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Police weaponize women's vulnerability to push more policing

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But cops don’t actually protect women

In September 2020, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said defunding the police was “illogical” because “[t]here’s a lot of people out there in vulnerable communities who depend on the police to protect them and make sure they’re safe from the action of criminals.”

It’s a line of reasoning that has been pushed by politicians, pundits, and police for decades: certain sectors of the public are weak, and they need police to protect them. It’s one of the many ways to tout the vague tagline of ‘community safety.’

In the wake of the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the U.S. and police involvement in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, all in the spring of 2020, calls to defund the police finally moved from the radical sidelines to the mainstream. But those opposed to abolition dug in their heels. They continued to argue, despite evidence to the contrary, that women and other vulnerable populations need the police to protect them.

But police don’t protect women.

Under the guise of protection, police subject marginalized women – Indigenous, trans, Black, undocumented women – to further oppression and greater exposure to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). And yet, decision-makers proffer the paternalistic idea that women need protecting in order to overfund police. They use women as pawns in a game of ideological chess to get what they want, often harming the very women they claim to protect. 

This sexist trope is used to push policing in different ways. Cops say there’s no one else to respond to SGBV; governments criminalize sex work to allegedly protect sex workers; and lawmakers ban gender-inclusive washrooms, claiming trans people will attack cis women.

Cops as Saviours for Gender-Based Violence

As calls to defund the police reverberate across the continent, politicians have clamored to keep abolition a leftist fantasy and have used SGBV as an opportune excuse.

Police have always been offered as the only solution for SGBV, but they’re not the answer.

As abolitionist Mariame Kaba notes, even if we accept cops at face value – that police exist to ‘serve and protect’ – they’ve failed on their own terms when it comes to SGBV.

After decades of responding to calls, the police haven’t decreased SGBV rates. Though intimate partner violence makes up one-third of all police-reported violent crimes, the issue hasn’t abated.

The first five women’s shelters were built in the 1970s, and today Canada has over 560. We keep building shelters and they keep filling up. It’s clear police involvement has done nothing to combat SGBV. Lynn Zimmer, one of the founders of Toronto’s first women’s shelter, Interval House, celebrates the achievement of bringing the once ‘private issue’ into the public eye, but notes domestic violence still occurs at woefully high rates. “The violence continues and expands,” says Zimmer. “The shelters are full.”

Police also often fail to help victims who seek justice in the criminal system after they’ve experienced SGBV.

The Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded” series, which investigated sexual assault cases in Canada’s criminal system, exposed distressing flaws permeating the police. One in five sexual assault reports in Canada is dismissed as unfounded and simply thrown away. Police often ignore or downplay the concerns of women calling for help, which can have fatal repercussions. If police do pursue  the case, they treat survivors like suspects and are apathetic to facilitating justice. Of all the sexual assault cases in the U.S., it is estimated that only two percent of perpetrators end up behind bars.

It’s no surprise that nearly 80% of SGBV cases go unreported, or that 80% of women who have reported abuse to the police would be scared to call them again. Most survivors know that involving law enforcement is futile at best, and (re)traumatizing at worst.

Too often, when cops get involved with SGBV cases they harm the victims.

In 2019, a Black and Indigenous woman named Serrece Winter went to the Nova Scotia police to report intimate partner violence. When her court date finally arrived, Winter was home drinking beer – trying to prepare to relive trauma by testifying against her on-again, off-again boyfriend – and passed out before she could go to the courthouse. For missing her court appearance, the police arrested her, put her in a restraint chair, and charged her with assaulting a peace officer.

Winter’s experience is one example, in a list too long to count, of police harming women in the name of protecting them. Like the 1 in 4 survivors in the U.S. who were arrested or threatened with arrest when they reported SGBV to police; or the numerous women and girls who’ve been incarcerated for defending themselves against SGBV; or even the women abused by police officers themselves.

Police insist they’re our only solution to SGBV. Without police, they argue, women will bid farewell to their safety and ability to hold abusers accountable. But by demanding the largest portion of municipal budgets and diverting funds away for programs that actually serve women, in the name of protecting them, police don’t make women any safer.

Instead of throwing money at a racist institution that has harmed women for decades, we need to address the root causes of SGBV. This means teaching communities about toxic masculinity and gender equality; creating abuse hotlines; providing counselling for survivors and perpetrators.

We need to shift our thinking away from punishment to transformative justice, and we need to follow communities of colour. Alternative approaches to handling domestic violence have long existed informally in these communities due to deep mistrust of colonial institutions from decades of systemic oppression.

Mama Bear Clan in Winnipeg serves Indigenous people around traditional power structures, and operates under the principle “led by women; supported by men.” Created by residents of a notoriously over policed community, Mama Bear Clan patrols the streets twice a week, “offering a loving presence that is committed to increasing safety and reducing violence.”

Justice Teams Network in Oakland operates with a vision to build a community network to respond to state violence, connecting groups committed to eradicating state violence, and sharing resources, information, and campaign strategies.

Criminalizing Sex Work

It’s not just how police enforce laws, sometimes it’s also the laws themselves. Sex work laws in Canada place sex workers directly in harm’s way.

Canada’s Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, supposedly legalizes selling sex. But it criminalizes buying sex. It forbids the advertising of sexual services, negotiating in public places for buying sex, operating a bawdy house, and financial benefitting from the sale of someone’s sexual services.

