The events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, in recent weeks have revealed many tragedies, among them the fact that the death of so many youth of color in this country is still debatable in its status as a vaunted “feminist issue.” But it is, and the expansive definition of reproductive justice, which reaches into the universe of conditions necessary to create and sustain life, shows us how.
As RH Reality Check Senior Legal Analyst Imani Gandy put it so well in a recent tweet:
I saw so many people on Twitter saying "I don't want to have/raise black children in this country." That is a reproductive justice issue.
— Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) August 10, 2014
The resonance of the phrase “my body, my choice” owes much to its essential simplicity. But that same simplicity leaves out a great deal. A number of writers, like Dani McClain, Hannah Giorgis, Tara Culp-Ressler, and Emma Akpan, have written about a much broader idea, whose standard has been borne mostly by women of color for the last 20 years: The death of Michael Brown, and the systematic terror it induces, is a reproductive justice issue.
Put another way, there can be no reproductive justice for all until the state-sanctioned murder of Black youth in this country is addressed.
Bodily control neither begins nor ends with reproductive health care—that was only ever one battleground, albeit an important one. When one’s choice of whether or not to have a child is coerced by a terror inflicted on you and others like you, one’s reproductive rights are also being trampled upon. The word “terror” is not hyperbole as Hannah Giorgis revealed when she wrote of her reaction to Brown’s murder:
When I heard Sunday night that 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri, my heart sank. My skin pulled tight around my hands, my stomach churned itself into knots. My mind raced, visions of my brothers’ faces collaged into the painfully familiar sight of yet another innocent Black boy breathing — and bleeding — for the last time.
She shares this waking nightmare with countless other Black mothers who live in fear of their children falling to the vengeful divinity of the state. “Any force that systematically and unapologetically turns unconsenting Black wombs into graveyards,” she says, “is a reproductive justice issue.”
For one’s children to be random, unwitting blood sacrifices to the prejudice of faceless others is not freedom. To have reproductive freedom means, among many other things, that your choice to raise a family will not be revenged upon by collectivized prejudice wielding batons and handguns.
Children of Color as Crisis
A theme of the protests in Ferguson has been the fact that our much-cherished rights evaporated at just the moment when they were most needed.
Michael Brown’s right to due process was hardly in evidence. And for the protesters, much the same was true: Their First Amendment rights were stripped, as were those of many of the journalists trying to cover the historic events as they unfolded. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments fluttered away. Suddenly, even police regulations about providing names and badge numbers no longer applied. On and on, rights were butchered in the charnel house of Ferguson’s streets.
But equally glaring and shocking was the fact that Michael Brown’s mother was denied her right to a family she could raise in safety.
Far from being a “separate issue,” as some would like to imagine, what happened to Michael Brown is as much a profound indictment of our lack of reproductive justice as it is our lack of racial and economic justice.
If reproductive choice is about deciding whether or not one can have a family, or how large one wants her family to be, then structural violence imposed on a community is a constraint upon that freedom. If a woman like Marissa Alexander, for instance, cannot defend her own life and her children from an abusive parent, that too is a violation of reproductive freedom.
The issue is not only the tragic loss of a child, or an unjustly incarcerated mother. It’s the fact that for the entire Black community in our society, there is a calculus to be made about one’s children that’s not prevalent among whites. It’s the knowledge that your child might be stolen away by the very people who should be protecting him or her, and the knowledge that they will die a second death as a bloodthirsty press seeks to retroactively justify the atrocity by holding up their whole life for scrutiny and debate, as if anything revealed by such remorseless vulture-picking could ever excuse such a killing.
It is here where the question of “Whose lives are valued?” enters into the picture, for how cheap must a life be if millions of onlookers can think that stolen cigars justify a murder? Can we have reproductive justice if the children of some are considered inherently less valuable by several orders of magnitude? If the life of a child or a young man or woman is so cheap that misunderstandings, small mistakes, or false accusations justify their deaths, what can then be said about the rights they enjoyed in life and how valuable they turned out to be?
