How Many More Sandra Blands?

The abusive arrest and subsequent suspicious death of Sandra Bland is far — tragically far — from an isolated incident. In fact, on the same day that the facts started to emerge about Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, an 18-year-old African American girl reportedly took her own life in an Alabama prison cell, after being arrested for allegedly stealing a cellphone.

But that’s just one day in the chain of disproportionate harsh punishment of black girls and women in the criminal justice system. I’m particularly concerned about the criminalization of girls — particularly girls of color — who are victims of sexual abuse and trauma. This is an epidemic that requires the collective response of all of us — women of color and white allies (like me) alike.

A good place to start is with a new report by a coalition of human rights and anti-poverty attorneys called “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,”

The report maps out key points in the pipeline — the detention of girls who are victims of sex trafficking; the criminalization of girls who run away from home or become truant; and those who cross from the child welfare system into juvenile justice — to create an understanding of how girls are unfairly punished after their experiences of sexual and physical abuse.

 Two-thirds of girls in prison are girls of color, yet they are less than half of the youth population in the United States.

The authors’ findings are devastating:

In a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization. Indeed, sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.

A particularly glaring example is when girls who are victims of sex trafficking are arrested on prostitution charges — punished as perpetrators rather than served and supported as victims and survivors.

Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environ- ment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse.

This is the girls’ sexual abuse to prison pipeline.

I do not choose to live in a society that so appallingly fails girls who are victims of sexual violence. The pattern is all too familiar:

  • girls (disproportionately girls of color) are sexually abused
  • her grades go down and she acts out
  • she is punished for acting out and not treated for trauma
  • this increases the trauma
  • this results in more acting out
  • she is pushed out of school
  • maybe she is drawn into prostitution or drugs
  • she gets arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned
  • still no treatment for trauma!

I urge you to read the full report — it’s full of compelling statistics, research findings and thoughtful, practical policy solutions. As one of the co-authors says,

“When we say ‘black lives matter,’ that means girls too,” said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls. “Girls, and disproportionately black and brown girls are, incredibly, being locked up when they’ve run away from an abusive parent or when they have been trafficked for sex as children. But their stories of unjust arrest and incarceration have been marginalized.”

 In a nutshell, the policy recommendations are simple — less harsh punishment of victimized girls, and more social services-based interventions.

As the most recent examples of Kindra Chapman and Sandra Bland remind us, the mass incarceration of women of color follows multiple pathways, from sexual violence to petty theft and even traffic violations.

Changing the paradigm from harsh punishment to social services for trauma would require a cultural shift in our society — or maybe it would produce a cultural shift? — where we stop dehumanizing and fearing black girls and women, and instead appreciate their full, complex humanity.

A good place to start is to read and sign on to a declaration from the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) called The Charleston Imperative: Why Feminism & Antiracism Must Be Linked.

As we conclude in the declaration:

..we commit to a vibrant, inclusive, and intersectional social justice movement that condemns racist patriarchy and works to end its daily brutality and injustice. Anything less is unacceptable.

Sign on to the declaration, and leave a comment below. Let’s talk about how we can prevent more tragedies like the ones exemplified by Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman — and all the young girls and women whose names we may never know.

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 07/24/2015.

12 responses to “How Many More Sandra Blands?

  1. I’m glad to have read this article, but I wish more feminist organization would come out more loudly for black and brown women. Does NOW plan on having any rallies, etc for Sandra Bland and other three black women that were found beaten and hung in a jail cell? The white feminist movement rode the coattails of the civil rights movement, the least you could do is come out and support. If this were an abortion issue you’d be out rallying and protesting.

      1. I would want to be connected. I’m in NYC and have not heard of NOW protesting any of this. If they are they sure could use help letting people know

  2. When is NOW going to plan a rally or protest for Sandra Bland and the other three black women that were beaten and found hung in cell. The feminist movement rode the coattails of the civil rights movement so at least you could come out LOUDLY (as you do for abortion) in support of your black and brown sisters.

  3. I was just wondering why NOW has been so silent regarding this Black woman Sandra Bland. When Ray Rice kicked his girlfriend it was a sensational disgrace in your eyes; how is what this Texas state coward did any different. I believe NOW may have some latent racism issues that need to be explored

    1. The problem I see is that the media will not publicize many of our actions and statements. I assure you we are working in our communities on racial justice issues!

  4. At NOW’s national conference in New Orleans in June most of our plenary sessions and workshops focused on racism, and the intersectionality of racism and sexism. Among our speakers were Barbara Arnwine, a prominent leader in the human and civil rights field (http://barbaraarnwine.com/); former US Senator, Ambassador and NOW Advisory Board Member Carol Moseley Braun (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Moseley_Braun); co-founder of the African-American Policy Forum Kimberle Crenshaw (http://www.aapf.org/); Ex. Dir. of Women With a Vision (a black women’s health collective) Deon Haywood; Ex. Dir. of Sister Song (Founded in 1997, SisterSong is a collective of 80 local, regional and national grassroots organizations representing the voices of indigenous women and women of color to ensure reproductive justice through human rights) Monica Simpson; and others. All of the speakers are black women who are leaders in the field of civil rights and racism issues. I can’t tell you the number, but NOW has many members who are women of color.

  5. I really wish Black women would say Black women — we aren’t people of color, we are Black women. Latino women say Latino women — and they don’t need Black women to raise their issues. Intersectionality is bull crap and the feminist movement destroyed the Black family — learn history. History is always a current event.

    1. Intersectionality is NOT a bunch of crap. it is BECAUSE of intersectionality that black women have recieved as much support as there is. media is run by white people.
      The media is drawing attention to the criminal harrassment of black women.
      If not for the intersectionality of the white media, and other women`s groups that are also predominantly white. where would black women be??
      200 years back. ALL women`s support groups support ALL women.
      It has been that way since Abolishonism. and it continues today.
      Check your facts before you point fingers.

  6. Black women: I love you not because you are black… I love you because I can be myself around you… the place where I can be myself is my place of freedom… so I love you because you are my place of freedom… and I am deeply troubled when my place of freedom is deprived, isolated, exploited, and imprisoned behind bars to be tortured. Indeed, freedom is killed behind bars.

    I have many thoughts to express… but none suitable to be discussed on a comment post… so I will have to find a better way to express them

  7. Black woman must step out and get our create our own National organization. Our issues need to be top priority, not third on the list. We need to branch out. If people can not understand this walk we live, I don’t care what color you are. This is a great America’s but everyone due understand that all woman are seen as less than is this society. So if it is OK to kill us, rape us and, beat us we must step OUT! You can’t ride on our coat tails then put us last.

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