A Tough Choice for Feminist Black Lives Matter Activists

Protesting a police killing and marching in support of a man convicted of rape can pose a real dilemma when one in five women nationwide has suffered a sexual assault.
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Photo by PeopleImages / iStock.

The circumstance was all too familiar: public outrage concentrated on yet another Black victim killed by a bullet from a police officer’s gun. 

The case blurred the lines between womanhood and Blackness.

“Whose life matters? Che’s life matters!” Hundreds of voices roared in unison along Seattle’s Fifth Avenue that February day.

Marchers thundered through downtown Seattle, protesting the killing, just days before, of 47-year-old Che Taylor. Two Seattle police officers had fatally shot Taylor after claiming he stood beside a car and reached for what they thought was a holstered gun

However, some voices were absent from the chorus decrying Taylor’s killing. Some used their voices to denounce Taylor instead.  

The reason: Taylor had been convicted of rape in 1992.

For some female organizers, that alone was enough to not only boycott the Taylor march but also to mount their own mini-protest against him, holding signs denouncing rapists outside a separate community meeting focused on his death.

Na’Quel Walker, a Seattle-based organizer, summarized in a public Facebook post what many who withheld their support for Taylor were thinking. She didn’t justify his death, nor did she justify his criminal history, but she did defend his family. “His family DOES deserve justice,” the post read.

F--- the cop that murdered him.
F--- the police in general.
AND, ALSO, f--- rapists.”

Walker’s words highlighted dueling strands of thought within Seattle’s Black Lives Matter movement between those who believe Black solidarity should trump someone’s past sexual transgressions and those who believe those transgressions can never be overshadowed for the sake of that solidarity.

The divide has played out nationally, as some women in the movement have been faced with the difficult task of choosing either Blackness or womanhood when they're asked to support justice for a Black male killed by police who was once accused or convicted of sexual assault.

Many are left to ask, what’s a woman to do?

What’s an organizer to do? Womanhood or Blackness?

Taylor is not the first Black male killed by police officers to lose support due to a case of violence against women. Other Black males killed under similar circumstances have been accused or convicted of sexual assault. When people became aware of their records, the cases of these men began to shed a light on a divide between some men and women organizers within the movement.

In 2007, before the birth of Black Lives Matter, a Black officer in Savannah, Georgia, killed a Black man with a lengthy criminal history that included a rape conviction. Officer Antonio Taharka shot 41-year-old Anthony Smashum as he climbed over a fence during a chase, what some call suspicious circumstances. Smashum’s family contends Taharka drew his gun on Smashum prior to the chase that resulted in the shooting.

The response to Smashum’s death was unique among fatal police shootings of Black men: More outrage arose over the grand jury’s indictment of the officer on murder than over Smashum’s killing.

Taharka, whom a prosecutor described as “beloved” in the community, pled guilty in 2009 to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter. He ultimately served three months in jail and nine under house arrest. 

There was significantly more public outcry in the November 2015 death of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old Minneapolis man who Black Lives Matter supporters claim was shot in the head by police while handcuffed on the ground. Officers said they were responding to a call of a domestic disturbance between Clark and a woman believed to be his girlfriend.

For some people, the case blurred the lines between womanhood and Blackness.

"At all times we are both Black and women."

Writing about Clark’s case on Facebook soon after domestic violence allegations were made public by the Minneapolis Police Department, Minneapolis-based activist and scholar Shannon Gibney stated, “So, what about the woman Jamar Clark was in a domestic dispute with when the cops were called? Who is she? Is she okay? Are the cops still not letting anyone talk to her? And why aren’t any of US, who are behind the BLM movement and want #Justice4Jamar, talking about her and the crisis of domestic violence in our communities in the very same breath we demand a stop to unchecked police violence against poor Black and Brown folks?”

Gibney, an English professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, says that when Clark’s story first broke, a wide-ranging conversation emerged in Minnesota’s Black community around the intersection of womanhood and Blackness. She calls it “very layered and complex.”

“It is an impossible bind for [Black women]. At all times we are both Black and women. We have to be cognizant of our multiple identities,” says Gibney.

Historically, she says, sexual violence has been hidden within social movements or alleged to discredit them. Movement leaders may be the subject of false accusations to undercut their influence, or accusations against leaders may be kept quiet so as not to jeopardize their status.

With an estimated one in five women nationwide having suffered a sexual assault, according to a 2011 government survey, the prospect of marching in support of a man convicted of rape can pose a real dilemma.