For First Nations and Native American peoples this, too, is a pressing question. The disproportionate murders of their children, particularly young women, is an appalling atrocity that has only unfolded quietly because such lives are undervalued. Writing about the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl whose body was found in a river, Dr. Sarah Hunt, a researcher on violence against Indigenous people, concluded her piece by saying, “Treating our deaths as unremarkable is a form of violence that needs to stop along with the murders themselves. Taking steps to end the violence now is the only route to justice.”
A similar debauching occurs with the lives of Latino/a children in this country, especially immigrants. They are treated by the rest of society as a virus infecting the state, and their deaths—whether in the United States or in the countries to which they may be deported—are treated as both seemly and unremarkable. Amid all this violence and chaos, Latina mothers are condemned as being threats themselves for bearing these children—their decision to have a family, and any decision they make about saving that family (such as making the unarguably difficult choice to send your child over the border alone), are subject to a dehumanizing scorn in the press.
The great moral crime is that the deaths of all these people are treated as the seemly garnish to an otherwise just and progressive world.
It’s why Renisha McBride was killed—her part in the white suburban slasher drama that depicts all Black people as inherently dangerous was decided for her long before she staggered up to Theodore Wafer’s front door. It’s why Islan Nettles’ murder has not been properly investigated, despite the fact that it occurred next to a police station. It’s why Trayvon Martin’s death ignited controversy rather than universal condemnation. It’s why CeCe MacDonald went to prison for defending herself against a man who wanted her to pay with her life for the crime of her very existence. It’s why far too many other men and women have been slain.
The reproductive justice perspective is a simple one: All lives must be valued as equal. There can be no reproductive justice without racial justice. This means that the families of people of color must be seen as having equal value. It means that a child’s real or perceived imperfections should never be seen as an excuse for murder. And it means that the decisions of Black, Latino/a, or Native people to have children should not be constructed as a crisis. Rather, we should see the equal and just care of these children as a shared responsibility—a challenge, yes, but no more a challenge than raising one’s own family should be.
Children of color are not a crisis.
A Militarized Public
Much has been made of the militarization of the police in this country, and that must be addressed without delay. But we are making a tremendous mistake if we believe that taking the police’s tanks and assault rifles away will make things better.
The militarization of the mind is what we must fight with vigor. Police have merely clad themselves in the armor that fits their timeless pretensions. They were always a paramilitary force in word and deed—now they simply have the means to clothe themselves like it.
But this militant mind was never limited to the police. It leads to the terrifying fantasies that George Zimmerman and Theodore Wafer acted out when they committed their murders. It has made monsters of people’s children; it has cut a swathe through people’s families. It’s the same violent reflex that has taken the lives of countless transgender women of color, people whose very right to exist is being fought for on the furthest frontier of reproductive justice politics.
The militarized mind dehumanizes, and then justifies the treatment that accrues to the inhuman.
It is easy to see a logical extension between angry Facebook users posting memes about “welfare cheats” and “anchor babies” and those who try to justify the slaughter of a young person of color. You see the broad arc here: Dehumanize, then kill, then slay their memory. The kids are cast as spongers, or invading immigrants who will rape and kill, or talentless gang-bangers—all of whom are “stealing” hardworking (white) Americans’ money while constituting an existential threat to the nation as a whole. Inevitably, someone is killed, and just as inevitably people try to justify the death.
Armies of children are reduced to caricatures.
The real question is, how is this not about reproductive justice? How could anyone think otherwise?
The answer lies in the same dehumanization that leads to this weeping list of crimes, and it infects feminism as well. Ferguson is a moment for all of us who call ourselves feminists to refuse the seductions of racism; we must refuse to fail. It’s also a moment for all of us non-Black people of color to recognize that although we cannot lay total claim to the issue of police violence visited on Black children and Black parents, we are inextricably bound up in all of this and cannot afford to be silent.
There’s a movement in there somewhere. And we would all do well to answer its call at last.