The Bill is predicated on the argument that these laws protect “human dignity.” In reality, they push sex workers into dangerous situations by criminalizing almost every aspect of their job.

Bill C-36 says no one can profit off someone else’s sex sales, so workers can’t have body guards or managers to increase security, create boundaries for customers, or help collect money. Communicating to buy sex in public places in banned, so sex workers don’t have time to vet the John, ensure there are no weapons, or negotiate terms before having to rush off into the dark. The Bill bars bawdy houses, so there’s no safe, designated space sex workers can bring their clients.

Sex workers endure consistent and horrible police interactions. This is because the state has criminalized almost every aspect of their job, and because cops do not value the lives of sex workers, choosing to actively surveil, harass, and demean them. In an Action Canada report, sex workers recount having to let cops photograph their breasts to avoid arrest, being forced to perform oral sex on officers, and other dehumanizing demands. This long, violent history with police has led sex workers not to trust, nor call police.

Police have discretion on where to surveil, when to give warnings, who to charge, and when to look away. They gives warnings to affluent businessmen who drive under the influence, and chuckle as white kids run away from them at a bush party. Police choose, every day, to spend their resources surveilling and arresting sex workers.

There have been efforts to mend the relationship, but they’ve proved futile. In 2020, a partnership to end stigma against sex work in St. John’s N.L. ended because sex worker relations with police got worse, not better.

Canada’s legal system doesn’t protect sex workers – most of whom are Black, trans, Indigenous, and undocumented – but rather places them in “interlocking fields of violence,” as Isabel Christo has written, having to fend off both interpersonal harm and state violence.

Despite these damming laws, radical feminists – with sex workers at the helm – have developed frameworks for resisting this layered violence. Sex worker coalitions across Canada have created ‘bad date lists,’ which allow sex workers to anonymously report their negative experiences and have it publish as a warning, all while circumventing the police. This rogue resistance occurs alongside organizations fighting for Canada to decriminalize and regulate the sex industry.

Policing Trans Bodies

Public washrooms and locker rooms have also been a battleground for human rights, where cis and trans women have been pitted against one another to push policing.

For decades, conservative pundits have touted the myth that allowing transgender people to use washrooms that match their gender identity will lead to violence against women. They claim sexual predators will exploit non-discrimination laws (which allow trans folx to use whichever washroom they identify with) to sneak into women’s restrooms. There’s zero evidence to support these claims, but politicians continue to hawk fear.

North Carolina Governor McCrory, who launched a ‘bathroom bill’ named the “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” said laws controlling which bathrooms transgender people use were necessary to stop men from using women’s bathroom/locker rooms. Indeed, when Texas launched its bathroom bill, it was initially called the “Women’s Privacy Act.”

This propaganda is also in Canada. In 2017, a pastor launched a campaign against gender-inclusive washrooms. The campaign, presented to the Senate of Canada, used the trope of female vulnerability – cataloging incidents of women in distress – to push for greater enforcement of public spaces and outlaw inclusive washrooms.

Criminalizing gender-inclusive restrooms doesn’t help cis women (who aren’t in danger), and it harms trans people, who are abused and mistreated when the police, or even a civilian, decides they’ve used the ‘wrong’ washroom.

According to the largest American survey of trans people, 60% of trans folx have been harassed and assaulted for using public washrooms, and now avoid using them out of fear. A few of the many vicious, lethal attacks have been documented.

Police have a horrible history in their treatment of trans people, and it’s no different with public washrooms.

One trans woman remembers an officer blaming her for being beaten in a washroom because she was “wearing a dress and trying to fool men.” Another trans woman was harassed by officers when she used a women’s washroom in an Illinois police station. In November 2020, North Carolina police tased and “brutally ejected” a cis woman from a women’s washroom because they thought she was trans.

Public washrooms aren’t a new battleground for rights, and white women’s vulnerability isn’t a new tool to promote policing. As PBS NewsHour reporter Candace Norwood wrote, the US has discriminated against minorities and promoted policing to ‘protect’ women since the slave trade.

During Jim Crow, the argument that Black men would attack white women in washrooms was used to justify segregation. American Conservatives also used this line in the 70s to stop the Equal Rights Amendment – seeking to establish legal equality between men and women – claiming it would lead to genderless washrooms, thus putting women in danger. Today, twelve states in the U.S. are actively trying to deprive trans youth of healthcare in order to “save women’s sports.” The cycle never ends.

In the face of these horrific laws, trans people continue to resist. They have created ‘Know Your Rights’ fact sheets for trans students, compiled lists on how to further trans equality, and written and spoken out to articulate how to create safe spaces for the queer community.

Power to the People, Not Police

The institution of policing is a constant threat to oppressed communities. The more police interactions marginalized people have, the more likely they are to wind up injured, jailed, or dead. Women – especially Black, Indigenous, and trans women – are regularly terrorized by police. As we create more laws and impose harsher sentences in the name of protecting women, we inevitably harm more women.

Women don’t need more police, we need more resources, respect, and care. We need politicians to listen to us, not tell us how they’ll save us. We need our tax dollars to go towards services that address the root causes of SGBV.

Policing does not protect women; it never has and it never will.

Paula Ethans is a writer, organizer, and human rights lawyer from Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg). She tweets @PaulaEthans.


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