On May 15, 2003, fifty-seven-year-old Harlem resident Alberta Spruill sat inside Convent Avenue Baptist Church, enjoying the service theme, “My Time Has Come.” That evening she praised God, hugged fellow parishioners, and “was happy to be in the service of the Lord.” That night would also be her last time at the Harlem church and final moments with her church family. The next day Spruill would be dead. On the morning of May 16, 2003, Spruill prepared to go to her job of twenty-nine years with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Around 6:10 a. m., twelve heavily armed New York Police Department (NYPD) officers stood outside her sixth-floor apartment armed with a no-knock warrant. An informant notified cops that a local drug dealer operated a narcotics ring inside Spruill’s apartment. The informant also alleged that cocaine, guns, and money were stashed in the “drug den.” Without investigating the informant’s claims, officers broke down Spruill’s door and detonated a flash grenade, hoping that the deafening boom and blinding flash would disorient the “drug dealers.” Once inside the apartment, cops located Spruill on her bedroom floor. They immediately handcuffed the unarmed and disoriented woman to a chair. One neighbor, who lived across the hall from Spruill, said she heard the “boom and officers shouting ‘get down.’ And the lady was screaming ‘I can’t breathe!” A thorough search of Spruill’s apartment uncovered nothing. No guns. No narcotics. And no money. Police had the wrong apartment. Had officers investigated the informant’s claims, they would have discovered that the occupant in the alleged drug house was a hardworking mother and city employee. The historic criminalization of Black womanhood denied Spruill the benefit of the doubt. Presumptive criminality forfeited her right to legal protections and civil liberties. Realizing their blunder, officers uncuffed Spruill, who had a heart condition, and rushed her to Harlem Hospital. Two hours later, the longtime city employee died at the hospital, succumbing to heart failure precipitated by the botched police raid.
Spruill’s tragic killing is not exceptional. History reminds us that Spruill was not the first, nor would she be the last, Black women to lose her life to state sanctioned violence. Spruill joins a morbidly long and growing list of women and girls who were—and continue to be—assaulted and killed by law enforcers in their homes; and those whose personal stories of gender specific violations go unseen and unheard by the general public. In thinking about the “strange fruit” that bears the physical and emotional wounds left from state sanctioned violence and terror, the names of murdered women including Spruill and 2020 police brutality victim and Kentuckian Breonna Taylor are seldom foregrounded in conversations about police violence and murder. Historic and contemporary discourse on policing gives the impression that men and boys are primarily susceptible to excessive and deathly police force, and that gender protects women and girls from such violations. This is hardly the case. According to the Association of Black Women Historians’ (ABWH) 2015 statement on Modern Day Lynching of Black Women in the U. S. Justice System, “black women and girls have never been afforded a femininity that deemed them innocent….[They] are readily blamed and maligned rather than assisted or protected.” A failure to produce gender inclusive narratives on policing and recognize “the terror of the mundane and quotidian” has broad implications for Black women and girls. Limited visibility on the varying intersections between race, gender, and policing misses the historic and contemporary dangers looming over women and girls’ lives and ignores women’s histories of victimization and resistance.
‘It Was The Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened to Me’
African American women and girls have experienced a long and painful history of police brutality. Like for African American men and boys, police terror, in its varying and insidious forms, was an occupying force in women’s everyday lives. From slavery to freedom, multiple forms of race, gender, and class prejudices and denial of citizenship rights made working and middle-class women and girls prime targets for police harassment. Police brutality was a chronic phenomenon that forced women and girls to navigate the unpredictable terrain of American life. Drawing from turn-of-the-twentieth century racist and sexist caricatures and Black crime statistics, state and federal lawmakers and enforcers mounted derisive attacks against women and girls, identifying them as anticitizen, pathological and hypersexual, and as moral and legal threats to American civilization. In his 1906 memoir Guarding A Great City, New York Police Department Commissioner William McAdoo wrote that Black women were “vicious and drunken…[and] carry revolvers and razors…who prey on white men.” Newspapers also buttressed images of menacing “colored amazons,” employing injurious racist illustrations to draw links between Blackness, criminality, and white vulnerability. For McAdoo and other white Americans, Black women, to borrow from historian Clare Sears, were “problem bodies;” that is bodies that jeopardized societal order and were unfit for citizenship and incapable of being victimized. Moral panic surrounding Black womanhood and girlhood were not about real or imagined criminality or sexual deviance. White perceptions of Blackness reflected “the cultural fabric of American whiteness—a whiteness that [was] steeped in the ideologies of white supremacy” and stripped away lack citizenship and humanity.” Constructed identities and widely-accepted narratives about Black women and girls forever changed their lives, making them susceptible to inhumane treatment, Jim Crow policing, and “ineligible for personhood.” Women and girls were “subjected to laws but refused the legal means to contest those laws [and] denied the political legitimacy and moral credibility necessary to question them.” They were also vulnerable to punitive state intervention and surveillance, judicial punishment and confinement, and aggressive policing.