Resolving it, some say, shouldn’t mean ignoring the man’s background and conforming to the group’s wishes.

The pressure to organize

Chicago organizers have seen firsthand what happens when tension exists within a movement. During a protest for Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Black male whom police fatally shot more than 16 times, an altercation broke out between Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), an activist organization of millennials fighting for equity in Black communities.

One of the female Black Lives Matter members accused the then co-chair of BYP100 of sexually assaulting her after he came up to her apartment for coffee.

“Black and Brown women are abused at the hands of men of color, and we’re told to stay silent about our experiences in order to ‘help the movement,’” wrote activist Sarah Doud, recounting the altercation on her blog Tired Sista.

BYP100, an organization rooted in a Black, Queer, feminist framework, swiftly replaced its co-chair and engaged in a restorative justice practice—a moderated mediation—between the two parties. The incident underscored that many women in the movement are no longer willing to tolerate male dominance within it for the sake of a fragile unity.

Marching in support of a man convicted of rape can pose a real dilemma.

Despite attempts to speak with several organizers in or associated with Black Lives Matter, none would comment on the record about problems with male centrality within the movement. Many saw it as airing their dirty laundry for the world to see. Others believed it would foment infighting within a movement that requires cohesion in order to thrive.

Organizers need to be more flexible, Gibney says, and keep in mind everyone’s experiences: women who are not always comfortable in male-dominated spaces, for instance, as well as those who have psychological trauma from past sexual assaults. This includes being respectful of a woman’s decision to stay home rather than march for someone who has criminal convictions.

Georgetown University professor Marcia Chatelain sees bravery in such a choice.

“The person who has the moral courage to say, ‘I’m not going to [protest] until we deal with these other types of discrimination,’ in the face of pressure to comply or reform, no matter how principled, helps the movement grow,” Chatelain says.

The history professor and outspoken Black Lives Matter supporter says that the movement should not use the existence of racism to downplay the impact of sexual violence.

“The women initiating this conversation present an opportunity for the movement,” says Chatelain.

“My opinion is that everything else should succumb to being an African American when it’s time to galvanize around the killing of one of us by police officers,” says Ardell Shaw, who has led some of the Seattle demonstrations for Taylor.

Shaw says he was a friend of Taylor and that no matter the man’s past, he deserved justice.

Shaw does not discount the need to address the concerns of female organizers who are victims of gender-based violence, but he sees their refusal to support someone like Taylor as a larger issue.

Shaw pointed to an interview given in November by sexual assault survivor Sarah Super. Super’s boyfriend held her down and raped her at knifepoint. He then led officers on a high-speed chase. Yet they were able to bring him in without killing him—unlike either Clark or Taylor. The difference: Super’s boyfriend was White.

“Our history is one of unjust killings by police. That history includes all of us: male, female, Transgender, etc.,” Shaw says. “So, to me, it shouldn’t matter if someone is found with 10 dead bodies in his car or what his criminal background was.”

That history, like the issue at hand, is fairly complicated.

The dominance of Black male narratives

We commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr., with a national holiday. But what do most people know of Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights freedom fighter?

History hails the words of Malcolm X, but what of the radical oratory of Ella Baker?

And amid all that has been written about Eldridge Cleaver’s role in the Black Panther Party, where is the consideration for his rape victims?

Women’s issues and roles have been treated as subordinate to those of men in the movement, and the present day appears to be no exception.

The names of Black males killed by police under suspicious circumstances—Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice—have prompted an avalanche of Black Lives Matter members across the country to take to the streets and march. They are names that even someone with only a slight awareness of the Black Lives Matter hashtag will find familiar.

Compare that with the names of Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Shelly Frey, and Alesia Thomas. They, too, were killed by police, but they are far less well-known than Garner, Martin, and Rice. Though Black Lives Matter was founded as a gender-inclusive movement, it has been often criticized for focusing on the deaths of Black males while giving relatively little attention to the cases of Black women.

Women’s issues and roles have been treated as subordinate to those of men.

The case of Sandra Bland, a Black 28-year-old Texas woman who died while in police custody, is the notable exception. Her death sparked the #SayHerName campaign, highlighting police brutality and violence against Black women.

Black Lives Matter chapters operate as separate entities, which may explain some inconsistencies in the movement’s attention to Black women’s deaths at the hands of police.

Long before the Black Lives Matter movement, women had been pushed to the sidelines—if not victimized—in other social justice campaigns, says Danielle McGuire, a professor of history at Wayne State University and author of At the Dark End of the Street about Black women’s roles during the civil rights era.

