“Cops Don’t Keep Women and Queers Safe”: A Discussion on Patriarchal Violence and the Police
Here at A World Without Police, we start from the basis that police violence will not end with reform, but with the abolition of the police altogether. One of the most common arguments against police abolition is that we need cops to protect women against patriarchal violence like rape or domestic violence. “Cops Don’t Keep Women and Queers Safe” is a series that looks at the relationship of police to common forms of patriarchal violence and explores alternative strategies for dealing with this violence that do not rely on the police.
In this first post in the series, AWWP interviewed Aqua Marine, a Houston-based organizer involved in support work for survivors of patriarchal violence.¹ As Aqua Marine points out, when not directly exerting physical violence against women and queer folks², the law enforcement arms of the state — namely the police, the district attorneys, the courts, the social workers — operate from a profound and insidious indifference to patriarchal violence. She emphasizes that her observations on “cop indifference” come from organizing in the U.S. South and may not look the same elsewhere, due to the historical development of policing in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, we post this as a contribution to the conversation about the necessity of police abolition.
AWWP: Describe some of the organizing work you are involved with in Houston.
I would consider myself part of an anti-violence movement as put out by INCITE!. I do anti-patriarchy work that doesn’t rely on the state. Within an anti-state police abolitionist framework, there are a few different tactics that people have been doing for a while: accountability processes, survivor support, prevention & education. I do survivor support through a doula approach. A doula means “a person who helps”. There are birth doulas, death doulas, abortion doulas…and I’m a survivor support doula. That means that my priority is to help this individual get out of their terrible situation in whatever way they see fit, as long as it is coming from them. When somebody is going through a crisis situation with their partner or ex-partner, they get put in contact with me. If they are ready to get out of the situation, then we get them out however we need to, for as long as we need to.
AWWP: What is your long-term vision for this work?
Some organizing tasks we do until they become obsolete. This is one of them. The goal is always to end patriarchal violence so hopefully one day we won’t need what I do. My work is getting us to a baseline: that nobody should be murdered because of their sexuality, gender or partner. But that’s not the ideal future. We have so much work to do toward abolishing gender, toward reconfiguring how we relate to each other, how to live in communities of care. There’s a whole world of amazing feminist future but we’re losing it when some of our most amazing organizers are being murdered because of their partners. What I’m doing is not utopian work at all, it’s necessity work, and I do it because I was there and I got out and there are real skills that I can pass on. It’s not magic, it’s not luck..well, it’s a little bit of luck.
Strong communities is the idea that the state is not there for us and we have to band together to meet our needs. We’re deeply interdependent creatures and the only thing that keeps us alive is each other.
I’m influenced by the idea of strong communities.³ Strong communities is the idea that the state is not there for us and we have to band together to meet our needs. We’re deeply interdependent creatures and the only thing that keeps us alive is each other. Through community survivor support, you’re flexing your community to figure out how much safety you have, how much you need to create, who has your back and who doesn’t. If up until this moment you haven’t been surrounded by feminist or anti-patriarchal friends, you might be going through this really intense shift as you realize that the people who you love don’t love you enough to have your back. So there’s a moment where we realize, maybe that’s not my community. It’s a radicalizing experience even if the people don’t have a “fuck the state” or “fuck the cops” mentality beforehand.
AWWP: By most reports, sexual violence and violence against women are on the rise since the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008. There is a general uptick in domestic violence and incarceration of women, alongside growing murders of trans women and continuing phenomenon of mass shootings targeting women. How do you explain this phenomenon?
The statistics need to be taken with a pound of salt because of how under-reported sexual violence is and how many things we as radicals would consider violence that isn’t considered that in dominant culture. Patriarchy works mostly by convincing other people it doesn’t exist, so I strongly distrust statistics. I’ve seen a lot of people put themselves in harm’s way in order to provoke an abuser into hurting them in the way that is codified as “real” abuse. In the South there is a lot of the “mind your own business” thing or “you’re taking it out of context” or “she didn’t say it was this” or “she’s still sleeping with him so it can’t be abuse.” I’m sure some of this happens everywhere.
