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Recognize systemic injustice with #MeToo

Last week, the hashtag #MeToo went viral on social media after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Within 24 hours, the hashtag had been used nearly half a million times on Twitter alone. Shortly after her post, Milano noted that an earlier #MeToo campaign had been created ten years ago in 2007 by Tarana Burke, a Black woman and creator of the youth organization Just Be Inc. According to Burke, the #MeToo campaign was created as “a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.” Burke, herself a survivor of sexual violence, also noted that the “me too movement” was created with the intent to aid young women of color in underprivileged communities “where rape crisis centers and sexual assault workers weren’t going.”

I believe it is important for us to know that the conversation spurned by the #MeToo campaign is just as much about sexual violence as it is about race, gender and sexuality, class and incarceration. Consider, for example, the nation’s criminal legal system and the mass incarceration of Black people and people of color. Historically, the carceral system is intimately connected to the enslavement of Black persons, with the nation’s first prisons emerging in the late 19th-century following the abolishment of slavery. Since then, Black people and people of color have been arrested and incarcerated at astoundingly higher rates than white people, and have thereby been over determined to suffer institutionalized sexual violence at the hands of the state. Although the majority of incarcerated people in the U.S. are men, the rate of growth for female incarceration has increased by more than 50 percent within the last 25 years. As of 2014, Black women were incarcerated at twice the rate of white women and Hispanic women 1.2 times the rate of white women. Although representative of less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, Black women make up 30 percent of its prisons.

Even more concerning, recent studies have identified a “sexual abuse to prison pipeline” which disproportionately criminalizes Black girls. Although it is estimated that one in five women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, young Black women are affected by a particular history of victimization and violence rooted in slavery and the hypersexualization of the Black body. According to a study conducted by Black Woman’s Blueprint, nearly 60 percent (or three in five) Black women will experience sexual violence by the age of 18. In 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for every one Black woman who reports abuse, there are at least 15 who do not. In a report by the Human Rights Project for Girls, Black children made up 59 percent of all prostitution arrests of children under 18. In Los Angeles, 92 percent of girls identified as sex trafficking victims within the juvenile legal system were Black, 62 percent from the child-welfare system and 84 percent from low-income communities. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the women in state prisons report being previously abused — which includes forced sex work and trafficking.

However, prisons — or even holding cells — aren’t safe alternatives for sexually abused women. In 2015, Sandra Bland was found hanging in a Texas jail cell three days after being brutally arrested by police officers for a traffic violation. And just last year, Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison for 18 counts of sexual assaults and other offenses committed while he was on duty. In the highly publicized case, 13 different Black women accused Holtzclaw of sexually assaulting them while patrolling their low-income neighborhood. Most recently, NYPD officers Richard Hall and Edward Martins were accused of sexually assaulting an 18-year old “Anne Chambers”* while she was under custody for a drug arrest. Although they attempted to claim that Chambers consented (while handcuffed), the officers were suspended and are currently under investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.

While it is difficult to obtain statistics related to sexual assault in prisons due to prisoners’ feelings of powerlessness and the fear of retaliation, it can be assumed that the dynamics of power and violence are compounded within prisons. In and of itself, the prison is a daily exercise in sexual victimization, with incarcerated people being subjected to pervasive body searches and unending surveillance. In an Amnesty International USA report conducted between 1997-1999, 70 percent of guards within federal women’s correctional facilities were men, and only 10 prison employees within the entire federal system were disciplined for reported abuse of incarcerated women. According to the 2015 report released by leading LGBTQ+ prison abolition organization Black & Pink, LGBTQ+ prisoners are over six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population, and 76 percent reported that prison staff had intentionally placed them in situations where they were at high risk of being sexually assaulted.

In her interview with Ebony, Burke shared, “[Me too] wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow.” It is clear that our current systems and mechanisms for “justice,” including prisons and policing, do little more than terrorize historically marginalized communities, including queer and trans and nonbinary Black people and people of color. I believe that abolition — meaning the complete and total undoing of prisons and police — is necessary to ensure the safety of Black people and people of color of all sexualities, gender expressions and economic security. The plantation existed as an institution of racialized sexual violence, and has since morphed into our contemporary prison system. Until our critiques of sexual violence are as raced as they are gendered and queered and classed, our movements will remain exclusionary and static. Until then, our efforts to ensure the full protection and autonomy of our bodies will continue to fail the communities that need it most.

Jahqwahn Watson, a Contributing Writer can be reached for comment at JWat

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