A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
When you peel back the facade, police and military perpetuate violence on a personal and professional level.
Content Note: This piece discusses systemic sexual violence and rape.
My introduction to activism and the bulk of my training as an organizer took place at Portland State University with the campaign Disarm PSU. In 2015, the university’s Board of Trustees voted in favor of the implementation of an armed and deputized police force on campus. Students, staff and faculty up to that point had been fighting against the creation of this police force for two years. During the initial explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, on an increasingly diverse campus, the campus community was extremely fearful of the violence and terror this police force could bring to Black and Brown people on campus.
In response to concerns, the university board and administration put forward a litany of deeply problematic rationale. One was that this armed police force could help to mitigate sexual violence on campus through increased capacity to use violent force, as well as through the new investigative abilities they would have as deputized officers.
As we heard this rationale, my friends-slash-fellow organizers and I, mostly women and gender non-conforming people in our teens and very early 20s, looked around at each other dumbfounded. All of us had been raped or sexually assaulted at some point. Most of the people we knew had. None of us had gone to the cops. None of us knew anyone who had been aided by the police in seeking justice against the people who had violated them.
From the forces of policing to the military, these arms of the state claim to be arbiters of justice and safety in the most superficial way. In reality, not only do these forces fail to create safety for, or bring justice to survivors of sexual violence. These systems actively perpetuate sexual violence and gendered violence on their own.
Between 2005 and 2013 police officers in the United States were charged with “forcible rape” or “forcible fondling” over 1,000 times. These numbers don’t take into account many instances that do not fall into legal standards of rape and sexual assault, such as undercover police officers engaging in coerced sex with sex workers during sting operations, an issue that Juno Mac and Molly Smith explored in “Revolting Prostitutes.” Police perpetuate this kind of gendered violence in their personal lives as well as in their professional lives. Some studies have found that somewhere between 24 percent and 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, twice to four times the rate of within the general population. These numbers don’t even begin to speak to the millions of prisoners who are raped while they are incarcerated after initial contact with the police.
As Martin Luther King Jr. insisted, the U.S. government is the world’s greatest purveyor of violence. This violence comes not only by way of weaponry, but through economic, cultural, diplomatic as well sexual violence, only to name a few. Reductive, racist and xenophobic notions about people living in the global South, particularly those from Muslim countries, presume that women in these countries are subjugated to a degree that women in the United States could never imagine.
These notions, along with widely held ahistorical delusions about the U.S. role as a champion of democracy, serve to justify the presence of the U.S. military abroad. Sexual violence within the U.S. military is rampant, and violence against non-military personnel abroad is a seldom-discussed, but still extremely prevalent issue.
For decades, local residents of Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan and station for tens of thousands of U.S. Marines have expressed deep concern about sexual violence committed by Marines. Several higher profile cases from the island involve the sexual abuse of children. Sexual violence in Colombia at the hands of the U.S. military has been extremely pervasive over the past few decades, from alleged sexual abuse of minors by army sergeants, to mistreatment and abuse of sex workers by members of the DEA and secret service. A 2015 Colombian truth commission report aptly labeled these acts as examples of “sexual imperialism.”
On top of all of this, these violent, militaristic and carceral systems don’t mitigate sexual violence in any significant way within the communities they police. It’s estimated that about 4.6 percent of people who commit rape go to jail, though this number is probably much lower as sexual violence is often not reported to the police. Within the current system, violence persists, and while violent crime rates decrease, prisons selectively lock up those who are less privileged, while the Epsteins and Weinsteins of the world get away with innumerable rapes and sexual assaults before being held “accountable.”
With this understanding, the notion that sexual violence can be solved with policing, incarceration, and militarism, becomes farcical. And yet when the question of abolition is broached, the first question from skeptics (the majority of the population) is generally something to the effect of “what about murderers and rapists?”
This means that the question of what is needed for a global call for police abolition largely rests on developing consciousness around how our current system perpetuates violence rather than solves it, and understanding what the root of violence in our society actually is. If we understand sexual violence perpetuated by the state as a part of the broader problem of violence in our society, rather than somehow being separate from it, we can glean real answers on why things like sexual violence persist, and how to address them.
Sexual violence does not persist so rampantly because of a lack of law and order, individual failures, or deficiencies of any specific culture. Violence in our society is primarily a function of racial capitalism, a system built atop the violence of slavery and genocide, a topic that Ibram X. Kendi explores in the book “How to Be An Anti-Racist.” This is why those mechanisms which serve to protect capital perpetuate the same kind of violence we are made to believe they prevent.
If militarism could solve sexual violence, the Me Too movement would be obsolete in this age of mass incarceration. Addressing sexual violence means addressing white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism — broad social issues which cut across culture. This cannot be done through policing and punishing individuals, but through a method like transformative justice. Transformative justice entails not only dealing with individual instances of violence within a community, and away from carceral punishment, but also building movements to address economic and social injustice.
The current movement for Black lives begins to address this through the call to defund the police, inviting people to imagine how funds currently put toward policing could be funneled toward building up mechanisms which genuinely promote the safety and welfare of communities, such as tuition-free child care, or Medicare for all.
Policing and militarism destabilize and bring violence into communities. Transformative justice promotes stronger communities which address issues of violence holistically when they emerge. By tying these issues (which are often treated as solely interpersonal) to broader social and economic issues being addressed through anti-militarism and anti-carceral movements like Black Lives Matter, we truly stand a chance to substantially mitigate sexual violence in our world.
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Olivia Pace is a Black queer woman writer, educator and organizer from Portland, OR. Her work has been featured in AYO Magazine, Prism Reports, the Forgive Everyone Collective blog and Stylist Magazine.