The South is a harder place to organize in because we don’t have a set of non-profits staffed largely by radicals like the Bay Area.³ Our non-profit safety net here is not great, the shelters are always over-full, the cops do not care and do not even give the illusion of caring as they might in other places. Depending on who you are, that can be either a blessing or a curse. Different state agencies can collaborate to keep you from accessing state resources. Most shelters in Houston are set up for women with children and even then they are over-full. In Houston, the District Attorney Devon Anderson incarcerates rape survivors so that they will testify against their rapists. In Harris County, it is extremely difficult to get a protective order and the number of protective orders issued are dropping, causing even nonprofits like AVDA to give up on them. Title IX is a joke at a campus like University of Houston. There is so much control over who is a good survivor and who is not.
The thing about the state is that there are state barriers and state indifference. There is a huge factor of intimidation with mandatory reporting laws, esp. if you are under 18. This can backfire on the survivor which is why you see people trying to get police reports so that no one can say that they are lying. But then the cops don’t care, they lose police reports. Houston has a bazillion different jurisdictions. I was supporting a survivor who was really into police reports but the cops would lose them whenever she needed to transfer them, or they would say we can’t help you because you’re not in our jurisdiction. Once she got beat up in front of a cop and the cop didn’t do anything.
Cop indifference, more so than direct overt police brutality beating up survivors, is what kills survivors. It’s really hard to get perpetrators arrested, if that’s something you want do. Most of the time in domestic disturbance situations the cops drag both people to jail. The state re-traumatizes survivors over and over again. Institutions that have all these processes on paper are really hard to get moving, put the survivor under intense scrutiny and normally don’t even work for that person. The state takes the whole case out of your hands. You have no say in the final judgement against the abuser. To be honest, I have never seen the state work for a survivor. The best thing I ever saw was a mutual restraining order which also meant the survivor could be thrown in jail for violating it. The more information you give them, the faster they can turn that into something that binds you as a survivor.
Cop indifference, more so than direct overt police brutality beating up survivors, is what kills survivors.
There are a million reasons to do survivor support without the state. You can’t bring a friend into the room with you or even into shelter interviews. You have to be alone this whole time. That is a really intense traumatic thing, where you have to recount your experiences to a counselor and you’re always worried if you’re gonna say the wrong thing. A lot of sexual violence happens to people under 18, when they’re kids, so then you have mandatory reporting and you could be taken away from your parents. No kid knows how to navigate the state, adults don’t even know how to navigate the state, so there is so much intimidation.
So that’s why I say fuck the state, fuck the cop’s indifference, fuck all these bureaucratic processes. Fuck the re-traumatizing by forcing this person to recount their story to the point that they’re so alienated, they don’t even feel the emotions anymore and they start to be like, did this really happen to me? There is a discouragement of crying, there is an interview set up, it’s very intense. There is so much mistrust of survivors, even in the shelters.
AWWP: Up until a few years ago, there was a backlog of thousands of unprocessed rape kits in Houston.
Rape kits are also really intense, invasive and traumatizing. You need to do it within a certain window of hours of being raped. Doing a rape kit at a hospital is horrible and traumatizing. Nothing about the legal process acknowledges that harm is done. To conceptualize patriarchal violence, think of the specific act of violence as just the inciting incident. After that, your whole life becomes communicating about what’s been done to you, healing from it, healing on a very tight timeline because you’re being intensely scrutinized and working with people on a varying spectrum of belief in your story.
Depending on how close you and your perpetrator were in social circles, you are dealing with your friends’ shock response. People’s immediate response to a statement that one of their friends hurt someone is “that couldn’t be him” which seems innocuous. But when you are bruised and bleeding, metaphorically or physically, anything other than complete support and “I believe you” is really hard and hurts a lot. So much of that violence, because of patriarchy and feminized labor, is invisible and the survivor in the early days is not surviving in photogenic ways. They might be crying a lot, drinking too much, being bitchy, blowing up in public, not acting well socialized because their world is falling apart. The suffering is so invisibilized and the state just compounds that suffering.
