(CW: Broad discussions of sexual abuse and assault, police brutality and murder)
“One good thing ill do in my life is make sure what i went through will NOT b fuckin happening to nobody. I won’t stop, im making a change.” — Anna Chambers
In mid-September, Anna Chambers was kidnapped and assaulted by Richard Hall and Edward Martins, both Brooklyn narcotics officers. This is not an allegation; the DNA matches and they have admitted to sex. As Natasha Lennard explains in the Intercept, there is no scenario in which a legally detained person can consent “in any meaningful sense of the term” to sex with her captor. This should go without saying. In a just system the case would already be decided. Yet, if Chambers wins any justice at all, it will be the fruit of decades of work by feminist and anti-police brutality activists.
This young woman, now 19, is facing down one of the most vicious pitiless and dirty criminal organizations in the country. Shortly after the assault, nine NYPD officers arrived at the hospital in a brazen attempt to intimidate Chambers. She believes the police are since then routinely surveilling and harassing her. However, it could be argued that these things are well within an officer’s job description.
The police have attempted to build a case for consent by citing Chambers’ Instagram modeling. Defaming the character of a survivor has been a common practice. Defendants try to prove that a woman has any sort of independent sex life or that she otherwise deviates from an “ideal-victim” stereotype. This sort of slut-shaming (besides violating rape shield laws) is fading from the cultural scene, posting half-nude photos on Instagram is for many of us just a part of having a body. It’s hard to imagine many people in Brooklyn still think this way, besides these sad middle-aged pigs (and perhaps their friends at the court).
The police probably did find her online presence disturbing. Both the bikini photos and Chambers’ broader boldness failed to match their expectations of victim-hood. As they noted in a leaked letter to the Brooklyn DA: “This behavior is unprecedented for a depressed victim of a vicious rape.” Surely Hall and Martins believed that, considering their massive institutional protections, they could count on Chambers to be ashamed and silenced. She has not. Her turn instead towards the public, as a legal tactic and an end in itself, must be an unsettling development.
Many would advise Chambers go offline to await the results of the trial, stop talking to media, and stop addressing supporters online. She likely faces a torrent of abuse on social media, but she’s also attracted a large group of supporters and inspired many to tell their stories. Her stand is now about more than her case alone.
MeToo for the Police State
Over the past half-year, MeToo has encouraged thousands of women to speak out against innumerable instances of misogynistic aggression, across a spectrum of severity, that they encounter in their daily life. As in the earlier hashtag YesAllWomen, the pervasiveness of those experiences, the way it colors all women’s lives, is a central takeaway. Anna Chambers is, at great risk to herself, speaking to another too-common facet in American life.
Many of us know what it feels like to pass a police vehicle on the side of the road, or see one in our rearview mirror. Our hearts don’t stop fluttering for minutes, or hours, even after innocuous encounters with a cop. With cop cars on every corner those survivors of traumatic police violence experience ubiquitous intimidation. Imagine what it must have been like for Chambers two weeks after her assault, simply being ticketed for marijuana possession?
America’s authoritarian ideology is more than just its white power system — it is a truly intersectional system with a rather significant base of support as such. It was built to control black populations, and sustaining it requires a large degree of white hate and apathy towards black life. However its abuses have been universalized and its constituency is deaf to the pleas of black, latinx, asian, arab, indigenous or white casualties.
Feminism Against Police Power
“Anna stands at the intersection of two cultural shifts: the rising credibility of women who report sex crimes in the #MeToo era, and the falling credibility of police.” — Albert Samaha, Buzzfeed
Black feminists have always had an intersectional feminist critique of police violence which articulated the Police State as a racist-patriarchal institution. In the context of Black Lives Matter, SayHerName emphasized cases of violence against black women. The culture around sexual abuse is quickly shifting as the feminist imperative of “believing victims” is mainstreamed. This could have unexpectedly radical intersectional implications if it was ever applied to victims of police terror. Here we could see the power of the long awaited combination of feminist and black movements.
The statistical link between police and misogynistic violence is now well-known. Perhaps this explains why, before and after the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (1994), police and the court system have routinely refused to defend women from abuse, assault, and stalking. America’s marginalized literally cannot afford to utilize the court system. When victims do seek justice the courts are infamously lenient and the process is known to be re-traumatizing. Indeed it is hard to escape the impression that rape has been decriminalized, along with most crimes against the poor. I would suggest that abusers, alongside our country’s Zimmermans, have in this way been deputized.