Appearing in a myriad of forms, unfettered police repression and violence became a standard and pervasive practice against nonwhite women. Existing outside the bounds of legal protections, Black women and girls, whether socializing with friends, minding their business in public spaces, spending time in their homes, or operating street or home-based businesses, braved unbridled police harassment throughout the twentieth century. Part of a culture of white supremacy, police violence functioned as a way to exert power and control over Black bodies while terrorizing African American communities. Moreover, police brutality served as a tool in the protection of whiteness and race, gender, and class hierarchies. Rookie and veteran and plainclothes cops, detectives, corrections officers, and other state actors pulled their weapons out on unarmed women, hurled derogatory racial epithets at women, and brutally violated women in their homes, on the streets, and in police cars and station houses. In 1924, Black New York residents living in the vicinity of Harlem’s Fourteenth Police Precinct complained to the New York Age (NYA) that officers often battered imprisoned women. Concerned Blacks also asserted that “The Third Degree has long been practiced by officers at the precinct.” Referred to some Black New Yorkers as “an indoor lynching or near-lynching,” the “Third Degree” was a police technique employed to extort confessions and information from those in police custody. Police detainees, those suspected of criminal offenses or apprehended for being Black, were beaten during interrogations and endured prolonged grilling, food and sleep deprivation, and other forms of extreme subjugation and mental annihilation. The “Third Degree” went “hand in hand with the destruction of the autonomy and dignity of the victim, and [stood] in stark contrast to the modern concept of humanity.” Gender did not shield imprisoned women from police torture. Hoping that someone would hear their cries, women jailed at the Fourteenth Precinct pleaded for cessation from physical and perhaps even sexual violations. Yet, their piercing cries for their abuse to stop hardly went unnoticed. One resident claimed that: “All night long, female prisoners alarmed the neighborhood and kept everybody awake with their pitiful pleas of ‘Mercy! Oh! My God! Please stop, Please!’”
In 1935, twenty-year-old graduate student Vivian Darden experienced a similar encounter while in police custody. Troubled for the Brooklyn woman occurred when a patrolman ordered her to “move off” the street after witnessing a fight. “Not moving fast enough” the officer repeatedly shoved Darden. Visibly upset with the patrolman, Darden defiantly responded: “don’t push me.” Taken aback by the young woman’s retort, the officer pinned her arms behind her back, tightly handcuffed her hands, and arrested her for disorderly conduct. Darden’s real crime was verbally protecting herself and challenging police violence. For such violations, Darden endured a brutal assault at the police station. The arresting officer yelled at and “kicked and pummeled her throughout the booking process.
Police brutality and the lack of protection from it was a constant source of frustration, rage, and terror for Black women and girls following World War II. For many, police presence evoked emotions captured in writer Langston Hughes’s 1947 poem “Who But the Lord?” Hughes poignantly writes: “I looked and I saw, That man they call the law. He was coming, Down the street at me! I had visions in my head, of being laid out cold and dead, or else murdered, by the third degree.” Federal legislation enacted during the civil rights and Black Power movements that was supposed to guarantee political enfranchisement, equal protection under the law, and first-class citizenship hardly shielded women from discrimination or from what soul singer Marvin Gaye called “trigger happy policing” in his classic 1971 song “Inner City Blues.” Black women’s citizenship became entangled in 1960s and 1970s national legislation aimed at tackling wars on crime and drugs. And law enforcement officers were on the front lines of such wars. Equipped with military-style equipment and protective gear, police enforced draconian drug penalties and conducted militarized no-knock raids and mass roundups and strip and cavity searches. And they enforced anticrime and drug measures that targeted less privileged Black citizens such as fifty-six-year-old Harlem widow Ruby Baker.