AWWP: Can you say why the cops tend to take a more indifferent stance in the South?
In the South, Marissa Alexander is a textbook case of when you are in a life-threatening situation and you are confronted with indifference from the state. You’re in crisis, your option is to keep holding onto respectability points so that you’ll be seen as a “good” survivor and maybe receive help from the state. Or you can fight back. Then the state response is complete and total brutality, you are going to prison. The reality is your rapist or abuser is allowed to kill you but you are not allowed to kill them. The best thing you can do is run and give up your whole life, your stability, friends, community, maybe kids, etc. Indifference is a way for the state to force you into a more intense extreme. Within our social mores, there is a narrative that the police are there to help women so when people say fuck the police, the first response is often “but what about the rapists and murderers?” I’m completely unconvinced that cops do a single thing about the murderers and rapists of women, queers and femmes.
Indifference is a way for the state to force you into a more intense extreme.
AWWP: Or they are the rapists and murderers themselves, as in the case of Oklahoma City rapist cop Daniel Holtzclaw.
Exactly, even outside of highly publicized cases like Holtzclaw, think about the realities of stalking. You should never date a cop, they have access to everything. When I’m doing harm reduction for survivors of stalking, so much of it is tightening up that survivor’s security culture so that their abuser cannot get at her. Friends don’t let friends date cops because cops have access to guns, are expected to be murderers, and have access to total surveillance. When you think about all the aggression that is normalized in cop culture, it’s a perfect storm. Then we ask those people to be the safeguards of our poor abused women, are you fucking kidding me? Cops are abusers and have a history of abusing sex workers and queer people.
The state decides what is an acceptable survivor and an unacceptable survivor. I’m unconvinced that the acceptable survivor (with the narrative that “he hits me, here are the police reports, the hospital records, my rape kit, etc.”) even gets any help. I know for a fact that unacceptable survivors (i.e. they are considered an inappropriate age group to date the perpetrator; they use drugs; they have a kid with their abuser; they are a mistress; etc.) don’t get any state support. We have to envision a different way to relate to each other, use different tactics and treat this more like what it is: an undeclared war that you could die in. If you think your perpetrator might kill you, he probably will because you have the most soft view of him. Nobody believes that a perpetrator can change more than a survivor, at least in the early days.
We have to envision a different way to relate to each other, use different tactics and treat this more like what it is: an undeclared war that you could die in.
AWWP: Similar to other struggles, like housing organizing with tenants, you have to be prepared to deal with the state even when you hold an anti-state politics. When the state inevitably fails the survivor, how do you respond?
While we’re going through the state or legal route, we are also building other paths up. We are pursuing several avenues simultaneously. Those depend on who that person is, how much money they have, how tied down to a place they are, how they feel, what their priorities are, what their needs are. Also, going through the legal system takes a really long time and it’s more like something you circle back to. After every assault or every contact that the abuser makes, violence or otherwise, you have to file a report with the cops, so you keep on coming back to it. It’s a really long process of building evidence before a lawyer will even take your case. And going through the shelter system, there are multiple interviews, you have to call a hotline everyday to see if there are openings and normally there aren’t any.
All of this takes time and you have to survive in the meantime. The state processes are kind of like a background and we’re careful to make sure that they won’t lead to the state incarcerating the survivor. While you’re building a case against the perpetrator, the state also is gathering a lot of info on you. So if the perpetrator gets beaten up or their car spray painted with “RAPIST”, who is the first suspect? You. It’s a two way street. When we do survivor support we do it by any means necessary but you can’t do the militant girl gang approach while also filing reports with the cops. People have to make a choice which one they wanna go with. The line that I walk is to support somebody through the state process while expecting the state to stab you in the back. The state is so insidious. When I’m saying fuck the police in survivor support, I’m saying fuck the state’s insidiousness in pretending like they can help you while instead reaching around to haul your ass to jail, to give you a restraining order or saying it’s a he-said-she-said case which is incredibly damaging to people going through that.
