“The Streets Belong to Us”: An Author’s Response

This post is part of our online roundtable on Anne Gray Fischer’s The Streets Belong to Us

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, June 1st 2020, Harrisburg Protesters March on the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex Advocating for the Black Lives Matter Movement (Shutterstock)

I am a daily reader of Black Perspectives, and so it’s especially meaningful to me that the editing team made space in this vibrant forum for a discussion of my book, The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification. Many thanks for your labor to publish this roundtable.

After fifteen years of working on this project, it was enormously gratifying to see the book’s arguments engaged with such startling clarity in the generous and crackling smart responses by Simon Balto, DeAnza Cook, Keona Ervin, Jessica Pliley, and Charlotte Rosen. Writing is a social process—indeed, doing history is a social process, rooted in our relationships with each other—and my work would not have been possible if I wasn’t so lucky to be in conversation and in community with this brilliant group of scholars. It is inspiring to read the connections drawn by these scholars, who collectively represent nearly half a dozen fields: African American, urban, political, police and carceral, gender and sexuality, and feminist studies. When I started out, I did not expect—and was, frankly, overwhelmed—that my research took me from Los Angeles to Atlanta; from Prohibition to broken windows policing; from Jim Crow to the post-Civil Rights moment; from moral puritanism to sexual liberalism; from beat cops to urban developers; and from city halls to state legislatures and state supreme courts. The authors gathered these threads and braided together so many more: nineteenth-century British feminism, Black Power Chicago, anti-trans laws, and the contemporary anti-carceral activism of currently and formerly incarcerated Black women.

Together, the wide-ranging themes in these essays returned to me to a fundamental belief that drove my work: sexual policing is not a small feature of modern life—rather, sexual policing reveals the specific ideological and spatial formation of state power that structures all of our lives. Put another way, if you want to learn about a place, listen to and learn from the people who are targeted by authorities because of their racialized and gendered physical existence. Listen to and learn from sex workers, poor trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, and anyone who has been repeatedly targeted and arrested by police on public-order misdemeanor charges, including loitering, disorderly conduct, and prostitution. We need to take sexual policing seriously as a major mechanism of state power. Even if the sprawling tentacles of this power are invisible to you, sexual policing does political work that produces cascading harms in our everyday life. Ultimately, we need to recognize that those experiencing the brunt of this violence, sexually profiled people, as inherently entitled to dignity, love, and care—or, as the Black woman arrested on the first page of the book insisted,  they are “a human being just like everybody else.”

While the scholars in this roundtable represent many distinct fields, we all share a commitment to history. Throughout the research process, I constantly read and heard some variation on the theme that sexual policing is “just the way it’s always been.” This narrative of sexual policing in the twentieth-century urban U.S. is deliberately a product of historical methods and analysis. To be sure, historians have to reckon—intellectually, politically, emotionally—with what often feels like the unceasing sameness of state violence. As Pliley writes, British feminist Josephine Butler knew in 1897 that “the police man was the most dangerous figure a woman who sold sex encountered.” And when Balto asks “Who (if anyone) controls the police, and to whom are they accountable?,” we can answer with certainty that it hasn’t been poor people targeted for their supposed racial, gender, and sexual deviance, or anyone whose physical existence is cast as a threat to a cisheteropatriarchal, settler colonial, and racial capitalist political order.

Two reasons led me to believe that something had changed in sexual policing across the twentieth century. First, as the Black feminist theory of Patricia Hill Collins underscores, on the question of change versus continuity, the answer is both/and. We must hold together the ferocious endurance of the active harm and hostile neglect of state violence At the same time, we must account for the insurgent and creative innovations of the “transformative justice campaigns” that Cook discusses. Second, I believe in tracking change in the past because if nothing about policing has changed, then what hope is there for the future? What can we do if everything is and always will be the same? Tracing change over time signals that change can be made in the future. in the past signals our faith that change can be made in the future.

The two previously mentioned reasons informed the basic guiding question that inspired The Streets Belong to Us: What changed in the definition of sexual policing? What changed in the definition of sexual policing, what changed in the targets and justifications of sexual policing, and what changed in what Ervin calls the “shape-shifting nature of police power”—and why? I identify three major transformations, but the scholars in this roundtable, and my book’s introduction, offer many more pathways for further work.