Meanwhile women are the nation’s fastest growing prison population and, as organizations like Survived and Punished expose, survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault are disproportionately targeted for incarceration, often for the crime of self defense. Survivors are sometimes even assaulted by the police in the very process of reporting these crimes, as in the case of Trina Kim Townsend.
In black communities many of the recently “exposed” abuses have been common knowledge for decades. Blacks, met with eye-rolling from newsmen, have routinely reported police extortion of sex workers, drug dealing, protection rackets, evidence-planting and much more. Cases on the more mundane end of the harassment-coercion-assault spectrum must be bottomless. The magnitude of any of these practices remains very difficult to measure, though many organizations are undertaking the long work of police crime data aggregation themselves.
We as a society were unwilling to suspend our disbelief and investigate these claims. To end patriarchal police violence we must overcome both the cultural and legal power of rapists and the corresponding power of the police.
The American police officer has a truly absolute authority. This is not just a product of the War on Terror, the 1994 Crime Bill, or Richard Nixon; it is a longstanding feature of our government. In our lifetimes, however, it seems to have ballooned, becoming more technologically sophisticated, gaining more and more legal authority, and explicitly understanding itself as absolutist.
We know now that we are not only being denied justice because of the (quite probable) prejudice of judges, juries, and prosecutors. We are years into a repeating cycle of acquittals, in those rare cases that even make it to trial. The way in which unambiguous footage has spectacularly failed to change the equation for the courts, makes the situation all the more clear: unlimited police power is a formal feature of the legal system. Thanks to case law and nonpartisan legal initiatives the overwhelming majority of Americans now face routine molestation by the police, who routinely escalate the situation into violence and abuse, knowing they can act with impunity.
“Escalation” is, at least, the word we use. It suggests the cops are unaware of the proper policing techniques. But this isn’t a misunderstanding; police haven’t been killing black people and coercing captives into sex for a hundred years because they never read the manual. The police and their defenders do not even say as much, it is only the centrist critique of police that talks of de-escalation and other technical fixes. Instead a rather visible segment of the public stand behind the prerogative to commit police violence by explicitly defending its impunity as such. The plight of the criminal cop has become a cultural rallying point.
Chambers’ public campaign is necessary if she hopes to receive a modicum of justice from the court system. Over the last few years a fierce public battle for the most basic accountability has pushed forward rare and reluctant indictments for murder, human trafficking, sexual harassment and other infamous police practices. Until now, as far as the court system was concerned, all of these police practices were perfectly legal. Only a massive militant political movement can bring this to an end.
MeToo’s Next Steps
It is easy to be cynical about the potential impact of MeToo. It has not been a therapeutic half-year online. We’re even seeing Brock Turner’s face again, apparently a perfect composite of the average American rapist. Too much of the intellectual, emotional, and organizational work is being done by survivors. In a very real way a lot of our progress this year has been at their expense.
Beyond this, there is good reason to doubt that in Hollywood we will find many crusaders against the prison system. These women, who should nevertheless be taken seriously, have a much bigger platform than most. Their use of this platform has been very productive for the U.S. culturally, but what results MeToo will achieve on the ground is ambiguous. Chambermaids don’t yet have a movement behind them. So for most of us this doesn’t just mean that we cannot expect justice, thanks to American libel laws outing an abuser by name carries serious legal penalties.
But the truth is: the next time someone says they were assaulted by the police, more people will believe them. The police are no longer so well-trusted that this is unimaginable to us. Things are changing, this is making a difference. Cynics are being proven wrong again and again, myself included. The conversations, especially outside the media, have not stalled out on “rich white women’s problems.” A lot of leftist intersectional feminist theory is being silently mainstreamed, sometimes at a dizzying pace. With Times Up some women in Hollywood have amplified the voices of working women and intersectional feminist activists. Partly thanks to Alex Press’ dogged campaign, union power is being discussed as a necessary condition for regular women to end workplace sexual abuse. Feminists have been building a radical political outlook that must now be harnessed for our war on the racist capitalist patriarchal police departments.
None of this is a repudiation of MeToo’s critics, it could not have happened without them. It is not nearly enough, but it is something. Even if her case against these officers fails, like so many others, Chambers’ stand is making a difference. This is an important stage in building the solidarity and compassion that is the mortar of our coming coalition.
Anna Chambers should not be pitied but applauded, her bravery in the face of the NYPD, one of the world’s best-armed occupying armies, should inspire more of us to speak out against the police and their adjuncts, those racist-sexist bosses, husbands, owners, and well-connected private citizens. Together we can and must abolish the patriarchal police state.
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Anna Chambers is on twitter @annaaachambers
Survived and Punished is launching a campaign for Alisha Walker, learn more here: https://vimeo.com/255412331