On March 16, a gunman shot nine people, murdering eight, at three different massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Six of those victims were Asian women massage workers. There has been a rush to classify exactly what kind of violence the gunman inflicted upon these six women in order to best respond to it societally: Were these women killed because they were women? Because they were Asian? Because of their line of work? And, critically: How, no matter the answer, is the outcome “more policing,” when that solution is such a clear and dangerous failure? It’s not always clear what we can personally do or what our role is in fighting systemic issues like these—but it’s crucial that we try to do so anyway.
In some ways, legislators and public officials have already landed on a narrative: that the murders in Georgia are part of a spike in anti-Asian violence, a problem that they have determined demands as much police attention as possible. Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate who is now the frontrunner in New York City’s mayoral race, called for more funding to the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force on Wednesday. Simultaneously, the NYPD has reportedly deployed “extra officers to Asian neighborhoods across New York City,” including its Chinatown. In Chicago, the CPD has done the same.
More policing doesn't mean more protection, though, especially for communities that are already vulnerable. Studies have shown that aggressive policing, such as the institution of mandatory arrests for domestic violence calls, has served to criminalize women and deter them from reporting their abusers rather than curbing domestic violence itself. According to Slate, “Research in California revealed that the adoption of mandatory arrest policies increased arrests of men by 60 percent and arrests of women by 400 percent.” (Police officers themselves also have a pervasive domestic abuse problem.)
There is extensive documentation of the myriad ways both the system of policing and individual cops perpetrate violence against women, especially sex workers, and especially women of color. According to a 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, police use of force against women quadrupled between 1999 and 2015, and 12 million women a year have non-voluntary contact with cops in the form of “traffic stops, street stops, or in the execution of an arrest warrant.” Cops whose job it is to police sex work have been documented abusing their power for profit (see NYPD’s vice squad cashing in as much overtime as possible) and harassing and assaulting sex workers. According to a fact sheet on policing from INCITE!, sex workers experience rape, harassment, assault, unnecessary strip searches, and sexual extortion at the hands of the police in significant numbers—two surveys found “up to 17 percent of sex workers interviewed reported sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, by police.”
According to Elene Lam, co-founder of Butterfly, a support network for Asian and migrant sex workers based in Toronto, Canada, this harm is keenly felt in the present. “There is a lot of repressive policy against the massage parlor, which gives the police power to charge people and arrest people. Instead of protection, law enforcement is actually the major source of harm against sex workers,” Lam said, both in Canada and the United States. “We need to address the real reasons,” like deep-seated racism and whorephobia, “that people who work at massage parlors or in the sex industry, particularly Asians, are vulnerable to violence and become the target of the violence.”
Overseas, undercover cops are set to be deployed to “clubs, bars and popular nightspots” in the U.K. in the name of women’s safety. The push comes in direct response to the murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive who was reportedly kidnapped on March 3 and found dead a week later. A few glaring contradictions make the choice to stuff women’s spaces with police a particularly absurd “safety measure.” Wayne Couzens, the man arrested for Everard’s kidnapping and murder, was a cop on the Metropolitan Police Force. That same police force shut down a vigil for Everard and arrested mourners on March 13, two days before the prime minister’s office announced its initiative to up police presence in women’s spaces.
Simply put by Andrea Ritchie, researcher and author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color: “What's clear is that police are not preventing violence—they're perpetrating violence, and they are being lifted up as the answer in the aftermath of the violence. Through that, they are able to perpetrate even more violence.”
If police aren’t the solution to all of this harm—if their presence often inflicts it or assists it—what can we actually do to advance meaningful change and protection? Who do we call? According to women working in this space, we call one another, and we get organized. Here are a few ways to combat gendered violence, no cops necessary.
Fight pro-cop rhetoric and policy whenever you see it.
Because we know the de facto solution to violence is calling for and/or deploying more police officers, it’s pretty easy to predict when pro-cop rhetoric will show up and who will be spreading it. According to Ritchie, interrupting the narrative that because ____ are in danger, we need more police is a crucial first step in ensuring real public safety. “The things that make us safer are tackling the narratives that underlie the violence,” Ritchie said. “That requires us confronting and challenging those wherever we hear them… especially from people with power to make those and transform them into violence.”
Pay attention to how politicians, public officials, and community leaders talk about safety and community support. Are they looking to “crack down” on a “spike” or a “wave” of ill-defined “crime?” Is crime being committed by “thugs” or “monsters” and combated by law enforcement “heroes”? Are they ardently against “defunding the police,” pouring money into law enforcement budgets while gutting social services? Consider those terms to be huge red flags that signal someone is about to try throwing cops at any and all problems. Become a local politics hound to call this stuff out at its root—ask questions of councilmembers, testify at hearings, attend meetings on “public safety” now that it’s easier than ever, thanks to Zoom.
When it comes to how to speak out, this op-ed from Truthout and this interview with AAPI Women Lead co-founder Connie Wun about anti-Asian violence both make great blueprints: They unequivocally reject calls for more policing, offer alternatives rooted in solidarity, and demand that the systemic roots of violence be addressed.
