to preserve chain of custody for specimens taken without mothers’ consent and protocols for arresting women who tested positive, and in the day-to-day administration of the policy.  Police officers executed orders to take women from recovery rooms in shackles and toss them into cells. In other cases, a police team, using information obtained from health-care providers, “tracked down expectant mothers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.”  In one case, an officer placed a woman in a choke hold to detain her. Another woman, arrested before giving birth, was transported to and from the hospital in handcuffs and shackles for prenatal appointments, and was forced to give birth chained to a hospital bed.

Ultimately, the US Supreme Court declared the South Carolina program unconstitutional precisely because of the inextricable involvement of law enforcement. Such police–service provider collaborations disproportionately affect low-income Black women and women of color, who have no choice but to use public health facilities and are therefore denied the privacy afforded those who can afford private health care. Simply put, increased scrutiny in public health-care settings increases the likelihood that low-income mothers of color will be criminalized. The result? Despite similar rates of drug use among pregnant Black and white women, Black women are more likely to be reported to police than white women. In Florida, ten times as likely.

Anannya Bhattacharjee argues that treatment of pregnant women and mothers of color reveals an important fissure in the facade of police protection, making it a site of obvious dissonance in the ways the state relates to Black women and their children. Police do not hesitate to punish Black women for alleged harm to their fetus or child, and simultaneously routinely subject pregnant women to violence that places mother and child at risk.  Historian Sarah Haley describes the same phenomenon in the Jim Crow South:

Black life (the life of the child) becomes legible when it is deployed by white authorities in order to enact violence (imprisonment), but is illegible when deployed by black subjects to defend against violence (motherhood as a ground for pardon). Georgia’s legal system disproportionately imprisoned black women thereby destroying their ability to care for their children, but also arrested them when they allegedly caused the deaths of their children.

In other words, the safety of Black children is only of concern to the state when it serves larger interests of criminalization and control over Black women, much as Black women’s childbearing was only valued because it increased the pool of enslaved labor.  In the end, as in slavery, Black motherhood and children are simply deployed as another tool of punishment and control, wielded with impunity, in whichever way will bolster further criminalization.

As Roberts puts it, “When a nation has always closed its eyes to the circumstances of pregnant Black women, its current interest in the health of unborn Black children must be viewed with distrust.” She concludes that there is in fact no contradiction in police practices toward Black women because Black women are not being punished for harming their fetuses, they are being punished for having babies.  The state criminalizes Black women to punish them for reproducing in the first place, by placing them and their babies at risk via physical attacks, denial of medical attention, or post-delivery arrests and harassment. The state, Roberts emphasizes, is saying “not so much ‘I care about your baby’ as ‘You don’t deserve to be a mother’” if you are a Black woman, and especially if you use drugs.


By Andrea Ritchie

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