What radical black womanist politics organized around self-defense actually looks like, and why it matters.
There was no wild rhetoric about "killing whitey" or clandestine plots to ambush and torture cops when I attended a political education class hosted by Dallas's Black Women's Defense League last year. Instead, there were a lot of women of color speaking from the heart, telling one another how they felt when they walk down the street alone, sharing the fears they had for their children growing up in America today. Some of these sisters rocked kente cloth with dreads, while others had weaves and perms and wore skirts and heels. A few of the women were decidedly old school: They were alive when the original Black Panthers stormed the California State Capitol building with shotguns in 1967. But there were millennials on hand, too—ladies with hip-hop songs paused on their iPhones and books like The New Jim Crow tucked into their purses.
The Black Women's Defense League first popped up on my radar thanks in part to its red, black, and green logo, which features a woman with an afro toting a shotgun. After flipping through photos of the founder, Niecee X, brandishing firearms on social media, I couldn't help relating to the group's advocacy of firearms for self-defense. Even though I've never owned a gun, I've certainly thought about it, tempted by the illusion of security it might offer in a country where someone like George Zimmerman, a vigilante who took a young black life like mine on a whim, can walk away scot free. But prior to actually meeting with the group, I failed to grasp the scope of the issues they grapple with. As Ibora Ase, one core member of the Black Women's Defense League, put it to me, black women don't just have to fight "the man—we have to fight our men."
Niecee, the Defense League's leader, defies easy caricature. There is a distinct elegance on display in her perfectly posed Instagram selfies, where she mixes militant-fatigues, African prints, and exuberant hair styles that run the color spectrum from cherry red to Frank Ocean blond. Above all, though, she's stern and fastidious when it comes to her work as an advocate for black women—leading the core members of her group in self-defense training sessions, charity work in the community, and outreach to the at-risk youths of Dallas.
Her grandmother gave Niecee the politics bug when she was still a kid. "I knew all of the senators and who the Republicans were," she said. "I was really drinking the Kool-Aid for a minute." But it was in her early 20s that she found her way activism through local black groups in Dallas like Guerilla Mainframe and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, which introduced her to radical organizing.
It was only about two years ago that she broke off from those groups after a series of personal and professional incidents that begged for an organization specifically focused on obstacles faced by women of color. "There were issues with an individual that I had been dealing with romantically," she said of a man she met within Dallas's black activist community, "and there was some violence that occurred between him and me."
Niecee said that she was pregnant at the time and the alleged violence led to her losing a child. But what compelled her to start the Defense League wasn't a single act of malice so much as how the Huey P. Newton Gun Club handled her abuse allegations when she brought them to the attention of leadership.
"There has to be a hard line drawn within our communities and for each other that this isn't something that will be tolerated, and even further that when it does happen, if it does happen, that it will be dealt with swiftly and dealt with in a way that will ensure it does not occur again," she told me.
In an email, the co-founder of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, Babu Omowale, said that because the alleged violence took place before Niecee was an official member of HPNGC, it wasn't their problem. He questioned whether it had happened at all and added that his organization offered Niecee a tribunal with a council of elders to resolve the situation, an offer she refused. After her refusal, Niecee was excommunicated from the group. (Niecee told me her refusal was based on her wariness that the tribunal would be run predominantly by men who might not be sensitive to her concerns as a women. This is the same wariness that led her not to report the allegations to the authorities.)
After I reached out to Omowale for comment, he posted an irate note on Facebook that publicly criticized Niecee for talking to "craKKKas media." Referring to the Defense League, he said that it is "unfortunate you have to fight your own before the enemy… you and your gay ass feminist group can burn in hell."
The episode speaks to how, even within the "woke" community of radical black activists in 2017, there is still much to be done on gender equality. As Ase put it, there's sometimes a desire to "keep things in house" in the black community. The problem is, if we don't we start talking about these issues—which plague all American communities, but can be particularly threatening to black women—many more people are going to be hurt, and the movement as a whole will be held back.
The problem these women are confronting is an ugly one: According to the Violence Policy Center, which analyzed FBI data from 2014, in cases where there is a single female victim and single male offender, black women are murdered by men at more than twice the rate of white women. And 91 percent of these murders are committed by dudes they know. What's more, CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2010 found that 22 percent of black women were raped at some point in their lifetime. That's probably lowballing it, too, given there were an estimated 15 black female sexual abuse victims for every one who officially reported an incident, according to a report released by the Department of Justice in 2006.
Some black women don't report abuse because they don't trust the system, which is understandable. After all, prior to the 13th Amendment, America legally viewed their bodies as property. Systematic sexual abuse, bodily torture, and violent death were a fact of life for black women. The system was not there to serve them—it was there to institutionalize their suffering. Can you really blame black women today who don't trust a government that has failed again and again to protect black bodies?
