Fear, loathing, racism and violence in the US

Morgan-with-pounamu-pendant_WebThis is the 11th in the blog series by Morgan Healey, immediate past President of ALRANZ, who has recently returned to the US. It aims to bring to life the uniquely absurd state of reproductive rights and justice in the US.

It has been another brutal, violent week in the US — the vicious police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile followed by the mass shooting in Dallas, Texas. I have read the stories and heard the calls for more and better gun restrictions, the need to end racial police profiling and killings, and the need for criminal justice reform. And to all of that, I say yes — quickly before more blood is shed.

Perhaps it is because I have never owned a gun, never handled one and never wanted to that I do not understand, nor support a reading of the Second Amendment that asserts it as a right. I have lived in countries with histories of colonization, war, and violence, which in many ways mirror the pain and suffering, the segregation, and the loss of cultural and spiritual identity seen in the US. But in those contexts, police do not as a rule carry guns, gun violence happens but it is rare, and mass shootings do not dominate the evening news. That does not mean that racism has ceased to exist, or high rates of mass incarceration do not disproportionately affect non-white people. Statistics highlight the extent of racial inequality in both the US and New Zealand. However, racism in New Zealand does not appear to lead to dead brown bodies in the streets, gunned down by the people who are supposed to protect society from harm.


Why are the two so inextricably linked in the US?

Unfortunately, I do not have the answer.

But I will say that to my mind gun violence and racism will never be solved unless we understand them as interconnected, two sides of the same coin. We are a nation born of violence and bloodshed, built on the inhumane enslavement of non-white bodies. And yet we assert this has little import in modern society. Instead our national creation myth has always focused on throwing off the chains of British colonization, never the trail of tears it left in its wake. Even the liberal philosophies and tenets that we triumph, like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are flawed. Designed and perfected with white, male, property-owning bodies in mind, they remain the reserve of white, heterosexual, economically well-off, cisgender men. So while we hold dear the ability to own and ‘defend’ one’s body and home, we simultaneously and systematically deny safety and autonomy to certain bodies. A black person holding a gun is understood as a threat, a white person holding a gun is a token of liberty. We are a nation of contradictions and inequalities.

So what will tighter gun restrictions achieve? It might stem the tide of public shootings, which would certainly be positive. But will they stop police from murdering black people? Probably not, unless we intend to disarm most of the beat cops and save gun holding for special forces. And even that seems unlikely to decrease high incarceration rates underpinned by racist policies like Broken Windows (for a good read on the latter check out Andrea Ritchie’s piece here). For as long as we refuse to look at WHY people take a gun, walk into a gay club and kill 50+ people or why African Americans are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white people, then we are simply placing a band-aide over a much larger problem – hate and fear produced by and through racism, homophobia, xenophobia.

Connecting the dots

You might be wondering why I am talking about these issues on a blog about reproductive rights and abortion law reform (or maybe you aren’t if you’ve read some of my previous posts)? Partially, it is because I think talking about the tragic deaths of people like Alton and Philando is important —  #saytheirnames and #blacklivesmatter. We have to understand their deaths within the wider context of systemic racism, as opposed to the ill-advised actions of individual police officers. In these moments, calling out white privilege and acknowledging how my own shields me from this violence, protects me from having my body preyed on by police, is vital.

As I see it, I have two choices (because as a white person, I have a choice). I can preserve my innocence, live and breathe in a reality that is segregated, molded to protect my whiteness, my safety. I can sit back and continue to be part of the problem.

Or I talk about systems of oppression and racism in this country. For me, this means connecting the dots between the ongoing struggle for bodily autonomy, exemplified in the reproductive rights movement, and constructions of race, gender and violence. Because the ongoing killings of black people and gun violence are both reproductive justice issues, just as systems of violence are raced. And this means understanding that the ability to bear children in safe environments continues to be predicated on skin colour, zip codes, and financial stability in the US. As activists, we must reflect on the intersectional nature of reproductive health and rights.

Restrained optimism — Whole Women’s Health v Hellerstedt

In some ways, the recent win of last month in terms of the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Women’s Health v Hellerstedt now seems distant and elusive. Don’t get me wrong. It was a great victory for reproductive rights and justice activists. One that should reverberate across the country, defeating or overturning the TRAP laws that unjustly and unnecessarily regulate abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centres and require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Regulations that are patently designed to close clinics and stop people from accessing abortions. Regulations that have no basis in medical necessity and disproportionately affect women of colour and those with limited means to pay the costs associated with the procedure.

Alongside SCOTUS’s decision that these particular TRAP laws are unconstitutional, the majority opinion also marked an important victory for facts and the application of real scientific evidence to underpin legislation (something the antis love to play fast and loose with). As Jessica Mason Pieklo points out in her review of the decision for Rewire (read here), the Court reversed an interpretation in Gonzales v Carhart in 2007 which allowed legislators to pick a side when there was a question of medical or scientific uncertainty. Breyer, et. al. put a stop to this and relied heavily on the facts in their decision (The line from Dragnet plays over in my head — “I want the facts, ma’am. Just the facts”).

To quote from Pieklo, quoting Breyer:

“The statement that legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty is also inconsistent with this Court’s case law… Instead, the Court, when determining the constitutionality of laws regulating abortion procedures, has placed considerable weight upon evidence and argument presented in judicial proceedings” holding that the “Court retains an independent constitutional duty to review factual findings where constitutional rights are at stake.” (Breyer added the italics to drive the point home).

This IS an incredibly important moment in the struggle. We should relish it, while at the same time understand that this does not mean we can sit back, pat ourselves on the shoulders, and say job done. We still have a long way to go: to re-open clinics; to have the 23 other TRAP laws of this nature overturned; and to figure out which direction the antis will go next (for some thoughts watch Reproaction’s latest webinar on ‘feminist pro-lifers’).

But, unfortunately, I do not think we’re ready go as far as Katha Pollitt and say we’re now winning. That seems like a dangerous assumption to make: one, because if we naively think that the antis haven’t at least considered and prepared for this decision then we are fools; and two, because so long as non-white people in the US subsist in a state of surveillance and fear then our ultimate aim of a right to bodily autonomy and choice are illusory at best. This is why saying the names of Alton and Philando, Sandra and Tamir must be understood within the context of each and every reproductive win and set back. Freedom comes only when it is enjoyed by everyone, and we are nowhere near that reality yet.