On September 2, 1973, Baker became one of the first causalities of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s stringent 1973 drug laws. More than an hour after the enactment of New York and the nation’s harshest drug statutes, which carried a mandatory minimum sentence fifteen years to life for possession of small amounts of narcotics, several officers were at Baker’s apartment door, making one of the city’s first drug raids under the newly adopted laws. The problem was cops had the wrong apartment. “Around 1 a. m., police [posing as utility workers] knocked on the door and wanted to fix a leak. They began putting their weight against the door and [Baker] fled. [She] thought they were burglaries.” Fearing for her life, Baker ran onto to the fire escape. “When she got on the fire escape and looked down. Cops on the street had pistols drawn at [her]. They told [her] don’t move or we’ll shoot.” A terrified Baker ran. Losing her balance, she fell down the stairs, injuring her arms, hands and shoulders. While the NYPD issued an apology, Baker initiated a two-million-dollar civil suit against the city. Law-abiding Black women such as Ruby Baker bore the physical and emotional scars of state sanctioned home invasions. Law enforcers’ aggressive efforts to quell alleged crime left battered bodies and destroyed property and trampled over women’s civil and human rights. A Chicago woman, whose house was raided in 1971 by narcotics officers, noted that “police have no respect for you. They do whatever they want when they raid your house.” For many women and their families, police raids generated feelings of humiliation, anger, and distrust of law enforcement. Moreover, the horrific ordeal of experiencing a police raid traumatized Black women. Feelings of personal and domestic safety and anxieties about continued police surveillance and violation plagued women’s psyche.
‘Naturally I Fought Back’: Black Women’s Fight Against Police Brutality
Equally important to histories about pervasive state violence are narratives about political struggles against it. African American women and girls were at the forefront of national and local antipolice brutality campaigns and racial justice movements aimed at eradicating police abuse. Throughout the twentieth century, a diverse cross section of women and girls advocated for equal justice, public and private safety, and police accountability. Collectively, activists courageously took on police departments and their fraternal orders and elected and appointed officials, challenging the vestiges of “Jim Crow policing,” inequitable public institutions, coercive police power, and the everyday harms Blacks experienced at the hands of state actors. Women demanded protection from unreasonable search and seizure, an end to coerced confessions and police immunity from criminal prosecution, equitable distribution of city resources, and independent civilian complaint review boards. And some women such as activist and scholar Angela Davis, long before the police killings of Detroit seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley in 2010 and forty-six-year-old Minnesota resident George Floyd in 2020, were active in political movements that “called for entirely different social and economic order in which prisons and police would not exist” and for the revisioning of public safety.
Black women resisted police repression at every turn. Their everyday multitiered activism against police abuse assumed various political, intellectual, and cultural expressions. Committed to transforming policing around the nation and safeguarding Black life, activists engaged in verbal and physical self-defense; letter writing campaigns to journalists and civil rights organizations; testified before congressional hearings; initiated civil lawsuits against police departments; and partnered with civil rights and Left organizations. For instance, prominent 1920s Harlem gambling entrepreneur Madame Stephanie St. Clair used the New York Amsterdam News (NYAN) to warn black women about abusive police officers. In several brief NYAN editorials, the Numbers Queen (St. Clair) wrote “if officers meet you on the street and suspect you of anything, do not let them search you on the street, or take you to any hallway to be searched.” Racialized and gendered violence against city Black women were also taken up by Black women Communist party (CP) leaders. During the 1940s, Harlem CP and Civil Rights Congress activist Audley “Queen Mother” Moore organized several CP sponsored mass meetings over the vicious beatings of New York Black women. Throughout the late twentieth century, a new generation of Black women activists, intellectuals, cultural producers, and survivors of police violence, all inspired by the legacies of the civil rights and Black Power and Black Feminist movements and enraged by the 1970s police killing of several women and children, sustained oppositional campaigns against cross-generational police violence. Feminist writer Audre Lorde employed poetry to bring continued awareness to police murder and as a way to emotionally move through the traumas of Black death. Several of Lorde’s powerful work, including Power (1976) and For The Record, In Memory of Eleanor Bumpurs (1986), exhibits the communal outrage and pain over the 1970s and 1980s police killings of ten-year-old Clifford Glover and senior citizen Eleanor Bumpurs.