Dallas police have won some plaudits in recent years for attempts to improve community-police relations, but their sluggish approach to closing sex crime cases—while is hardly unique to the city—seems to have cast a long shadow. Until recently, local cops had a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits that dated all the way back to 1996.
Who would want to go through the pain of reporting a sensitive crime like rape, when the police have a woeful record of not even doing the simplest tasks necessary to protect women on the street? In this light, it makes perfect sense that the fastest growing demographic for the purchase of concealed handguns in the state of Texas is black women. As Niecee told me while we were sitting at the group's headquarters, "At the end of the day, we have a common goal, and that common goal is ultimately liberation, but at the very least the well-being and safety of our sisters."
The diffuse Black Lives Matter movement was created largely by black women, and has done an incredible job bringing greater awareness to the stories of black folks who die at the hands of police, turning lost brothers into martyrs memorialized in everything from viral hashtags to airbrush T-shirts to picket signs. But the black women who lose their lives, whether it's by the force of the state or their misogynistic men, don't garner the same kind of galvanizing attention.
I had this blindspot myself. When Sunn M'Cheaux, a dreaded male member of the Black Women's Defense League, challenged me to name a black woman who died after garnering unwarranted police attention. Besides Sandra Bland, I couldn't think of one. I might have offered up plenty of facts and opinions about Eric Garner or Michael Brown. But at the time, I hadn't even heard of people like Yvette Smith, an unarmed black woman who was asked to come out of her friend's house by the police and, when she complied, was almost immediately shot and killed. Or Reika Boyd, a woman who was shot in the back of the head by an off-duty officer who mistook her friend's cell phone for a gun.
The facts speak for themselves. Black people are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be shot and killed by police, and women face unique hurdles that can make them vulnerable more vulnerable to the wrath of the state. Although black women only make up 13 percent of America's female population, about 30 percent of all women behind bars are black. This follows a troubling trend of criminalizing black women that starts with childhood. According to the US Department of Education, black girls are suspended six times as often as white girls in school. And once in the justice system, they have an incredibly hard time navigating their way out because of limited financial resources: Black women are five times more likely to live in poverty than white women.
What we have here, then, is a war on both sides, with black women battling both the patriarchy and racial prejudice. And the Black Women's Defense League has responded to that fight by embracing the American way: taking arms and standing their ground.
Of course, there's no guarantee that Niecee's efforts will actually make her and her comrades safer. In fact, if American history is any indication, being an outspoken activist for women and black liberation might bring her even closer to police or extralegal crosshairs. I started to worry about this as I sat with the Defense League, surrounded by portraits of slain civil rights leaders and books like Robert F. Williams's Negroes with Guns. On the one hand, guns have always played a role in America's Civil Rights struggle—even a pacifist like Martin Luther King Jr. kept guns around, because he understood that standing up to institutionalized oppression is a life-threatening proposition. But those guns didn't stop him from getting assassinated.
When you're black and you actually evangelize for self-defense against the violence of state like Niecee does, you can find yourself in an extremely precarious position. White Second Amendment advocates like Cliven Bundy's "We the People" are often framed as patriots, but blacks activists with guns have historically been perceived as insurgents. In fact, modern gun control was spurred in part by the Panther Party for Self-Defense's embrace of firearms in the late 60s, with conservatives like California governor Ronald Reagan signing bills restricting the rights of gun owners. Later, this group was eviscerated by local and federal law enforcement through assassination, surveillance, and covert sabotage.
Niecee got a little taste of that about six months after we hung out, when she was mistaken by Dallas cops for being a cop killer.
On July 7, 2016, she attended a Black Lives Matter protest in response to the police shooting of Philando Castile, a legal gun owner who announced his possession of a firearm to an officer before being killed in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Military veteran Micah Johnson, who had a history of mental health issues, used the protest to ambush the police in what he seemed to believe was retaliation for police violence against blacks. He murdered five and injured nine (plus two civilians) before police were able to kill him with a robot-delivered bomb. According to Niecee, even though she was unarmed at the protest, she was still detained by the police for more than six hours under suspicion of being connected to the killings. She said they confiscated her car and copied all the information on her cellphone, which she'd used to livestream the chaos.
Despite the terrifying ordeal of being perceived as terrorist in the midst of an active shooting, and the vitriol she's incited from men within Dallas's black activist community for advocating for women's issues, Niecee isn't going anywhere. She was on the ground protesting at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last year, and she led the BWDL to the Women's March in Washington, DC, the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration to stand in solidarity with all women. And although she has her sights on expanding her group nationwide, she continues to support women in her own community, using the BWDL's network to raise funds for women fleeing abusive relationships.
The time I spent with her and the rest of the BWDL certainly helped me begin to reckon with the unique threats faced by black women as a result of institutional racism and entrenched sexism. Until we reach the day when this nation stops brutalizing black women, Niecee and the Black Women's Defense League have vowed to be out there on the front lines, protecting their sisters by any means necessary.
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