First, as Rosen writes, sexual policing “actively constructed and repeatedly re-authorizes police power and legitimacy broadly.” Between Prohibition and the era of mass misdemeanor public-order policing, or broken windows policing, in the 1980s, police morphed from “one of our national jokes,” according to the lead author of a federal commission report on law enforcement in 1931 into unassailably powerful players in urban planning and policymaking. Additionally, sexual policing provided a laboratory for law enforcement to test novel ways to expand the scope and reach of their power, such as “loitering with intent” laws and urban banishment orders. This change can be most clearly seen in the staggering statistics Cook provides which show the explosion of incarceration rates of Black women in the U.S. since 1980. Second, this dramatic expansion of discretionary urban police legitimacy and authority was justified through the reordering of racist and sexist ideologies of sexual deviance. White women’s presumed straight, nonmarital sexual practices were effectively decriminalized as Black women were subjected to systematic and intensified police action. In this way, authorities exposed how sexual policing was a factory for making degraded and criminalized gendered Blackness and legalized, or normalized, gendered whiteness.

Third and finally, this battle for increased law enforcement power was grounded in the urban political economy. Sexual policing made and remade the modern city. The sexual policing of white women during the eugenic moral panic of the Prohibition era constructed and fortified the walls of segregation that ringed Black neighborhoods. Later, as white women’s rising presence in public life became normalized, the sexual policing of Black women “facilitated redevelopment, facilitated gentrification, facilitated the expansion of police power,” as Balto writes. Beginning in the postwar years and accelerating in the 1970s, as police collaborated with corporate and political allies to set urban planning agendas and seize policymaking power, they pushed through a myth that Black women must be banished in order to promote economic growth. They argued, as Ervin writes, that “good cities, or white cities…were not simply those absent of Black people, they were absent of Black working-class women marked as disorderly subjects.”

Pliley and Rosen both make clear that this history had devastating consequences for feminists fighting state and interpersonal violence since the 1980s. Rosen urgently points out that “law enforcement’s twinned decriminalization of white women and hyper-criminalization of Black women further tethered white women’s material advancement to the expansion of police power”—especially as straight white women were assimilated into racial capitalism in the postwar period. White women’s relative sexual liberation, in other words, was made possible by “police power and the racially segregated urban economy it produced.” Predominantly white dominance feminists—who are called carceral feminists today—“contributed to the further sprawl of the carceral system while providing employment for highly-educated (often, white) women like themselves, while ignoring the needs of the Black women most targeted for sexual policing,” Pliley writes. Black and women-of-color feminists created an essential analytical and activist counterpoint to dominance feminism, exposing how sexual policing generated state and nonstate violence against women of color. Feminists in the Combahee River Collective, Wages for Housework, and Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders advanced an unfurling activist genealogy that can be directly linked to contemporary anti-violence organizations like Women With a Vision, Interrupting Criminalization, and the anti-carceral campaigns that Cook discusses.

I am grateful that Cook also pointed to the ways that sexual policing is bound up with anti-trans laws, “don’t say gay” bills, and assaults on reproductive rights. Together, these essays demonstrate that sexual policing is governed by other means. Materially, sexual policing generates the breathtaking harms of state surveillance, harassment, abuse, and arrest of vulnerable cis and trans Black, Indigenous, Latina, Asian, and poor white women and gender-nonconforming people in service to political elites, urban capital, and the expansion of police power itself. And, undergirding this material violence, sexual policing is a crucial site of legal control. It also factors in the production of ideas about normative, thoroughly racialized, gendered behavior. Sexual policing produces racist and sexist political hierarchies by defining and enforcing changing ideologies of normative (white) sexuality. In this way, the criminalization of prostitution means the criminalization of all people who identify as women. Whether discretionary racist, classist, and transphobic sexual policing renders women unfree or provisionally free—whether the punishing boundaries of lawful womanhood are daily barriers or simply invisible—sexual policing exists to structure the limits of social, economic, and political possibility in our everyday lives.

Gender-based policing is foundational to the enforcement of this nation’s founding violence:cisheteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism. In this legal regime, battles to defend sex worker rights, gay and trans rights, and reproductive rights are linked because they exist in the same state crosshairs to target, control, and punish people’s gender, sexual, and reproductive self-determination. Fighting a machine of state punishment that depends on the power to regulate and incarcerate gendered life means fighting for an expansive political horizon of liberation. This liberation entails the power to determine our gender, sexual, and reproductive destinies and flourish with our kin and communities free of state repression.

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Anne Gray Fischer

Anne Gray Fischer is assistant professor of U.S. gender history at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her first book, The Streets Belong to Us: Sex, Race, and Police Power from Segregation to Gentrification is a history of sexual policing in twentieth-century urban America. She has published essays on race, gender, state violence, and feminist activisms in the Journal of American History, the Journal of Social History, as well as the Washington Post, the Boston Review, and elsewhere.