On Darrin Manning, and Reproductive Justice for Young Men of Color


This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

When 16-year-old Darrin Manning left basketball practice, he surely did not imagine that the trip home would jeopardize his reproductive future.

Manning, an honors student in Philadelphia, was walking with teammates and coaches on January 7, when the boys were stopped by local police. In the midst of the viciously cold polar vortex, the boys had covered their faces with scarves. But area police interpreted their winter readiness as suspicious activity. During two patdowns, a female officer yanked Manning’s scrotum so vigorously that the teenager allegedly “heard something pop” and later underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured testicle. While the extent of Manning’s injuries isn’t clear, his fertility may be affected. Despite what seems to be a clear use of excessive force from the officer, Manning was charged with resisting arrest, and it took the Philadelphia district attorney’s office a month to confirm that it was investigating the incident.

I can’t imagine being Darrin Manning, who experienced brutality at the hands (literally) of law enforcement. It’s not easy growing into adolescence and a newer, more adult body. Now public attention centers on this young man, his genitals, and his unwanted role in the ongoing debate about the controversial and prevalent policing strategy known as stop and frisk.

In stop and frisk, local police are empowered to temporarily detain those they deem suspicious. Law enforcement can remove motorists from their cars; conduct on-the-spot interrogations; and subject their targets to vigorous searches that can involve public disrobing and manual inspection of suspects’ underwear, vaginal and other body cavities, and genital areas.

Often touted by law enforcement and municipal governments as effective and proactive policing in crime-ridden urban areas, stop and frisk has been criticized by civil liberties groups, who say that it constitutes racial profiling, violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against illegal searches, and has questionable impact on fighting crime. Stop and frisk has come under fire in major metropolitan areas, including Manning’s own Philadelphia. New York City tops the country in the number of stops—more than 530,000 in 2012—but only 2 percent of the frisks yielded a weapon and about 8 percent of marijuana-related stops turned up any drugs or illegal items, according to a 2012 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Philadelphia stops a higher percentage of its citizens than the Big Apple, and a 2010 class-action suit charged the city with unfairly targeting Black and Latino males.

Manning’s case exists at the intersection of two movements. On the one hand, we have activists and lawyers advocating for criminal justice reform and the abolition of stop and frisk. On the other hand, there is the reproductive justice movement, pioneered by women of color whose reproductive concerns demanded a race-conscious, intersectional approach that acknowledges all their identities. An often-used definition of the term comes from Forward Together: “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.”

While reproductive justice is inclusive of men and families, what would happen if Black males were more consciously integrated into this framework?

I see inklings of a reproductive justice approach in some discussions of Manning’s case—and also signs of legal change. Manning’s supporters have often framed what happened to him as a sexual assault. It was not so long ago that sexual violence against males was not legitimized by U.S. policy and law. In 2012, the FBI changed its definition of rape used for national sexual violence statistics. It got rid of antiquated language—“carnal knowledge of a female against her will”—that excluded males. It still, however, defines rape through penetration. By this standard, and what is publicly known about the case, we can’t say that Darrin Manning was sexually assaulted.

When officers “credit card swipe” a person—meaning they slide their hands through the buttocks, ostensibly searching for drugs—what is that?

Stop and frisk pushes at the boundaries of our legal terminology. But when it comes to the law, I firmly believe that Darrin Manning should be compensated for being the victim of police brutality and any loss of fertility or sexual function.

Those remedies should be familiar to reproductive justice activists, who have campaigned for compensation for survivors of forced sterilization or those rendered infertile by faulty birth control methods (such as the Dalkon shield) even before “reproductive justice” was coined in the 1990s. Recently, reproductive justice activists have protested forced sterilization in California corrections facilities and developed strategies to stop the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women during childbirth. Birthing Behind Bars, a coalition of currently or formerly incarcerated women, advocates for reproductive justice and freedom for women in jails and prisons.

But this discussion also needs to happen in the world outside and for those who are at high risk of “going inside.” Stop and frisk undermines the bodily integrity and privacy of its targets, primarily Black and brown young men and women. It criminalizes Black and brown bodies on sight, and it exposes them to government intrusion that can easily veer into sexual abuse. And for what? Very few stops result in the detection of weapons or drugs, legal charges, or convictions.

Stop and frisk enforces ideas of geographic segregation (who belongs where and when) and feeds a culture of surveillance. It reinforces the discretion and power of law enforcement officers to decide what’s reasonably suspicious. What’s reasonably suspicious runs the gamut; in late 2013, a video surfaced on YouTube in which Philadelphia police officers stopped two Black men for greeting strangers. When the men argued that they were just saying hi, police responded, “Not in this neighborhood.”

Reproductive justice has something to teach us. It advocates for the most vulnerable and engages with them in struggles for rights and dignity. Though it’s true that Darrin Manning is an honors student and the kind of well-rounded kid whom we can easily support, it’s problematic that he’s been positioned as a “worthy” victim. His racial profiling and injuries are seen as all the more outrageous because he has a good report card, a loving family, and a clean record.

Affording young Black men and women the right to be on the streets—or to simply be—requires individual and collective paradigm shifts: consciously not wondering what’s under that bulging sweatshirt; admitting that white youth are rarely followed, frisked, or jailed for minor drug offenses; and, most importantly, working through the long-standing vilification of Black males as criminals.

Reproductive justice and a history of racism can provide frameworks for thinking about how Black males have been subjected to violence, government abuse, and medical experimentation. After the Civil War, the “bestial Black rapist lusting after white women” became a stock image of the American racial vocabulary, fueling lynchings and notions of Black males as hypersexual deviants and reproductive criminals. Later, Black men with syphilis were the targets of the infamous 40-year Tuskegee study that denied them treatment, even when an effective medical protocol become available in the 1940s. Some suffered death, blindness, and mental deterioration. Told they had “bad blood,” they unwittingly spread the disease to partners and children. The willful extension of their suffering exposed just how little the lives and reproductive health of Black men and their families mattered.

Young Black males are in need of an “advocacy assist” from reproductive justice, an approach that normally foregrounds women of color—a focus I wouldn’t want to diminish. But reproductive justice has taken a leading role in thinking about what reproductive freedom means during incarceration or for the marginalized. With young Black and brown males as law enforcement’s Public Enemy No. 1, we should think about what sex, reproduction, and power look like for Black male adolescents—whether they’re Darrin Manning or another boy on the block.

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Follow Cynthia R. Greenlee on twitter: @CynthiaGreenlee