Black Feminist Alchemy, Reproductive Justice, and the Carceral State

Audre Lorde standing in front of board reading "Women are powerful and dangerous." Source: The Guardian.
Audre Lorde standing in front of board reading “Women are powerful and dangerous.” Source: The Guardian.

In the poem “Revolution is One Form of Social Change,” Audre Lorde describes patriarchy as the foundation of the inequality that most viscerally expresses itself through racism:

When the man is busy
making n******
it doesn’t matter
what shade
you are.

She concludes the poem by saying that sex is “after all/ where it all began.” The poem appeared in Lorde’s fourth book of poetry, New York Head Shop and Museum, which was published in 1974—one year after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized access to abortion. In providing women a right to abortion nationwide, the Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade hinged on the question of privacy and a freedom from what it had, in a related 1972 case, declared as “unwarranted governmental intrusion.”

Yet unwarranted governmental intrusion was very much on the march in the early 1970s. Throughout the twentieth century, Black, Latina, and indigenous women had been involuntary sterilized by the thousands. While the practice had declined in the 1970s—thanks, in large part, to organizing by women of color feminists—it had not ended. The threat of sterilization remained strong for women and others who had been institutionalized, either in jails or prisons or in mental institutions. (Indeed, the practice evidently continued into the twenty-first century, as California sterilized almost 150 incarcerated women between 2006 and 2010.)

The fight over abortion rights and reproductive justice today is, as many have noted, the result of decades of work by the Christian right—often led by a mainstreaming of its most fringe elements. But the story is inseparable from transformations of the American state in the realm of policing and incarceration.

As the Supreme Court used a defense of privacy to extend abortion rights, the expansion of police power demonstrated that such rights would not be extended to marginalized populations. Abortion gained legal recognition at the same time as both local and federal governments turned to what historian Elizabeth Hinton in her book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime describes as a “plainclothes strategy” of urban policing that expanded the surveillance, arrests, and brutalization of working class Black communities. The right to privacy did not extend to those suspected of criminal offenses, as the federal government unrolled its “no-knock” warrant policy that allowed police to bust down doors and bust in heads as part of the war on drugs, first launched in 1971.

At its most extreme, this strategy sanctioned paramilitary police units, such as Detroit’s “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets” unit that, between 1971 and 1974, made more than 6,000 arrests and killed more than 40 people, making Detroit the city with the largest number of police killings at the time. Public outcry to close the unit helped elect Coleman Young as the city’s first Black mayor. Yet even as he shuttered the unit, Young instituted youth curfews, expanded the police force, and established one of the first mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession.

Other paramilitary units lasted even longer. As Max Felker-Kantor shows in Policing Los Angeles, the LAPD created a similar unit in 1973. Originally called Total Resources Against South Bureau Hoodlums (TRASH), the unit changed its name to Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. But the mission remained the same: “the LAPD’s elite antigang unit…functioned as an aggressive assault-type unit.” CRASH lasted into the 1990s, using an evolving list of targets—gangs, drugs, illegal immigration—to mount a multifaceted offensive against working class communities of color.

Policing, surveillance, and incarceration—carceral power—are repressive forms of social control. Part of the origin of contemporary threats to reproductive rights can be found in these decades of increasing the state’s capacity to enact violence over people’s bodies and lives. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg warned that the overturning of Roe v. Wade would not “bring us back” to the dark days of back-alley abortions but would, in fact, be much worse because “today’s legal context has been transformed by decades of anti-abortion activism equating abortion with murder, as well as by mass incarceration.”

Five decades of carceral expansion—more police, tougher laws, longer sentences, harsher prisons—is of a piece with four-decades of antifeminism that appears to be reaching a crescendo in this spate of antiabortion laws. Whether through forced birth or forced sterilization, the US has, for decades, as Jeanne Flavin shows in Our Bodies, Our Crimes, mobilized the criminal justice system to control poor women of color’s reproduction. The laws passed or under discussion in nearly a dozen states proceed from this tested approach: their aim is not to prevent abortion—something they could not really do—but to criminalize it. That is why, as the women of color reproductive justice collective SisterSong has described it, reproductive justice is a “human right” that requires universal access not only to abortion but “contraception, comprehensive sex education, STI prevention and care, alternative birth options, adequate prenatal and pregnancy care, domestic violence assistance, adequate wages to support our families, safe homes, and so much more.”

The inexorable result of a sprawling commitment to state punishment, the recent antiabortion laws mobilize severe state repression to control women’s reproduction and lives. All the bills offer is severe punishment for women who seek access to abortion and medical professionals or others who may help them: Alabama threatens 99 years incarceration to anyone who provides an abortion, while Georgia’s ban could even spark police investigations of miscarriages. The severity and scope of punishment vastly exceeds what people faced prior to 1973.

While the punitive laws in Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and elsewhere were being crafted, the Black feminist alchemy conjured by Audre Lorde worked its magic in the National Bail Out campaign. A nationally coordinated, locally based organizing initiative of more than a dozen Black-led organizations, the Black Mama’s Bail Out has raised almost $2 million and freed more than 300 women from jail.

The campaign highlights the gendered severity of the criminal justice system. Although men comprise the vast majority of people incarcerated, women are jailed awaiting trial at much higher rates than men, have a faster growing rate of incarceration, and are more likely to be parents and primary caregivers of young children than male counterparts—on top of the added family burdens that non-incarcerated women play in supporting their incarcerated loved ones. From forced sterilization to family separation, the carceral state is an act of reproductive violence.

Against this dystopian crucible, Black feminism offers a poignant notion of reproductive freedom. It is a worldview premised on a universal vision of health care, collective safety, and human rights formed at the particular intersection of racism, sexism, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. It is an approach that would deny “the man” Audre Lorde spoke of any opportunity to render people abject, to force or deny them parenthood, to control their personhood. It is, now more than ever, the alchemy we need.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.