Confronting Crime and Criminalization:
Race, Gender and Policing in Minneapolis
By Amber Joy Powell & Michelle S. Phelps | September 28, 2021
Amber Joy Powell is a PhD candidate and Michelle S. Phelps is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.
In the 16 months since police officers murdered George Perry Floyd Jr. in Minneapolis, grassroots activists and community members have spurred an ongoing global conversation about racialized police violence. Recent surveys by the American Public Media Research Lab and our research team indicate that Black residents (and other residents of color) in Minnesota hold higher levels of distrust towards police, experience higher levels of police discrimination, and believe police are more likely to target racial and ethnic minorities than white residents. In response, grassroots organizers and local leaders have proposed a range of recommendations to address police violence, from defunding—or altogether abolishing—the Minneapolis Police Department, to more modest reforms such as banning chokeholds and misconduct training.
While three queer Black women initiated the Black Lives Matter movement to protest anti-Black racism and violence in 2013, the social and political outcry over police violence has largely centered the stories of Black men. Black feminist grassroot activists, scholars, and politicians, however, remind us that Black cisgender and transwomen are not simply collateral damage or vessels of vicarious trauma for Black men’s victimization. They too experience disproportionate police violence, yet are much less likely than Black men to receive extensive—if any—media coverage.
Black cisgender and transwomen are not simply collateral damage or vessels of vicarious trauma for Black men’s victimization. They too experience disproportionate police violence.
Driven by Black women’s erasure from public discourse on policing, campaigns such as #SayHerName have mobilized on behalf of Black women victims like Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and Ma’Khia Byrant to reframe the public conversation around who police target, discriminate against, and brutalize.
Navigating the Violence Matrix
Our recent work brings women of color to the center of the conversation over policing and police violence in Minneapolis. We analyze interviews with 53 women who lived in (or, in a few cases, worked and frequented) North Minneapolis between 2017 and 2019, a period of public upheaval due to several high-profile police killings and debates over police reform. North Minneapolis is one of the city’s most segregated and heavily policed set of neighborhoods.
One of our key findings is that women of color were more likely than their white women neighbors to experience both gender-based violence and fear contacting the police for help. As Black feminist scholars and activists such as Beth Richie, Mariame Kaba, and Kimberlé Crenshaw have outlined, Black women are simultaneously vulnerable to interpersonal violence (e.g., sexual or domestic abuse), community violence (e.g., neighborhood victimization), and state violence (e.g., police brutality). These compounding risks facing Black women and their loved ones produce a “violence matrix”—which leads to a unique form of “dual frustration” for women of color, trapped between the threats of interpersonal and police violence. In contrast, as mostly homeowners, the white women we interviewed were largely shielded from violence by race, gender, and class privilege.
Of our 53 interviews, 16 women disclosed prior experiences of gender-based violence (e.g., sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence) and several cited domestic disputes as a primary problem in the neighborhood. These moments provided opportunities for police to respond with compassion and care. Instead, women of color—and especially Black women—typically recounted stories of police apathy, criminalization, and procedural injustice. At times, invoking law enforcement assistance after gender-based violence compounded their trauma.
Kamela, a Black woman in her early 40s, told us that “Every time I call the police and I was in danger, it got flipped on me. I know for a fact I was the one being attacked. I was the one being in danger, but they flipped it on me . . . when they run my name, and it pops up, they automatically assume that I’m the one that’s the aggressor. And that has not been the case. So, when they walk up on me, it’s already like that. They don’t want to hear shit I gotta say . . . And it frustrates me, so I get irritated . . . it’s like I’m a bad person. You didn’t even hear what I have to say.”
Most women of color described pervasive criminalization, or police treating them as potential suspects—even when they were the ones calling for help.
Most women of color described pervasive criminalization, or police treating them as potential suspects—even when they were the ones calling for help. They described racial profiling, hostile verbal commands like “Shut the fuck up,” aggressive physical restraining, and invasive body searches. Over three-fourths of women of color expressed that white people receive better treatment than people of color, particularly Black Americans, during police encounters. One Black woman, Patricia, told us pointedly, “When that white woman got shot, oh! Then it opened everybody’s eyes . . .When somebody white gets killed? “Oh my God! It’s the end of the world. We’ve got to find somebody!” But then also, too, if the suspects they say are Black, they’d be looking all over the place for us . . . So, it’s racism.”
In addition, women of color were concerned about police violence against their loved ones, most often male family members, friends, or partners. These women worried about the Black and Native men in their lives, and especially sons and partners who had a larger physique, locs, or wore clothing that police deemed “suspicious.” They believed that police perceived routine activities like driving as suspect, especially if there was more than one Black man in the car. At times, this worry about police violence meant that women of color were hesitant to call the police when experiencing violence in the home. They worried that calling the police would lead to arrest and host of related consequences, from lost jobs and incarceration to the threat of potentially lethal violence.
In contrast, while a couple of our white interviewees described experiencing gender-based violence, they did not experience police criminalization or the pervasive fear of police violence.
In contrast, while a couple of our white interviewees described experiencing gender-based violence, they did not experience police criminalization or the pervasive fear of police violence. When police did respond to their abuse, they were treated fairly and experienced the officers as intervening on their behalf. Many white women were explicitly reflexive about this privilege, describing how their whiteness—and to a lesser extent, gender—shielded them from police maltreatment, despite living in a heavily-policed community. Sheila, a white woman in her mid-40s, shared that “I’m pretty damn sure that when [police] pull me over and they see my two baby car seats . . . and I’m a white lady who dresses like a professional . . . they assume I’m up to only good things. And that works in my advantage.”
For decades, Black women (and other women of color and queer activists) have been at the center of reimagining interpersonal and community safety that does not rely on policing. As Eva Boodman warns through her framework of the “violence of anti-violence,” policies and practices that are supposed to “protect” women from violence often produce the state violence of criminalization. Instead, activists call for movements that not only recognize Black women’s unique standpoint in the matrix of violence, but also seek to transform conditions that marginalize Black women. Organizations like the African American Policy Forum, Survived & Punished, Project NIA, and Interrupting Criminalization offer a wealth of resources for activists and policymakers that are rooted in abolitionist approaches to improving women’s safety.
As one Black woman in our study told us, “We all deserve to feel safe in our homes and around our homes and our neighborhoods. We all deserve to have policing in our communities, or ways of managing things in our communities that are, like, helpful and positive . . . that build rather than tear down and destroy.”
Amber Joy Powell is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota and an American Bar Foundation Law & Inequality Fellow and Ruth Peterson Fellow. She has previously written about sexual violence in Minnesota for the Gender Policy Report.
Michelle S. Phelps is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. She has previously written about incarcerated women and education for the Gender Policy Report.
Photo by Tony Webster, licensed under Creative Commons.