Rosa, an organizer with U.K.-based feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut who preferred to use her first name only for safety reasons, emphasized the importance of on-the-ground fighting, too. Sisters Uncut is currently fighting against a piece of legislation called the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would rapidly expand police power: think more surveillance, more “random” searches, and fewer rights for protesters, according to an op-ed the group wrote for Refinery29. Sisters Uncut has organized street protests—both in response to the arrests at Everard’s vigil and as part of its fight against the bill—which Rosa said she sees as critical to the movement.
“Often the advice given to people around the question of, ‘What should we do around sexual violence and domestic violence from a non-carceral approach?’ is, ‘You need to do more learning,’” Rosa said. “Yeah, we need to do more learning, but we often need to take action right now against the expanding powers that are being given to police in their country, or across borders.”
Listen to women when they say what they need.
We need to start trusting that marginalized women know what they need to be safe—they’ve had to create safety for themselves in spite of a system that doesn’t protect them. That doesn’t mean every single woman can do no wrong, but it does mean that we need to accept that our conception of what is best for someone else is not the most important thing.
Transformative justice is a great example of this mindset applied: It’s the framework through which survivors of violence take an active role determining how the person who perpetrated violence against them gets held accountable. Survivors decide what they want, and facilitators and community members work to help them achieve it. It’s a deeply individualized process, but that’s the point—right now, we’ve got a one-size-fits-none solution in the criminal justice system.
Whose word we trust on “safety” makes a tangible difference. Lam said one of the biggest safety threats to sex workers, especially Asian and migrant sex workers, comes from anti-trafficking groups who aren’t directly part of the criminal justice system but who do call for further criminalization of sex work. “The anti-trafficking movement claims they are concerned with the rights of humans, but that is not true,” Lam said. “Their goal is not anti-trafficking, it’s anti-sex work. In Toronto and many cities, they actively lobby the city to change the policies to make sex workers more vulnerable. But because they are influential and they have resources, they are often much louder than us.”
Lam said that’s how objectively harmful legislation, like a Toronto law which forbids massage workers from locking the doors to their individual rooms while with a client, comes into existence, and sex workers had to organize in response. “We changed the enforcement, at least—people can lock the door now,” she said. “That is the result of 300 workers going to city hall to bring the concern. That is something we need to keep doing. The most important thing is to make the voice of the community heard.”
Women also need to be elevated so that we can listen to them, which means seeking out existing organizations and promoting their work, and including the women most impacted by gendered and sexualized violence in all conversations about that violence. Red Canary Song, a New York City-based collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and allies, closed its statement on the shootings with a list of demands directly from NYC-based massage parlor workers:
“1. Pay attention to the life and work safety of massage and salon employees! 2. Asian massage workers and businesses come from the community and give back to the community! 3. The legal working rights of Asian massage workers must be protected! 4. The lives of Asian massage workers must not be lost in vain! 5. The legal profession of massage work should be respected and protected by US society!”
Give women resources.
Criminalization of things like sex work and drug use, plus mandatory arrest requirements when cops respond to domestic violence calls, take things away from women: freedom, future job opportunities, contact with their loved ones. Ritchie said that’s why the opposite approach is essential. “Decriminalization is just counterintuitive to what people are thinking,” she said. “They're like ‘more cops, more laws, more protection,’ right? It's like, no! Less cops, less criminalization, less of that and more of the things people need, like immigration status, living wage employment, healthcare, housing, all the things that make us less vulnerable to violence.”
One way to do this is to donate directly to organizations that provide resources for marginalized women—mutual aid is hot right now, as well it should be! Another way is to agitate around policy in the ways above. Make sure your city council members know your name and cringe at the sound of your voice because they know you’re about to tear them up (rhetorically!) for not going far enough to protect women.
Fighting violence against women is about building up a community where people can live secure and dignified lives, making them less vulnerable to violence in the first place. “Part of the problem is that people see what happened in Atlanta, and they're like, ‘Oh my gosh, we need one big solution to this problem,’ and the one that society offers up most readily is cops, even though they are the opposite of the solution,” Ritchie said. But the hard thing to parse is that there isn’t a single solution—and that it’s essential to address the root causes of violence in order to prevent it. To that end, Ritchie said projects like the ones outlined in One Million Experiments, a virtual zine that outlines community-based safety strategies from all over the U.S., are indispensable to preventing violence against women.
“There's a million things that we could and should be doing in response to violence or for the prevention of violence,” she said. “You'll see people talking to each other in barber shops, you'll see people doing mental health responses, you'll see people feeding each other, you'll see people doing violence prevention, you'll see hotlines for people who have engaged in abuse.”
This kind of work isn’t easy—but Ritchie firmly believes it’s both preventative and essential. “The more conversations we have about toxic masculinity, violence, sexuality, domination; and the more ways in which those things are confronted, challenged, addressed, healed in everyday interactions,” she said, “The more we're addressing the problem at its root, rather than responding to a particular manifestation.”
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