I don’t mean I want more compassionate cops. I want more people to understand that cops don’t keep women and queers safe.
AWWP: You mentioned that a common counter-argument to “fuck the police” is that the police are needed to help combat violence like rape. Within Black Lives Matter organizing, there are some groups and individuals who identify the police as an institution that is itself patriarchal, that defends and reinforces patriarchal relations throughout society. But a lot of the more visible ways that protests are happening are in response to particular kinds of police violence – murder – and more specifically police murder of cis-men. How do you think about the need to take up cop indifference as an equally vile dynamic that has terrible consequences on our communities?
The base demands from survivor support and BLM are the same: stop killing us. With Say Her Name, there is a lot of attention to visibility and publicizing that these murders are happening. Patriarchy operates by people believing that it’s not there. Visibility is important but we have to be careful of codifying this further into respectability that police brutality only affects survivors of patriarchy in specific cases, i.e. Sandra Bland. This is not to discount how important that is. We need to be aware that this is so much bigger and we need to delve deeper and not just create more archetypes of recognizable patterns. I’m really hopeful that in this moment we can start to look at police violence and state indifference in a more nuanced way that takes into account the consequences that indifference has. Indifference isn’t neutral; even if it’s not in the form of direct violence it still has long ranging consequences that lead to incarceration and death. So it’s a really hopeful space and I’m really excited to support where it’s going further.
AWWP: If cop indifference is a significant way that police violence plays out in our communities, what kind of vision can survivor support work offer for ending police violence?
When I say fighting cop indifference, I don’t mean I want more compassionate cops. I want more people to understand that cops don’t keep women and queers safe. A liberal response to what I’m saying is “we need more training, more sensitive policing” and that approach is already being taken up in places outside of the South. But they just turn that shit into carceral humanism, which will come to the South when the brutality fails. By carceral humanism I mean gender-specific policing, like having cops certified with non-profits to be trans-friendly cops, rainbow cop cars, trans-only prisons and trans prison guards. Some elements of carceral humanism are already in Austin, the most liberal city in Texas.
The solution to police indifference is stronger communities that have a better understanding of how patriarchy affects survivors, police abolition and prison abolition. Especially when you look at prisons as sites of sexual violence for all genders, you cannot believe that they can be reformed. Sexual violence is our punishment for transgressing laws and dominant culture doesn’t seem to have a problem with that because the people that go to prison are “bad people.” You have to include prisons into your analysis of patriarchy.
1. We use “patriarchal violence” to avoid viewing the specific types of violence mentioned throughout the interview (i.e. rape, stalking) as solely the result of “fucked up” individuals. We live in a world shaped by capitalist patriarchy – a system of structural relationships, interpersonal actions, and social ideologies that reinforce gender binaries and hierarchies. It is important that we understand these everyday acts of violence as resulting from, and reproducing, this broader set of patriarchal social relations.
2. Here we use “women and queer folks” as shorthand to refer to people who identify as women, transgender, queer, two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, genderqueer and/or gender non-conforming.
3. “Strong communities” is a fairly popular slogan or theory among anarchist circles right now. Cindy Milstein considers it in her piece “Are Our Communities Strong Enough for Police to Be Obsolete?” and it was used as an anarchist elaboration of ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) with regards to the Ferguson Rebellion.
4. For more on the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC) and how it affects radical organizing in liberal cities, see The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. AM would like to point out that as problematic as the NPIC is, and as much of a dead end for revolutionary strategy, it is still nice to have radicals in nonprofits to funnel resources into unfunded projects, and provide an I-know-a-guy network for navigating state systems, shelters, immigration processes etc. There are material reasons why it is easier to organize in San Francisco than in Houston, and I think that’s one of them (though definitely not the full story).