July 19, 2019
How Feminists Resisted Prisons and Policing in the 1970sBreaking News
tags: feminism, prisons, policing
Emily Thuma’s new book, All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence, presents a history of grassroots feminist organizing during the 1970s against gender violence and the carceral state. The following excerpt is from the introduction.
Washington, D.C.’s first-ever March to Stop Violence Against Women kicked off just after dusk on April 29, 1978. A boisterous crowd of roughly eight hundred people — diverse in age, race, class, gender, and sexual identity — snaked through the city’s adjacent neighborhoods of Adams-Morgan and Dupont Circle. The marchers carried flashlights, whistles, and handmade signs, and their chants articulated the event’s central message of “self-determination for women, power for women, [and] self-defense for women.” An extensive list of principles and demands drawn up by the organizers advocated “community sanction” for rape and abuse and solutions “involving empowerment of women, education of men, and community action” rather than “criminal justice.” The demonstration represented a coalitional effort between three organizations: the D.C. Rape Crisis Center; the Task Force on Abused Women of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund; and the “open-membership, action-oriented” D.C. Area Feminist Alliance. More than sixty other local groups endorsed the statement of principles and demands. The march was the culmination of the city’s first annual Anti-Rape Week, a community education project organized by the black feminist leadership of the Rape Crisis Center.
Once gathered at Dupont Circle Park, the demonstrators listened to an array of speakers and musicians. Among them was Linda Leaks, who delivered “revolutionary greetings” from Dessie Woods, a black woman serving a twenty-two-year prison sentence in the State of Georgia for killing an armed white man who had attempted to rape her and her friend. Leaks, a local member of Woods’s national defense committee, told the crowd that the incarcerated woman’s story belonged to a long legacy of white men’s sexual violence against black women that was rooted in chattel slavery. Just a month earlier, Rape Crisis Center staff members Deirdre Wright and Nkenge Touré had traveled to the Georgia Women’s Institute of Corrections to interview Woods as part of the center’s work to help disseminate her story and urge feminists and other progressive people to take action on her behalf. To the organizers of the march, Woods’s case, and others like it, exemplified the need for a feminist antiviolence agenda that took seriously the perilous entwinement of racism, classism, and sexism in the criminal legal system.
All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence is a history of activism by, for, and about incarcerated domestic violence survivors, criminalized rape resisters, and dissident women prisoners in the 1970s and early 1980s. Across the United States, in and outside of prisons, grassroots women activists participated in collective actions that illuminated the interconnections between interpersonal violence against women and the racial and gender violence of policing and imprisonment. These mobilizations were spearheaded by radical women of color and antiracist white women, many of them lesbian-identified. They cultivated a distinctive left antiviolence politics that was defined by a critique of state violence; an understanding of race, gender, class, and sexuality as mutually constructed systems of power and meaning; and a practice of coalition-based organizing. This book traces the political activities and ideas that constituted this anticarceral feminism and demonstrates that it shaped broader debates about the root causes of and remedies for violence against women. It also reveals the important role of this activist current in the making of a prison abolition movement in the 1970s.
Anticarceral feminist politics grew in the cracks of prison walls and at the interfaces between numerous social movements, including those for racial and economic justice, prisoners’ and psychiatric patients’ rights, and gender and sexual liberation. Through the process of building coalitions that transected these social justice struggles, the activists at the center of this study produced a broad and layered understanding of “violence against women” that encompassed the structural violence of social inequalities, the violence of state institutions and agents, and interpersonal forms of violence, including rape, battering, and sexual coercion. This expansive analysis directly clashed with the “tough-on-crime” ethos of the 1970s and the mainstream women’s movement’s increasing embrace of criminalization as a frontline solution to interpersonal violence. As this history demonstrates, violence against women was — as it still is — a highly charged political claim rather than a transparent descriptor, and the ascendency of a law-and-order feminism was a deeply contested process.
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