The civil rights movement in many ways evolved from women’s need to campaign against sexual violence done to them, as McGuire details in her book.

“The civil rights movement was rooted in struggle to defend Black womanhood from racial and sexual violence. Without a history of women in the movement, it is impossible to understand why women would put their lives on the line to protest,” McGuire said in a 2015 lecture.

And yet, much like today, women’s issues and roles were treated as subordinate to those of men in the movement.

Even when the movement showcases women, their narrative is reduced to a male-friendly version. Such was the case of Rosa Parks. While Parks was painted as a “respectable” and “tired” woman who unknowingly spurred a mass movement, McGuire says, the truth was more nuanced. Parks was deliberate in her actions and was only following in the footsteps of 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, whom civil rights leaders at the time wouldn’t rally behind because she was pregnant by a married man.

Black organizers should take note of this history, says Teiahsha Bankhead, a psychotherapist who teaches social work at California State University, Sacramento. Bankhead, who calls herself a child of 1960s activism, says complaints of sexism during the civil rights era may also plague the current Black Lives Matter movement decades from now, unless there is a priority to address those complaints. 

The history of patriarchy continues to cast Black males “as an endangered species” when it comes to crafting public policy, she says.

“Disparities in incarceration rates, health outcomes, and access to certain opportunities are all as nearly bad for Black women as they are for Black men,” says Bankhead. “But we reach for the starkest examples, which is why people move toward Black men.”

In 2014, President Barack Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, a $200-million national initiative to address gaps in education, employment, and financial resources for Black boys. But, as scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out in a commentary for The New York Times, what about Black girls? Those same gaps persist for them, making the President’s initiative just the latest example of patriarchy at work in the public sphere.

Women like Crenshaw and Bankhead ask, where is My Sister’s Keeper? Where is the concern for the welfare of Black women?

What now? Where peace begins

Two diametrically opposed parties sit in chairs within a few feet of each other, between them only an impartial mediator.

Each party takes turns delving deep inside themselves to pour forth their raw emotions, which are, in turn, repeated by the mediator for clarification until both parties arrive at an understanding of what each is actually saying.

This is what happens during the practice of restorative justice. An aggrieved party attempts to resolve an issue with another who they feel has either mistreated, neglected, or injured them in some way.

For many inside and outside the Black Lives Matter movement, restorative justice may serve as the silver bullet to fix problems female organizers face when their concerns go unheard.

In Seattle, Che Taylor’s family has been able to galvanize many in the Black community who once withheld their support due to his background after hosting a weekly “peace circle.” The circle, which mimics restorative justice sessions, devoted time to dealing directly with the issues some had around rape and helped form a coalition to change Washington state law to make it easier for police officers who kill in the line of duty, such as the two who fatally shot Taylor, to face criminal prosecution. The Seattle Times reported that Washington has the most restrictive statute governing police use of deadly force of any state. 

Restorative justice may serve as the silver bullet.

Other cases where restorative justice has been employed have proved encouraging.

“There is a time for protest and a time for us to sit down and say do we engage in reconciliation or intra-community healing for the community that is left behind?” says Farah Tanis, executive director of the Black Women’s Blueprint, a New York-based transnational organization advocating for women and LGBTQ communities.

Tanis works to raise greater awareness about the plights and disparities plaguing Black women. She is well-versed in the impact of the sexual trauma experienced by women and recently finished hosting the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a four-day conference that attracted hundreds of women from across the country.

The collection of women broke into circles to share their experiences, took part in panel discussions featuring Black males, and discussed systemic violence against women. The focus of the event was never in question: the acknowledgement of—and healing from—the sexual violence committed against Black women past and present.

On the final day, attendees created a wall of intentions listing their mechanisms for ending rape and sexual abuse of Black women, including “having a spirit of support” and “being an ally to the next generation of social change agents.”

For Tanis, collective healing is necessary for women and men if the movement hopes to move forward and prevent errors from passing on to the next generation.

“Rape is still so taboo. We need to have Black men have this conversation in the open, so that we can have intracommunity healing. Then we can ask: What does reconciliation within community look like?” says Tanis.

For Tanis and others like her, the Black organizing community must have a national conversation about the oppression faced by Black women in movements. This will lead to a day when compassion and empathy is readily practiced among all members in the movement—male, female, straight, Gay, Lesbian, or Transgender.

Or, to put it another way, a day when All Black Lives Matter.