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Black Women, Police Violence, and Gentrification

Photo credit: Abbey Hambright, August 6, 2006, (used under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

On September 15, six months after Louisville Metro Police Department officers killed Breonna Taylor in a raid on her home, the city of Louisville settled a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Taylor’s family. At this time, none of the officers face criminal charges. In the settlement, the city agreed to implement technical reforms to raid protocols, but the lawsuit “did not require the city to acknowledge wrongdoing.” Further, the city of Louisville “categorically denied” one of the key claims made by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, in the lawsuit. She argued that the police targeted her daughter’s home for invasion because of “a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project.” The police, Palmer claimed, “went on a crusade to target people and homes” in Taylor’s neighborhood “so that a high dollar, legacy-creating real estate development could move forward.” By denying the urban economic context that made Taylor’s killing possible, the city of Louisville has silenced the historical and ongoing relationship between Black women, gentrification, and policing. Without broader attention to the race- and gender-specific dynamics of police power, technical reforms alone will not undo decades of state violence against Black women perpetrated in the name of urban economic wealth.

For at least forty years, Black women have been casualties of police violence on behalf of urban redevelopment and gentrification. Raids, sweeps, and crackdowns have historically been perpetrated in the name of city “revitalization” and “redevelopment.” Taylor’s house was targeted for drug enforcement (though no drugs were found in the house). However, another type of public morals enforcement—sexual profiling and policing—illuminates a deliberate alliance between city politicians and police to increase urban wealth through the surveillance, arrest, and banishment of Black women.

This specific pattern of state violence began in the early 1970s. Impoverished cities—especially those in the post-industrial Northeast like New York and Boston, but even those in the booming Sunbelt region, like Atlanta—were reeling from the flight of white homeowners and white capital and from the steady decline of federal support. As urban residential populations became poorer and less white, one political scientist observed of Atlanta that “the harsh fact is that some investors are skittish about investing in a predominantly black community.” It was within this context that “street crime”—a racist dogwhistle for “Black” crime—was politicized for the benefit of liberal whites in cities, and aggressive policing was sold as the solution to urban poverty.

Sex workers and women profiled by police as sex workers were singled out as especially dangerous to economically struggling cities. In 1973, journalist Gail Sheehy wrote that a “violent new breed of prostitutes” was emerging on New York’s streets. “The struggle against big-city street prostitution and blatant pornography . . . is a battle against crime of the rankest kind. If it is lost, then legitimate businesses, tourists, frightened residents and probably the last of the middle class will flee our urban centers.”

City politicians boosted the narrative that sexually profiled women—consistently marked as Black in media accounts—posed a threat to the urban economy. For example, in a 1979 meeting with hundreds of city officials and businessmen, Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson declared that “hookers’ effect on the economy and urban development . . . cannot be lightly dismissed.”

The question facing urban politicians was how to raise investment money for development and lure white tourists and suburbanites back to the city. As social welfare resources were slashed, law enforcement—lavished with federal funding—emerged as a powerful tool for urban governments. Police leaders, politicians, and business owners tapped into an enduring script of Black women’s violent sexual criminality to vilify them as a major threat to public safety and a troublesome barrier to economic recovery. Police and their political allies presented sexual policing as an essential, frontline tactic in a growing arsenal of anticrime programs dedicated to restoring urban economic growth.

This logic ultimately merged with the practice of “broken windows” policing, which criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling introduced to popular audiences in a 1982 article in the Atlantic. Wilson and Kelling argued that so-called disorderly people—”panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed”—produced violent crime and urban decay. Among advocates of broken windows policing, sexually profiled women remained a central and unifying symbol of precisely this sort of destructive “disorder.” “[P]ublic drunkenness, street prostitution, and pornographic displays can destroy a community more quickly than any team of professional burglars,” Wilson and Kelling warned.

Broken windows policing—which held that the aggressive, low-level misdemeanor policing of “undesirable” people was necessary to revitalize cities—quickly became axiomatic in U.S. cities. But how this broken windows regime would be enacted on city streets remained undetermined. In places as regionally diverse as New York; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Champaign, Illinois; Seattle; and Fresno, California, urban authorities drove political experiments to resurrect status policing (ruled unconstitutional in 1972) and implement new techniques of mass arrest and banishment that targeted sexually profiled women.