Black women’s testimonies were powerful weapons against gender-specific police violence. To borrow from Audre Lorde, survivors of police assault had “come to believe over and over again that what is most important to [them] must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Black women and girls courageously disclosed the details of their abuse to family and close friends, civil rights groups, and during legal proceedings and congressional hearings. In 1983, New York women’s horrific experiences with the NYPD were on full display during a series of Congressional Hearings on police misconduct. Under the leadership of Subcommittee Chairman and Michigan Congressman John Conyers, women, including several NYPD female officers and sex workers, boldly presented their stories, bodies, and tears as evidence of victimization. Testimonies revealed the humiliation and powerlessness women experienced when cops verbally, physically, and sexually violated them. One survivor told hearing attendees that: “I have been humiliated. This is one thing in my life that I will never forget. My nerves have been shattered.” A former sex worker offered a riveting testimony about a 1978 rape. A white plainclothes officer “forced [me] at gunpoint into his car. I wanted to run but he told me he would shoot me in the back of my head and put the gun next to my body. Word on the streets is that the police travel with extra guns and plant them. So I let him have his way. And I never told anyone.” Informal economy women and others “in the life,” those involved in sex work, drugs, and street life, were routinely subjected to lethal and sexual violence and kidnapping and confinement. Abusive cops, such as former Oklahoma police officer and 2015 convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, used their authority to brutalize marginalized women while fulfilling violent and coercive sexual fantasies. Officers understood that individuals with histories of arrests were less likely to report crimes committed against them and to be viewed as victims.
In recent decades, Black women writers, intellectuals, and police brutality survivors have continued to spotlight what ABWH describes as a “modern-day Red Record of anti-black female violence.” In 2014, legal scholar Kimberly Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) launched the #SayHerName campaign. A powerful movement, #SayHerName “sheds light on Black women’s experiences of police violence and supports a gender-inclusive approach to racial justice that centers all Black lives equally.” Broadening images of police brutality victims, the #SayHerName campaign “mobilizes around the stories of Black women who have lost their lives to police violence.” The enduring struggle to bring greater visibility to Alberta Spruill and other black women and girls’ stories of victimization and resistance remains an uphill battle. Yet activists’ important racial justice work remains critical to centering women and girls’ narratives within political campaigns aimed at upending police brutality.
LaShawn Harris is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University and Assistant Editor for the Journal of African American History (JAAH). Her first multi-awarding winning monograph Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2016. Harris is part of the Organization of American Historians’ (OAH) prestigious Distinguished Lectureship Program.
Nicole Bode and Greg Gittrich, “Victim Lived her Life By the Good Book,” New York Daily News, May 19, 2003, 5.
“ABWH Statement on the Modern-Day Lynching of Black Women in the U. S. Justice System,” Association of Black Women Historians, July 28, 2015.
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), 4.
William McAdoo, Guarding A Great City (1906), 93-94, 98.
Clare Sears, Arresting Dress: Crossing-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (2015)
Kali Gross, “Policing Black Women’s and Black Girl’s Bodies in the Carceral United States,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 20 (Jan.-March 2018), 2.
Lisa Marie Cacho, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and The Criminalization of the Unprotected (2012), 6.
Silvan Niedermeier, The Color of the Third Degree: Racism, Police Torture, and Civil Rights in the American South, 1930-1955 (2019) 4; “The Third Degree,” The New York Amsterdam News, August 18, 1926, 20; Marilynn Johnson, Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City (2003)
“Police Brutality Against Women Prisoners of 14th Precinct Stirs Neighbors,” The New York Age, Sept. 13, 1924, p. 1.
“Cop Apologizes, Is Freed in Attack Case: Had Beaten, Kicked Girl,” New York Amsterdam News, Aug. 10, 1935, p. 12.
“First Casualty of Drug Law Recuperating,” New York Amsterdam News, Sept. 8, 1973.
Tony Anthony, “Mother Hits Cops on ‘Gun’ Raid, ” Chicago Daily Defender, Feb. 17, 1971, p. 1.
Shannon King, “A Murder in Central Park: Racial Violence and The Crime Wave in New York During the 1930s and 1940s,” in Brian Purnell, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodward, The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South (2019), 5.
Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (2003), 70.
MME. Stephanie St. Clair, “Display Ad 26,” New York Amsterdam News, Sept. 18, 1929, p. 6.
John Hudson Jones, “1000 at Harlem Rally Rap Cop’s Beating of Woman,” Daily Worker, May 18, 1948, p. 6; “Cops Still Guard Riot Area: Woman Tells About Beating Testimony Differs on What Happened Saturday,” New York Amsterdam News, May 22, 1948, p. 1.
Audre Lorde, The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (1986).
Audre Lorde, Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches (1984), 40.
Hearings before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives Ninety-Eight Congress: First Session on Police Misconduct” Part 2 (1984), 1638-39.
African American Policy Forum, Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women (2015), 2; “ABWH Statement on the Modern-Day Lynching of Black Women in the U. S. Justice System.”