Anti-prostitution law enforcement programs provided a template for urban authorities to target vulnerable city residents more broadly. Beginning in the late 1970s, police, prosecutors, and politicians rolled out systematic banishment programs in citywide (and, in the case of Illinois, statewide) experiments. Known variously as “map area restrictions,” “prostitution-free zones,” and “Stay Out of Areas with Prostitution” (SOAP) orders, these laws empowered police to identify and banish sexually profiled women from designated urban areas, typically downtown or mixed-use districts with rebounding property values. In some cities, police officers had the authority to impose restrictions on women in lieu of arrest, before they had been convicted of a crime. However, banishment orders were more often appended as a condition of probation. Police departments worked with prosecutors and the courts to exploit the flexibility of probation, where virtually any condition was lawfully attached as a condition of release, even in states whose constitutions prohibited banishment.

While banishment orders did not gain traction until the 1990s and the early 2000s, many of the early experiments, which originally targeted women, provided the model for similar programs that singled out alleged drug dealers and gang members, or people experiencing homelessness. In Seattle, for example, SOAP orders provided the model for Stay Out of Drug Area (SODA) orders. Through sexual policing, law enforcement and political authorities tested ways to expand the power of urban police departments to banish city residents in the name of economic redevelopment.

Urban residents, especially white homeowners and real estate agents, supported this expansion of police power. In 1981 Barbara Rothenberg, a white real estate agent in Washington D.C., who pressured police to launch an anti-prostitution campaign, said, “We’re fighting for turf…We’re fighting for the streets.” Seen from this perspective, gentrification appears as a clear project of white reclamation of urban space. Its predominantly white boosters leaned heavily on police to achieve their goals. One sexually profiled woman in Washington, D.C. reported on this dynamic as it developed in real time: “[T]here are a lot of whites moving down here. That lady Rothenberg is buying property all around here. She has her [real estate]  signs up all around here. I think that’s the reason she’s raising so much hell.”

Banishment orders dramatically institutionalized the gross imbalance of power between police and marginalized people on the streets. One Portland, Oregon police officer, embraced SOAP orders in the mid-1990s as a “great tool.”  “I’m the big hammer,” he explained. “I get them off the street. They feel it’s their street so they can do what they want. . . Even if they didn’t do anything, I just get them off my street.” Banishment orders, then, empowered the officer to establish territorial control over the city and remove women on sight.

This kind of state violence has been explicitly justified to promote urban economic growth. In February 2013, Atlanta police chief George Turner and Mayor Kasim Reed pushed for the passage of a banishment law targeting sexually profiled women. Anyone convicted of a prostitution-related offense would be banished from downtown Atlanta—regardless of whether they lived there or not—and subject to immediate arrest if police saw them there again. After a second conviction, they would be banished from the entire city. Men who solicited sex were ostensibly targeted too, but according to a local television news report, Chief Turner’s overriding goal was to “kick prostitutes out of the city of Atlanta.” Mayor Reed racked up support from business and condominium owners in the Midtown-Ponce Security Alliance. The economic motivation of the banishment law was clear: this was part of the mayor’s efforts to gentrify Midtown and “promote downtown living.”

Activists successfully fought to quash this banishment measure. But the battle in Atlanta underscored how politicians collaborate with police to harness the power of law enforcement for economic gain. Former mayor of Miami Manny Diaz proudly credited the city’s “mapping” banishment program—which he claimed “rid the area of prostitutes”—with ushering in a “transformation” of Biscayne Boulevard, now studded with “Miami’s trendiest restaurants and shops.”

We must reckon with the fact that in twenty-first century cities nationwide, law enforcement authorities and politicians have engineered a situation where the privilege of “downtown living” depends on the police harassment, arrest, abuse, banishment, and murder of women—poor, trans, undocumented, Latinx, Asian-American, Indigenous, and Black. These women may not be as visible as male victims of police power. But in our overpoliced and gentrified cities, we bear daily witness to the harm done to them. Luxury condos, outrageous rents, the “trendiest restaurants and shops”—and a bloated army of richly funded police to protect this wealth—are at once the stark proof and perverse erasures of state violence against women.

Anne Gray Fischer is assistant professor of women’s history at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is finishing her first book, a history of women, police power, and the making of modern cities from segregation to gentrification. Anne spent a magical year in Bloomington, Indiana, working as book review editor for the Journal of American History.

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